Why did you do it?
The competitions I talk about here are atypical. To begin with, they are the ones I won. If I wrote about all the competitions I'd entered without winning, this would be a much bigger section. Possibly even its own website. But out of all those competitions, these three are unusual because I didn't particularly seek them out. It was my mother who suggested I enter the competition that Hello? won; it was one of the organisers who asked me to enter the competition that A Night on the Tiles won; it was my university who got me into the Royal Exchange Theatre's First Eleven, where Skin Deep was showcased.
So I'm not going to talk about why I entered those competitions.
Instead, I want to tell you why I enter all those other competitions. The ones that I keep a particular eye open for, the ones I research to see whether the people involved are people I want to get involved with. The ones that take up a significant chunk of my limited writing lifetime. The ones that I keep failing to win, time and again.
It would be a lie to say I didn't go into them with dreams of winning. The first professional work I ever had accepted was Hello?, which I knew had won shortly before I heard my Brief Encounters were going to be published in Doctor Who Magazine. My first experience of being a professional writer was being one who had won a completion, one who could prove mathematically that he was better than 315 other writers. Winning the Woolwich Young Playwright's Competition opened doors to me: it got me talking to people I wouldn't have known; it got me work I wouldn't have been offered.
Much like writing for Doctor Who, the competition was much more famous than I was, and I got to borrow a little of that prestige and find out what it would be like to be a more important writer than I was. That halo faded quickly: winning any competition is only ever going to get you noticed for a few months, and I don't think I made the most of it at the time. I suppose there is a part of me that thinks with hindsight a competition win would benefit me more now. Whenever I enter a new competition, I'm thinking of where winning might take me, rather than what I might do with the prize itself.
But given my terrible success rate, I'd be an idiot if that was my only reason.
Partly its a question of being taken seriously. If you want to write for television and you don't enter the Red Planet Prize, producers are going to question just how passionate you are. Likewise if you want to write for radio and you don't enter the Alfred Bradbury Bursary, it doesn't look like you're trying hard enough. There are certain routes into writing that are so well known that it reflects badly on you if you haven't tried to use them.
But more than that, competitions are a useful tool.
Regardless of whether you win, the act of entering makes you a better writer.
Firstly, they force you to confront a deadline. For all that it was amusing when Douglas Adams joked about deadlines, you are not going to get a career as a writer if you don't deliver on time. Competitions are just the most visible demonstration of that: if you don't get your work in by the deadline, you can't win, no argument.
Secondly, they help you to generate work. A lot of competitions ask for a completed story for your entry. Even those that don't at least expect evidence that you have a thought-through idea, and the ability to put words on paper in an interesting way. Whatever else happens, you get to keep all that work. Scripts that didn't win the Alfred Bradbury bursary or the Red Planet Prize can be used as calling cards, and might even find a producer more in tune with your way of working. Ideas that were sent in to the Abaddon open submission month might get reworked and redrafted until they become the next big SF blockbuster. Regardless, coming up with those stories gets your mind working that way, and the momentum you can get coming out of a competition deadline can often propel you deep into another story before you even realise.
Thirdly, they get you involved in conversations. Other writers you know who have entered the same competition, or maybe even won it years before. Judges who like what you've written but were outvoted by the rest of the panel. Organisers who don't think you're quite there yet, but want to encourage you. I've had a lot of help over my career from people that I wouldn't have contacted if I hadn't been entering a competition. The competitions that I won are atypical in part because I've had more help and success as a result of the ones I've lost.
How did you do it?
It is almost embarrassingly easy to find writing competitions to enter, compared to when I started writing. That is because I've lived long enough to witness the internet being born. I'm not going to tell you which websites to use or who to follow on Twitter, because that information will go out of date pretty quickly. But I can guarantee you that there are still places out there where you will find list of opportunities for writers, and people who will happily pass on any that they find out about. If you do keep an eye open for new opportunities, be sure to be a good neighbour and pass that information along: if you get a reputation for sharing opportunities with others, they will start to share them with you.
And don't be afraid that you're damaging your chances of winning: in every competition, you win because you are the best, not because there were only fifteen entries. The more people that enter a competition, the better it is for everyone: the winner knows that they beat x hundred people, and the losers can tell themselves the odds were stacked against them from the start.
If you do use the opportunity the internet provides to find writing competitions, a word of warning: it is so easy to do your research on the internet these days that it really counts against you if you can't be bothered. When I was requesting stories on behalf of Obverse Books for an Iris Wildthyme collection set in the made up town of Samhain, I received a number of enquiries from people about the opportunities for non-Iris writing at Obverse. Most of them, I happily passed along to their editor-in-chief. But the one that came in addressed to Mr Sam Hain telling me I was looking for unpublished novels went straight in the recycle bin.
What did you get out of doing it?
I've got a lot out of entering competitions, and not just those that I won. Hello? did lead directly to another commission from the competition organisers and lead to a number of meetings with other producers. But failing to win the Alfred Bradbury Bursary over four years also led to me building a relationship with a producer attached to the BBC Writers' Room that got me a lot of constructive feedback on a number of scripts. I got four 45 minute radio plays that had been through a pretty rigorous evaluation – both as part of the competition and afterwards – and I got feedback I could use to make them stronger. Those four scripts are now my calling card to any new radio producer I make contact with, as I can be certain that they are the best representation of what I can do and how best to do it.
What I've also got are a particular set of skills that I've been forced to hone over the years. I used to say that it was easier for me to convince someone to buy my work if I just wrote it and gave it to them: if I had to write a synopsis to make my story sound new and exciting, I wouldn't have a chance in hell. But with competitions, that just isn't an option: no-one these days has the time to read a full script, and nearly every competition is judged on a sample and a synopsis. Without competitions, I would have let myself carry on lazily being bad at describing my stories. But because that wasn't an option, I've forced myself to learn how they work, and try to get better.
I started entering competitions because I thought it might make people notice what a good writer I was. I'm still entering them now because every time, they make me that little bit more the writer I used to hope I was.