On Not Entering Any Competitions This Year (04/03/21)

I’ve seen a number of people on social media commenting on the rising price of competition entry for writer’s prizes, for poetry in particular, but also for flash and for pamphlet/ collections you pay even more. I understand that they have their costs to set up, run and give prizes and publication but some of them seem to be getting ridiculous. I’ve seen a number lately asking £20 entry fee or over (£28 and £36 per entry were the worst). Are they pricing their target market out of the field? Who is able to pay all these fees? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to reduce the fees and encourage more people to enter?

Surely once you get over a certain price point a lot of these entries are coming from people with a similar background, those that can afford to pay. Or they can’t, actually, and have realised that spending almost £400 a year on entry fees is not a good use of money just because they have a Paypal account. Entering competitions can be addictive and if you are also chasing the #100rejections challenge an easy way to raise your numbers of submissions. There are hundreds of competitions out there all wanting your money and I just feel the need to step off the merry go round for a year, I know all those competitions will still be there next year but taking a step back now to re-consider my approach to getting my work published seems like a good idea.

Maybe one or two entries at £20 wouldn’t break the bank but what about the poets and storywriters trying to get their work out there on a regular basis? One year I worked out I spent £368 on competition fees alone, it’s addictive and running out in small amounts over a whole year it can be hard to keep track of it all. After that year I kept a budget and tried to stick to £100 for the year but even when you are aware of it, it’s still difficult, particularly when you can reach that £100 limit in less than six months.

Going back over ten years or so of competition entries to look at the kind of results I’ve had is sobering when you think about how much all those entries added up cost. I have had a handful of successes been longlisted, shortlisted, published in anthologies, second place a couple of times but never won anything outright - nothing to warrant spending all that money and I think I need to accept that my work just doesn’t do very well in competition. I used to think it would and remember attending various poetry workshops at literature festivals like Ilkley and York with particular poems and people would say – that’s a competition winner, you should definitely send that out, and I did. Well, the best one of those poems ever did was to get placed second. Of course I was delighted at the time and the £300 second place prize money was very welcome - I put it towards a new computer. But it’s not a great record and doesn’t very often lead to publication, which if that’s the goal needs to be re-thought.

So I decided I wouldn’t enter any competitions this year at all, my budget is zero.

It’s been quite hard to stick to already and it’s only March. There are a lot of enticing, exciting sounding competitions around and it would be very cool to have the chance of my work published here or there, to be read by such a judge or win a national competition, only, realistically I know it’s not going to happen and I can’t afford it. What has helped me stick to it so far is opening up a submissions webpage and going ‘HOW MUCH?’ when I see the rising entry fees year on year and then immediately close the page again.

Normally I will do all the big competitions each year and it’s always exciting when the results come out because, well, you never know... There are a number out there now that look tempting to enter, they have themes that speak to me or there’s a particular judge I’d like to read my work. However, on the upside it will be very nice not to have work tied up for months on end because it’s in competition and you can’t send the work elsewhere. Many of the poems I have first sent to competition and had tied up for long stretches of time, have now found homes with respected journals and their readers, sometimes years later because I wouldn’t send out simultaneous submissions either, which in itself is another subject. In fact I’ve had far more success with getting my work out there by sending poems and stories to journals than to competitions, a bonus of sending to journals is that they also get back to you a lot faster than a competition.

This started as a personal resolution but it seems to have resonated with the submitters on social media and some have suggestions as to how competition organisers could improve things for their submitters:

  • Keep entry fees under £10
  • adopting a pay what you feel model - this is something that has become more common in lockdown especially for attending poetry events online
  • more low income slots - many places do some of these but not enough and they need to make it easier to access one of those slots, people are shy of taking them up and some of us on low incomes work and don’t get benefits so it’s more difficult/embarrassing to prove we are on a low wage.
  • give more for the fee - e.g. feedback/ copy of the anthology / magazine subscription/ even stickers (who doesn’t love stickers) etc

All good suggestions but just for now, for me this year I’m only submitting to print journals and online to see how it goes, perhaps in the end I won’t miss submitting to all those competitions at all and if I do they will still be there to enter next year. I also have around x12 submissions to hear back from last year so you never know... (except I probably do!)

On Re-Writing Medusa (01/12/20)

I have a long held fascination with Greek mythology, which began when my mother took me to the theatre at Stratford to see a Shakespeare play. She wanted me to see a play done really well before studying Romeo & Juliet at school possibly ruined Shakespeare for me; I was eleven at the time. We didn’t book but turned up to queue for tickets on the day and then found The Merry Wives of Windsor was sold out. However, they were doing another play, Troilus and Cressida, which is set during the Trojan War. I already liked theatre but hadn’t seen anything more challenging than a musical, so this was a bit of a risk. It was just our great good luck that Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson were both in the cast.

I have written a number of shorter poems about the female figures in that sprawling tapestry of stories we call Greek mythology. These women tend to remain silent, we don’t hear much from them or in Medusa’s case absolutely nothing - it’s all about Perseus, the hero doing the telling. I think it’s a rich seam to explore, particularly now, there does seem to be a space for this kind of story telling, although the mythological stories last because they are often resonant with the times we are living through, whenever that happens to be. I’ve written shorter works re-telling or adapting stories including figures such as Persephone, who’s out on a bad date, Midas, from his daughter’s point of view, Cassiopeia, and Ariadne, to name a few but Medusa is my first longer piece of re-telling.

In the original tale Medusa has a terrible time, she is raped by the sea god Poseidon at the Temple of Athena, and her punishment is to be given a head full of snakes and the ability to turn anything that looks her in the eye to stone. Perseus is sent to fetch her head because King Polydectes likes Perseus’ mother and wants him out of the way. Perseus, being a demi-god himself, is assisted by the gods in his task, including by Athena and manages to decapitate Medusa. After using her head to turn his enemies to stone he gives the head to Athena, and she places it on her shield as protection.

The fact that Athena is so much present in this story eventually helped me to create the narrative in Medusa Retold. Athena stands for many things, she is the city goddess and protector of Athens, of course, but also the goddess of war, handicraft, and practical reason, identified by the Romans with Minerva, and also in some versions of her story of platonic love. Athena is also known as Pallas Athena and there are many different versions behind this, sometimes Pallas is a youth, sometimes a girl. One tale tells of a childhood friend called Pallas, the daughter of the sea-god Triton, and that Athena accidentally killed her friend.

There is an account in Hesiod that tells of the three Gorgon sisters living by the sea and so the setting for the re-telling of Medusa was always going to be coastal. There would also be an intense female friendship at the heart of the tale, which was helped by making her an only child, something close to my own experience. The liking for sea creatures and her difficult nature make Nuala a loner, it’s hard for her to get close to anyone, so when she does make a friend she’s going to fall for her hard.

These are the elements that I began with, and also an odd little poem called Beached Lights, originally published by the Island Review, where a small girl tries to protect a jellyfish she has found lying on the beach. This seemed to promise a good beginning. Particularly when I found out that medusa is the Italian (and Spanish) for jellyfish, which I discovered when I was reading Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, (I highly recommend reading). At that point there were many story echoes and resonances coming together and I knew the re-telling would have to be a poem to make the most of those connections, one reviewer has called the poem a mythic puzzle, and I hope those echoes through the text enable moments of connection to travel for people to enjoy in their reading of the piece, especially in details where for example the jellyfish tentacles are standing in for the snakes in the hair, times when she’s driving herself and her mother crazy with the snakes in her head, voices she can’t escape.

Originally she had a different best friend but the story didn’t have enough flow, once I thought of having Athena become the best friend figure – instead of making appearances to her in different guises, in keeping with her goddess persona but not really making the piece come alive - the narrative really fell into place and was written in quick bursts over about two months of intense work. The planning and the thinking about the themes and how to entwine them into the narrative took far longer and the whole process took about six months from first idea to draft. Poets tend to think of their work as abandoned rather than finished and there were additions and edits right up until just before going to print.

Thoughts on Aiming at 100 Rejections (29/02/2020)

It was almost the end of 2015 when I first heard about the writers #100rejections challenge. The idea is to submit your creative work to more prestigious places than you might be brave enough to if you weren’t chasing the numbers. It takes the pressure off thinking – it’s not good enough, it’s not ready etc – to hit the journal/competition deadline and just send it out. Of course that doesn’t mean you should send out work that really isn’t ready but it might help you get over the procrastinating period when you’re just moving commas about or just generally tinkering because you’re afraid to send it out into the world for comment. It was a shock to discover that year I had only managed x45 submissions, which had resulted in x1 publication and x1 staged piece.

So in 2016 I decided to take up the challenge properly and sort out a spreadsheet for all my cross genre submissions (poetry, stage work and flash fiction, which occasionally morphs into short story territory). I discovered Submittable and managed x96 submissions. Not bad and this resulted in x12 pieces of work being published/staged.

2017 I tried again and made 113 submissions with x17 successful outcomes.

2018 I tried again and 122 submissions became 23 successful submissions.

2019 I tried again and aimed high, 201 submissions became 33 successful submissions (and with x19 still to hear from at this point in time, you never know).

This high number was only possible because I didn’t have a significant writing project taking up most of my time, whilst in the years 2015 – 2018 there had always been a large-scale writing project. The significant events in 2019 were putting together chapbooks of work – x2 of which are to be published in 2020 – and a collection. And relocating from Yorkshire to Scotland last autumn.

I began to track other things too, how much I was paying to submit, initially, because I wasn’t keeping track the outlay turned out to be over £300 for 2017. But I have gradually reduced this by reasoning if you don’t get anything out of it if you don’t win (and you never win) consider whether a competition fee is worth it. Do they offer feedback? Do they send you a copy of a poetry anthology if you are long listed? Is it a very prestigious competition/ journal? Do you want to get your work in front of the judge they have picked this year?

I will be trying the #100rejections challenge again in 2020 because it gives a sense of purpose to my day, if I have submitted something I have achieved something, whatever the outcome at least I thought it was good enough to send out. But I also need to have a significant year creating new work because due to the Jo Bell Method (detailed in How to be a Poet) a significant amount of my written work is now out there in the world – hence this website to collate the links - and I now need to concentrate on creating new pieces to send out.

It is possible to burn out in the submissions game and I have already felt the effects this year (end Feb). My submissions are significantly down on this time last year, due both to having available content to send out and a sense of exhaustion at the process. Hopefully this will pass and I will be able to start creating new work soon because that’s what I really miss, being totally immersed in a project and working out the plot problems and sensing characters lurking waiting to appear on stage.