Whitt and wisdom
I wasn’t sure at first whether to class the outcome of The Whittaker Prize 2010 as ‘success’ or ‘failure’. There’s a prevailing school of thought that urges people to adopt a ‘glass half-full’ mindset and ‘accentuate the positive’. But it’s always been one of my guiding principles to distrust a prevailing opinion, and besides I have a chronic aversion to management-speak buzz phrases. You’ll see from the tag that after weighing up the pros and cons I’ve come down on the side of ‘success’. In the course of this review, I aim to explain why.
The Whittaker Prize, for those who don’t know it (if you do, skip to the next paragraph), is a competition of a type popular on writers’ websites. This particular one is run by The Write Idea, which I joined 18 months ago (in order to contest last year’s Whittaker Prize). Every two weeks participants have to submit a story for assessment, for nine rounds. (There is a parallel poetry competition – a few masochists enter both.) A judge then marks the stories, pens a few lines of feedback for each contestant and publishes the scores in time for the next round. The winner is the person who tots up the highest score.
Out of thirty-six contestants, I placed equal fifth. Not, on the face of it, much to crow about. Especially when you consider that only 24 of the contestants completed all nine rounds. That puts me at the 20% mark in the overall pecking order. (By way of comparison, when I run a 10K race I usually expect to finish in the top five to 10 per cent of runners. Now, while judging fiction is a much more subjective business, one thing I know for certain is that I have oodles more ability as a writer than I have as an athlete). Moreover, I didn’t even have the consolation of winning any of the nine rounds, as I managed last year despite a lower overall score.
So where were the positives? In the first place, I managed to submit an original piece of work for each of the nine rounds. That means I now have eight new stories in the bag (one of the entries wasn’t a ‘story’ in the conventional sense – expect to see it on this site soon – but I’d have argued the toss that it qualified as a work of narrative fiction if I’d had to). Some of them are incomplete, or drafts, or had to be curtailed to comply with the limit of 2,500 words (which is, on balance, a good thing, both for waffle-prone writers and the judges’ sanity), but I had to come up with eight new ideas and make them sing and dance on the page. Moreover, I consciously set out to experiment with genres, techniques, modes and perspectives. So for one round I tried my hand at science fiction, another entry was a ghost story, a third was a fable and so on. I used first person, second person (yes, really), third person, internal monologue, fluid perspective, everything I could think of. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but I’m confident I could go back to all the stories and find something worth salvaging.
I’ve seen people question the worth of these competitions, arguing that you end up ‘writing to please the judge’ rather than producing your best work. There is some merit in that: certainly last year, after a disastrous start, I started to tailor my writing to what the fiction judge liked and my most successful story – the one that won the final round – reflected that. But you know what? If I hadn’t been cajoled into breaking out of my standard mode and trying something different, I’d have made a lot less progress in those four months. This year I didn’t worry about what the judge thought, for various reasons (not least that there were two of them, judging alternate rounds). I just tried to submit the best story I could come up with at the time. In the end, what I thought was one of my most accomplished pieces earned my lowest score and scuppered any hopes I’d had of winning the contest.
I should add a last word on feedback. Part of the contest’s raison d’etre is that participants are encouraged to post their stories on The Write Idea’s forum so others can read them and offer feedback. This was a voluntary part of the process, but I found it invaluable, both for the comments I received and the chance to develop critical reading skills. Criticism is an overlooked aspect of writing, but to my mind being an attentive reader is a prerequisite to being a good writer. I developed a few rules, though: if I read a story and didn’t like it, I didn’t comment on it. If you don’t like a story, it’s for one of three reasons – either it’s rubbish, it’s not to your taste or in a genre you don’t appreciate, or you don’t ‘get’ what the writer is trying to do. If I commented on a story, it meant I thought it was essentially a good one, even if I spent most of my time picking over its flaws. There’s a difference, too, between writing a review of a published novel for a newspaper, when you’re telling readers whether they should spend money on a finished product, and commenting on a story for the benefit of a writer who is probably planning to go back and revise it. Last year I wrote a critique of a story which boiled down to: ‘This wasn’t my type of writing’. It was a worthless comment and I’ve regretted it ever since.
So for my £15, I met nine deadlines, got a wealth of feedback from other writers and have eight stories to tweak and reforge, something that’ll keep me busy up until about Christmas time. Progress, for sure. And success, too, if, like Beckett, you define success as failing better.