The shocking truth about writing competitions

Sun rise planetSomething happened to me the other day that made me throw down the magazine I was reading and shout out something along the lines of “That’s fucking bullshit! Fuck this magazine! Piece of shit! They’re all whores! They’re all lying bastards!”

Before we get into the finer details of what sparked off the initial rant, I should probably clarify something. Now admittedly, I’m not the most sophisticated writer in the world. I like to use words like fuck and all of its derivatives in my prose, and I predominantly write horror fiction – a genre that is probably the literary equivalent of the top magazine shelf at a sweet shop. It’s a dirty genre, nothing quite so celebrated as science fiction or even the wonderfully monotonous mind-numbingly mundane sub-genre of horror – paranormal romance. No offence to anyone who writes that stuff, but it’s shit really, isn’t it? I’m not sure if it’s the soft-porn book covers or the thematically droll insistence on friendly vampires and cute werewolves, or werewolf detectives and vampire private investigators, or whatever the fuck they choose to regurgitate, I just don’t like it (For the record, the majority of bored housewives that write paranormal romance or, ooh, dark fantasy, will probably sell more than anything I’ve ever written or will ever write, so they get the last laugh).

Now going back to my original point – I’m not a sophisticated writer, never gonna be in the Waterstone’s top ten or in the Richard and Judy Book Club, but, I CAN write. The only reason I am able to say something so vulgar and arrogant is because for the last five years, I’ve done nothing but make myself a better writer by…writing. I don’t mean I keep a blog and post a paragraph every four months about what I did on my bank holiday, I mean that I’ve written entire manuscripts in excess of 300 pages that I will never even try and publish, because I always understood that I was doing it for practise. There’s a fine line between having confidence in one’s own hard-earned skills and being deluded. A famous pool player called Earl Strickland, who has won just about every pool tournament in the world and is widely considered the best 9-ball player of all time once said something along the lines of “I’m getting old now and look how I’m playing, I’m still getting better. By the time I’m eighty, I’ll be shooting holes in all these guys.” And that’s how I feel, but only because I’ve earned the right to feel like that.

What was I talking about again? Oh yeah. I’ve won writing competitions in the past (one of which got my second book Someone’s in the House published), and I’m not short on imagination. While I sit comfortably in the horror genre, I do also enjoy writing science fiction from time to time, thrillers, and have even had a crack at writing YA fiction, although I sucked at it.

So when I saw a competition in a writing magazine for a short science fiction story, 1,500 words with the prize money being something like £300 – which isn’t great but it’d cover my electric and telephone bill for a month and probably some food – I thought, fuck it, I’m going to win that competition. The more I write, and the more good reviews my books get, the more competitive I become. Anyway, the story could be about anything as long as it was science fiction. There was a weird footnote in the magazine that read “Perhaps you might like to set it on another planet, or encounter an alien race” and my initial thought was, if you have to give a writer a suggestion for a story which is meant to be for a competition, and the writer actually chooses to use the cliché conventions mentioned, then they really shouldn’t enter.

No way was I going to write some bullshit about aliens and outer space. Fuck that, I’d be more subtle; I’d woo the judge with my literary flair. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

My entry was called ‘Electric Lady Love’ which was an obvious play on the Hendrix album but an apt title because it was about cyborg prostitution in a near-future. The main character wanders around this futuristically fucked ghetto being accosted by all these malfunctioned robot prostitutes in the rain, but what he’s really looking for is a black market dealer who will sell him the memory card of the particular prostitute whom he used to frequent (as she’d since hit the scrapheap. Maybe she’d caught a virus – get it?). I thought it had all the hallmarks of a really rich, visual and edgy story, and I also thought the idea was pretty sad – that this guy was so lonely he was trying to buy the memories of a robot he used to bang so that he could watch their times together on his console at home. Prejudiced as I was, I thought it was a winner. It was cyberpunk, my second favourite genre, and it was fairly original, although I was heavily influenced by William Gibson but the guy is like a science fiction God, so whatever.

Long story short, I never won. I didn’t so much as get a runner-up mention. That’s fine, that’s great, that’s lovely. But if I don’t win something, I want to read the person that beat me, and if his or her story isn’t better than mine, I’d instinctively know. Sometimes ego gets in the way and all writers think that what they’ve written is the best thing since the arrival of Jesus, but I’m at an age and level whereby I can be honest with myself, and differentiate good writing from ugly, narcissistic prose.

The winning entry came out about six months later. I forget what it was called or the man’s name who wrote it, but I’ll give you the story in a nutshell. A man is on another planet, maybe Mars, and he has this futuristic weapon that shoots lasers or something, and he’s trying to kill these aliens, because in the future humans and aliens are like water and vinegar.

Perhaps you might like to set it on another planet, or encounter an alien race…


Then I read the judge’s comments. For the record, I don’t know who this judge is, but I hope he or she bangs their knee on something really hard.

And then dies.

The judge said something like “The author uses popular conventions to detail an enriched, futuristic landscape, drawing on genre-defining themes such as alien colonisation, to convey a wonderfully crafted story.”

I’ll end by saying this: If you do plan to enter a competition for a popular magazine, or one that you assume will be judged by ‘a literary type’, then go for the safe bet. Write what you think they will like, not what you think will make a good story.

Also, fair play to the winning author, I’ll grit my teeth and take my hat off to you. But that competition doesn’t mean shit; you’re still not better than me.


Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.


  1. Good advice! I’ll choose my contests more wisely.

  2. Fantastic article. You share many of my views on this particular subject. In fact, I enjoy all of your articles. Thanks for the advice!

  3. Fascinating article, some good points made!

  4. Was the short story you mentioned you wrote for the competition published anywhere? I’d like to read it

Speak Your Mind