As described in the earlier section, ‘U.K. short fiction competitions – an introduction to the process’, the assumption that trying to adapt the work to what appear to be the tastes and interests of competition named judges is flawed in a number of ways, and even referrals to material which has been successful in competitions in the past is not particularly reliable if different judges are used every year.
However, there are some steps which can be taken to prevent sending wholly inappropriate material to particular competitions. Firstly, many of the established competitions produce anthologies, which can be obtained at reasonable cost, and these can be reliable guides to the standard of writing characteristic of the competition. If an individual writer’s work tends to include strong language, erotic content or graphic violence, and none of them are represented in the anthology, it is not unreasonable to assume that the competition has developed a ‘house style’ to some extent, and when decisions are taken to invite judges, the tendency will be to approach writers, agents or critics who work in mainstream areas. If there are items, even only occasionally, which are more daring or experimental in content, then a broader representative sample is probably what the competition organisers or sponsors are hoping to achieve.
Another source of research connects with competitions associated with literary festivals or other events. Examining the festival programme and the artists, writers and musicians who are associated with it can give valuable clues to the fiction material most likely to be successful in their competitions. If the general feel of the festival is ‘high brow’, the likelihood is that the writers who will be chosen to ‘represent’ the festival – because that is, in effect, what they will be doing – will tend to the literary rather than the populist, and certain genres of writing may not be seen as in accordance with the spirit and identity of the festival.This can also be said to be broadly true of competitions organised and sponsored by particular magazines or e-zines. As mentioned earlier, those who place their whole identities within a particular genre of writing, such as history or science fiction, represent much the best opportunities for the genre writer, but even those with a broader remit of general fiction will indicate clearly through their existing published content what type of writing they deem to be publishable or worthy of reward.
Research is not just desirable into the kind of material competitions are likely to prefer; it is also necessary in preparing the content of stories, especially if the content includes technical details and specialist areas. It has been mentioned earlier that highly specialist areas present difficulties for competition ‘filterers’ and judges, who do not have the time to check the accuracy of hundreds of entries, but any competition or publication which is going to put its successful competition entries into anthologies or on websites will live in dread of obvious howlers, anachronisms, wild inaccuracies or comical misinterpretations which are likely to bring their competitions into disrepute or odium. It is reasonable to assume that, in the later stages of competitions, those pieces which are to appear ‘in public’, as it were, will be checked, and a writer who has been lax in handling the more specialist technical, historical or professional details may lose a prize or commendation at the very last hurdle. ‘Faction’ which concerns itself with actual biographical detail of people or actual events in the past is especially susceptible in this area, and single sources can prove to be highly misleading if they are not at least double checked.
Attempts to achieve success in regional competitions by producing content particularly connected with the region can be wide of the mark. Writers’ groups often have local championships, open only to their own members or people from the immediate area; if they are advertising a competition as a national or open competition, it indicates that they are looking for the competition to have a wider identity and will expect this to be reflected in the entries. Neither does it necessarily follow that the judge who will make the ultimate decisions will be a native of the competition area, so writers who make exhaustive research endeavours to link material to the area may well be engaging in exercises in futility.
The mention of futility leads neatly into the last point in this section, which is concerned with those who are inclined to question the decisions made or the qualifications of particular judges. It is undeniably true that there are some curious choices in this respect; people whose only published work has been poetry judging short fiction competitions (and vice versa), people who have no publication list of their own at all but are deemed to be ‘celebrities’ or local worthies of some kind, people connected with self-publishing organisations who, again, have not actually published anything themselves, etc. etc. Perhaps the most curious are those competitions where neither the judging process nor the judges are identified in any way. Generally speaking, these are better avoided (see ‘bad apples’ below), but if a competition entrant does have any doubts about the bona fides or the credentials or judges or judging, the best, in fact the only, course of action is not to enter the competition in the first place. Similarly to the point made earlier about questioning editors’ opinions when work submitted to magazines is rejected, the fact of entering a competition implies an acceptance of its practices and rules, and questioning or disputing outcomes, either by post or online, if the results don’t prove to be as satisfying as the entrant would have liked, is almost the very definition of futility. Competitions which are badly organised and run, lacking transparency and fairness in the judging process or conceived with ulterior motives are unlikely to survive for very long, and the simple fact of keeping away from them is the most effective way of ensuring their extinction.