A little while ago, I was stopped in the street by an ex-creative writing student. I hadn't seen her for years.
'I want to thank you for running that flash competition,' she said.
That surprised me, because I didn't remember her story getting through the first round. I began to say I was sorry she hadn't done well, when she put her hand on my arm.
'No, you don't understand. Just entering was giant leap for me.'
She went on to tell me about her long listing in another competition and what a boost it was to both her writing and more importantly, her self-esteem. Not only that, she'd now got her own email address, her own Paypal account and she was joining a writing group. There was no stopping her, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see her name pop up on competition listings in the future.
I was reminded me of my own, now rather distant, past experience as a novice writer. Strangely, I don't remember writing the story all that clearly, but I do remember printing it out, filling in the entry form (I could hardly hold the pen, I felt so sure I'd make a mistake), then taking it to the postbox at the end of my road, and wishing it good luck. A great deal has happened since I received a call - on my land line - to say I was a finalist. I didn't win outright, but it was a win all the same. It gave me the confidence to keep trying.
There are competitions out there for every kind of story, and fortunately they don't all have the same closing date. Deadlines may come all too soon, but they are marvellous for focusing for the mind. It's very easy to let the days slip by if there's nothing to work towards.
Competitions are a great way of learning how to deal with rejection. Okay, I didn't win that one, but I might win the next. All writers need to learn that lesson and very quickly, especially if they have a novel they'd like published.
Not winning doesn't necessarily mean your story is bad. We don't stipulate a theme for our competitions, but if you enter a competition that does, don't ignore it. If you leave your name on the copy, exceed the word count, or send in late - all these will result in disqualification. That's a shame.
The first competition I organised was at the end of a term of creative writing. The class was quite small - eight, I think - but there were the usual rules, anonymous reading and then we had a blind vote for the winner. It was fun. Everyone enjoyed the challenge and the main thing that I discovered, to my surprise, was that everyone had seriously raised their game.
Margaret, Sophie and I have all had considerable judging experience, not only of our own competitions, but as guest judges for other organisations. It's always a privilege, and we have a keen eye for winners these days, but that doesn't mean we always agree. As anyone in a book group will know, opinions vary and can be surprising.
Can you surprise us? Check out the Exeter Story Prize and Trisha Ashley Award page HERE