The shortlist is published for a competition you entered. You scroll through the names, feeling a rush of pleasure when you find your own name, or more likely a feeling of disappointment that you did not make the list. Or depression or envy. Anger even. They wouldn’t know a good short story if it shot them in the foot. …it was probably filtered by some idiot and never got to the judges. You just know that if the proper judge or judges got to see it they would recognise the inherent brilliance of your story/concept/skilfully crafted words. On the other hand if you make the shortlist you realise that whoever did the filtering was a wise soul who had the wisdom to recognise all of the former and besides your story was so good that even the most prejudiced reader couldn’t pass it by. When I say prejudiced you know what I mean- with a preference for action,(usually a man) internal dialogue (often a woman), lyrical imagery of the countryside (probably someone older), dystopian drink and drug fuelled landscapes- someone younger, possibly male, still influenced by all the poetry of death and depression they read for the Leaving Cert. Think Emily Dickinson as a short story writer on shots…and so on.
At least when you see the list of judges it’s fair enough. You know not to bother entering the one where the judge has produced a book of stories without any discernible plot, if you don’t write like that; or if the judge specialises in stories of loss and hardship and memory probably set in some remote area of the atmospheric countryside with characters always pining for some other time/life/ person now gone for ever. Oh woe is me. (Yes I’ve written that story- and it has won me a prize)
Sometimes a judge chooses a story which is outside their normal preference but that is when a story is so good that it can’t be ignored. Yours and mine of course. And you realise that you are a genius and finally here is someone intelligent enough to recognise it…
When we win the saying is the cream always rises to the top, when we lose we know that the judges are idiots….
Late one Friday afternoon in September 2013 I had a phone call from Sean Carabini of the Irish Writers Union to tell me I had been short listed in the inaugural James Plunkett award. The competition had been organised in three successive submission periods and I had been chosen from the August entries with two others. Then all nine shortlisted stories were sent to Jennifer Johnston for the final judging. There were about 300 entries in the August section, these were filtered to 30 and then the judge of the August section, Morgan Llywelyn chose three for the shortlist. Each set of shortlisted writers had a night to invite family and friends to a reading of their entry in The Irish Writers centre and to meet the judge and hear her comments. It was a great night. Lots of people came to support me and afterwards we continued the celebration in the Teachers club nearby.
When the night of the final announcement and prizegiving came round in October I assumed that the winner would have been contacted beforehand so I didn’t bring anyone with me as people have busy lives and as I am also involved in art I very often rally people to support me. You know what happened- I was stunned to win first prize and then felt like johnny-no friends without even someone to take pictures. Don’t worry I’m not looking for sympathy- there was lots of celebration when I got home.
That last bit was a digression. My point is that there was a huge amount of luck involved. I’m not saying it’s not a good story- it is, but it is ‘low-key’ as Jennifer Johnston commented, and it was only about 1700 words when the limit was 3000. Luck got me into that original thirty- because there must have been more than thirty that rose to the top. If a different person read it I might be number 31 or 35 or 40. No matter what there has to be a certain amount of natural preference involved – after all there is no ‘perfect’story. This time luck stayed on my side to the end and I was placed first out of over 700 entries altogether.
But here’s the thing.
When I got the idea for the story I decided to set it in the countryside because I really wanted to crack the Francis Mc Manus competition. It didn’t even get on the shortlist of 25. It was longlisted in another competition but didn’t make the shortlist. And then it got through three sets of judging to win a major prize.
So don’t despair- make your writing the best you can and when you start to get on occasional longlists/shortlists you will know you are getting somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win, if you believe in the story you can send it somewhere else, and yes of course it’s a huge thrill to win but it is not the thing that inspires us as writers.
Last month I was shortlisted in three competitions and I’m very happy about that. In each case I didn’t really expect the story to get anywhere. I also have another longer story that I entered into competitions over the summer, a story that gave me huge agony and pleasure to write and to research. It’s structure is experimental and I felt it was probably the best thing I’d ever written. I was so confident in it that I sent it out to major competitions. I almost didn’t send it to one competition because another was more prestigious and I’d have preferred to win that! And you guessed it- it didn’t even get within sniffing distance of a prize- not even a longlisting. I haven’t given up on it yet though….
As writers we enter competitions because getting shortlisted is an affirmation that our writing is developing or improving or just brilliant to begin with – whichever relates to you- and it’s a way of making a name so that the ever elusive publisher will take an interest; but before and after and during all of this it’s all about the stories and the sheer pleasure of giving life in words to the characters and ideas that inhabit our imaginations.
In the words of Samuel Beckett ‘I’ll go on..’