Submitting to Poetry Competitions: Which Competition?

I’m struggling with the flu right now but the general BLEUGH has been tempered by some good news on the poetry front.

I’ve had a couple of pieces accepted for a new women-led anthology on bodily autonomy, edited by poet and academic, Kathy D’Arcy, and due to be published by New Binary Press in the Spring. We have a historic referendum coming up in 2018, to repeal the 8th Amendment which compromises women’s healthcare in Ireland, and I’m proud to be among a chorus of voices writing about this important issue.

I’ve also had poems shortlisted and commended in a couple of competitions – the Doolin Writers’ Weekend Poetry Competition and the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize 2018.

A writer recently asked me, ‘What makes a good competition poem?’ As many of you read this blog for the monthly poetry competitions and submissions list, I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about submitting work to competitions. I’m no expert but there are certain boxes I like to tick when deciding whether to enter a competition and what poems to send.

Why Submit to Competitions?

For me, it started with not being very confident and wanting to get a sense of whether the poems were any good – did they stand up to scrutiny? I submitted to competitions rather than journals because they are anonymous. I didn’t want to be submitting work over and over to an editor who (in my mind) would roll their eyes and exclaim, ‘Not this eejit again!’. Rejection is a big part of the process of writing and the competition route seemed a gentler introduction to disappointment.

I was very lucky to bag a win early on – a micro-poetry competition – word for word, my best pay-day to date! That early success encouraged me to keep writing and to keep submitting.

I do think it’s a good idea to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. It rarely leads to wealth or glory but don’t despair – I have a few ideas about why it might still be worth your while!

Which Competitions?

This is a tricky one. Some competitions are hugely prestigious and attract thousands of entries from around the world. As a rule of thumb, the higher the prize money, the bigger the draw. It means your work will be read alongside – and have to hold its own against – established and extensively published writers.

These competitions are highly competitive. It doesn’t mean younger writers can’t win, especially if they have been writing seriously for a few years and have established a track record of good work, but if you’ve only written a handful of poems then these competitions are probably not a good bet. The idea of winning a major prize as a novice writer is seductive but, generally, they go to writers who have been working at their craft for years.

If you’ve yet to publish a full-length collection of poetry, look out for competitions that specifically target unpublished writers. Your work will be part of a smaller pool and be read alongside writers with a similar level of experience.

What About Competition Fees?

I also see a lot of debate online about the cost of submitting to competitions (and some journals) and how it can be a bar to lower-income poets putting their work forward.

I don’t believe competitions are money-making scams intended to exploit writers. They have legitimate costs that need to be covered – prize money, judge’s fee, administration, technical costs (eg. Web Hosting, Submittable, Paypal). Many offer discounts for multiple entries or membership. If there is a profit, generally it is being plowed back in to activities and publications that support writers. No-one is buying a yacht and retiring to the Caribbean on the back of a poetry competition!

That said, there are always exceptions. If a competition is hosted by an organisation you’ve never heard of, who doesn’t have a strong or transparent online presence and who charge an exorbitant sum for entry, then proceed with caution. Check out a few comparable competitions to establish the going rate.

I know it can seem hard that everyone pays and only a handful benefit, but I like to take a wider view. Nobody owes you anything as a writer – not publication, not prestige, nothing. When I trained as an architect, I had to absorb the cost of tools, equipment, wardrobe, membership fees – all the things I needed to present myself as a working architect. Same goes for writing. Paying to enter competitions and submit to journals is just the cost of doing business. It also helps support organisations and journals that in turn support writers – you’re contributing to a healthy literary community.

I am a low-income poet. I don’t have full-time income to rely on and this means I have to pick and choose the opportunities I pursue. I’m serious about building a body of work, so I set aside an affordable sum to invest in myself as a writer and I only enter competitions when I have work of a suitable standard.

No writer should enter every single poem they write into a competition or enter every competition out there! In one year, I might write 50-100 poems – only a handful of these will be competition standard.

IF I’M LUCKY.

With limited funds and a limited number of suitable poems, I pick my targets carefully. The odds are always against winning but there are better odds on valuable side-benefits. I look for competitions that are democratic, offering the largest number of rewards to the widest group of people.

Poetry Competition Checklist

  • Is the competition run by an established organisation or journal? Making the long/shortlist of a competition held by a reputable literary organisation or journal, eg. The Poetry Society / Magma, builds credibility and increases the chances of your name/work being noticed by other editors, publishers and literary organisations, festival committees etc. It also looks good on a writing CV, if applying for literary jobs, grants or bursaries.
  • Is the judge an established writer? Does the competition publish the judge’s comments? It’s an opportunity to have your work read and possibly selected / commented upon by a writer you would never have access to normally. Having a blurb about your work by an established writer can be helpful when approaching publishers and, again, it’s good for the writing CV.
  • How many principal prize winners? Does the prize money go to a single winner? Look out for competitions that spread the wealth among several winners and offer acknowledgement to runners-up.
  • Is there a published long/shortlist? It’s not feasible to give everyone a prize but it doesn’t cost organisers anything to publish these lists when they are an integral part of the judging process. If a competition attracts 2000 entries, your poem making it to the last 50 puts it in the top 2-3% – that’s no small achievement. Being included on a longlist, or going from the longlist to the shortlist in successive years, gives writers a boost in confidence / credibility and costs the organisers nothing. When writers pay good money to support a competition, I believe organisers should spread the love and offer as much value as possible in return.
  • Will the winners / runners-up / shortlist poems be published? If the competition is run by a reputable journal, it may also offer publication/payment to the top entries, eg. Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition, Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. Some competitions offer publication in an anthology. Publication in a reputable journal is always good. I’m warier of competition anthologies. Some are highly regarded and widely read within the literary community, eg, The Forward Prize annual anthology. Others feel like another way to exploit writers, using the writers work without payment and then expecting the writer to pay for a copy of the anthology to have a record of their published work. I’d watch out for the latter. If a writer has paid to enter a competition and the organisers want to use their work for publication, the very least they should do is provide the writer with a copy of that publication. I also have a bit of a bugbear about competitions publishing the entire shortlist without paying for use of the work. Most competitions exclude poems that have been prize-winners in other competitions but if a poem is commended or makes it to the shortlist, it might easily do better in another competition with a different judge or be submitted for publication to a journal. The only thing that would prevent it being sent out again is publication.
  • Will there be a prize-giving or reading? Many competitions are held by literary festivals to coincide with and help promote their main event, eg. Ledbury Poetry Prize. If prize-winners and runners-up (sometimes even the shortlist) are also invited to read at the festival, it’s an opportunity to meet and thank the judge, and have the work heard by a literary audience.

Sometimes, I’ll forego one or more of these. For example, if it’s a judge whose work I particularly admire and it would mean a lot to me to have my worked chosen by them. As a writer, it’s up to you to decide what’s important to you and hold yourself to that standard.

All of this is conditional on the poems being good enough to hold their own in a competition. I’ve written more than I intended about the competitions themselves, so I’ll save what makes a competition-worthy poem for the next post.

In the meantime, is there anything I’ve missed? What things do you consider when deciding whether or not to enter a competition? Please leave a comment below.

NB. I live in Ireland and these thoughts are based on my experience of the UK/Irish literary scene. I’d also love to hear thoughts about submitting to competitions in other parts of the world.

Photo by Gratisography

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Tools of the Writer’s Trade: 7 More Best Books About Writing

I was just having my morning cuppa, today, browsing through Facebook, as you do, and came across Book Riot‘s article on the Best Books About Writing. It includes classics like Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron – all excellent reads – but it occurred to me that a number of my favourite writing resources were missing. Here, in no particular order, is my add-on list of 7 More Best Books About Writing.

Stephen King - On Writing1. On Writing – Stephen King

When ‘On Writing’ was first recommended to me, I hummed and hawed. I’m not a fan of the kind of horror fiction, I automatically associate with the name Stephen King. So, if that’s what you’re thinking right now: STOP. Regardless of whether you are a fan of his writing – and let’s not forget, this is the guy who wrote ‘Shawshank Redemption‘ – there is no denying he is a prolific writer and who better to tell you about writing than a guy who writes lots and lots of books? But more than that, ‘On Writing’ is both intriguing memoir of a writer and a no-nonsense, practical advice about writing, by someone who knows how. Forget everything you think you know about Stephen King – this is a ESSENTIAL READ for writers.

 

2. Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande

becoming a writerProbably the first book about writing I ever read – a stalwart companion of the beginner’s creative writing class – and still relevant 80 years after publication, so deservedly, a classic. Practical and inspirational, Brande is a gracious and encouraging tutor, using the writers of her period – Virgina Woolfe, E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton – to draw out the writer within. A great place for all aspiring writers to start, and to refer back to in establishing a writing practice.

3. 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem – Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel - 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem

’52 Ways Of Looking At A Poem’ is drawn from Ruth Padel‘s popular ‘Sunday Poem‘ series, in the Independent on Sunday, which set out to de-bunk the myths around poetry as a literary form and open it up to a wider audience. I love her comment about readers who are happy to devour crime and mystery novels where they have no idea what’s going on yet recoil in terror from the same in a poem! In each essay, Padel examines a modern poem and explains its poetic devices, not only making poetry more accessible to the general reader but providing a masterclass on form and construction for the budding poet.

 

4. Self Editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Brown & Dave King

self edit

Self Editing for Fiction Writers was recommended by Gerard Donovan, author of Julius Winsome and the Mann Booker long-listed Schopenhauer’s Telescope, at a Faber Academy Short Story Masterclass, in Dublin, alongside short story writer, Claire Keegan. When a respected, published writer pulls a well-worn copy of a book from his or her pocket, waves it in the air and swears by it, you take note. This is the book for the developing or advanced writer who want to make the leap from talented up-and-comer to published author – it covers all the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of writing, that shows a prospective magazine editor or publishing house that you mean business.

 

5. Negotiating With The Dead – Margaret Atwood

Negotiating With The Dead - Margaret Atwood

I love Margaret Atwood‘s work and when I discovered that she’s written a book about writing, I jumped on it. Negotiating The Dead is derived from a series of lectures on the role of the writer, Atwood gave at Cambridge University in 2000. Each chapter is devoted to a different writing scenario or dilemma, illuminated by anecdotes from Atwood‘s own experiences as a writer plus a wealth of literary quotes.

 

 

6. Ways of Seeing – John Berger

John Berger - Ways of Seeing

“Seeing comes before words.”

Not a traditional book about writing but arguably something even more fundamental to a writer – a book about how we view the world. Ways of Seeing is made up of a series of visual essays, exploring and critiquing the hidden language of art and imagery; companion to a BBC series of the same name – still available to view online and well worth the effort. Although dating from the early 1970’s, with the advertising images (not to mention politics) definitely showing their age, the message holds true, drawing a trajectory from the oil painting to the instant imagery of advertising and pointing directly on toward pop culture and the visual overload of the digital age.

7. The Writing Life – Annie Dillard

annie dillard - the writing life

“I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.”

An undisputed classic, Pulitzer Prize-winner Dillard‘s take on the writer’s life does not pull any punches, making it clear that writing is sheer bloody hard work, not a lifestyle choice. Yet, it is not without its rewards and if you choose to climb the mountain, there is no better guide. This is the book to read before you leave your job / husband or sell your car / house in your quest to become a writer.

 

 

Of course, no list of books about writing could ever be complete. Do you have any favourites not mentioned here? What books on writing do you go back to for inspiration? Whose advice do you swear by? Leave a comment with your recommendations!

What I Learned By Turning My Writing Into A Word Cloud

As things wind down for Christmas, I’ve been having bit of fun creating a word cloud from my debut poetry collection, How to Lose Your Home & Save Your Life.

The idea came via Jo Bell – UK poet, Canal Laureate and creator of the poetry and writing blog ’52’ – who recently shared a word cloud of her forthcoming collection, ‘Kith’, on Facebook.

It’s a bit of fun but also a great way to get a fresh perspective on existing writing. The cloud allows me to see the entire collection in a snapshot – the more prominent words tell me if I’m hitting the mood and tone I’m looking for and also give me a sense of which words or literary devices I may rely on a little too heavily, eg. if the word ‘Like‘ features prominently, then it may be time to cut back on the use of simile. We all have a go-to writing toolbox and a good way to hit the refresh button on our work is to kick away a few of those verbal crutches!

What I didn’t expect – and am really enjoying – is discovering little mini poems in the juxtapositions of the cloud’s random arrangement:

– Think blue drumming words;
– Tree’s hands fold half-beat whispers;
– Old wind-eyes walk shadow morning;
– Ghost years ground skin, beginning bodies wings;
– Sea silence, speak yellow.

These conjour strange and curious images – perfect as idea prompts for new writing!

If you’d like to try this writing tip, check out word cloud creators Wordle and Tagxedo. I liked Tagxedo because it offers a choice of shapes and pretty colours PLUS whenever I changed the font, it created a completely different arrangement, with lots of new mini poems waiting to be found.

Advice to Writers: Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

More writing tips today, this time from poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist, Margaret Atwood – one of my favourite writers. What I love about these lists is they give us a little peek into the minds of writers and what matters to them.

In this case, an in-flight writing trauma looms large – the muse, after all, can strike at any time – which makes me dearly wish all 10 of her writing tips were about covert creativity in constrained environments, or the relative advantages and disadvantages of writing across various modes of transport…

  • Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

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Advice to Writers: Hilary Mantel’s 10 Rules of Writing

More advice to writers, this time from Hilary Mantel, double Booker Prize winning author of Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012), and the first woman to receive the award twice.

  • Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
  • Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

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