The competitive spirit

The wolf raises a glass to competitions (hic!). Who wants to be number one? Me! Hooray!!

Everyone needs a bit of validation, and winning a competition is surely the ultimate endorsement?

The wolf has been thinking long and hard about writing and illustration competitions, especially for children’s authors. I’d actually wondered about running one in the future (a future where the wolf is a Significant Figure of some sort). It seemed like money for jam: gather the entry fees, put out an important-sounding email, distract self from more pressing tasks by designing a funky competition logo and then have a nice time comparing entries and making meaningful remarks with a big red pen. Then I would make announcements and congratulate people. And of course there’s the awards – to be graciously bestowed upon the lucky winners, by Queen Wolfie.

But the world of competitions is a little murkier than you might imagine. For a start, why would you want to enter a writing competition? There are a few reasons. Some of them are good and some of them are … not.

Here are some of the good reasons:

  1. You’ve been working on a project and need a decent deadline to help you get it finished. What better that a competition deadline to force you to polish that ‘bottom drawer’ piece! And if you win there might be a few pennies in it too.
  2. The competition prize is an actual contract that you feel confident that you could fulfil. Or at least mostly confident…
  3. The competition prize is a mentorship, and you know that working with a mentor will help you make contacts, get nearer to being published and advance/kick-start your career.
  4. The prize is actually quite a lot of money and worth having. This is a great reason if entry fee is not ridiculous, and you reckon you’ve got a good chance of winning that money. However, the big(ger) money is in awards for books that have already been published.
  5. The prize is creative time, which will help you finish your manuscript or project and allow you go do so in peace and quiet, with maybe some yoga, tasty dinners and woodland walks in between.
  6. You are a good, experienced writer, yet for a hundred disparate and depressing reasons you can’t quite get a publisher to accept your new manuscript(s), so you may as well put a few into a competition and get a bit of love – and a few bucks – back now and again. (the wolf knows a reader or two who falls into this category)

Here are some of the bad reasons:

  1. You can’t get any publishers to pay you any attention AT ALL – and you think this is the best way to get it?
  2. You believe that those people who usually win competitions are absolutely rubbish and your not-very-polished manuscript is surely better than theirs.
  3. You’re desperately seeking validation, and you just know that being among the top three entries in the ‘aspiring’ category is the way to literary fame. Five minutes of fame, maybe. But as mentioned below, a publisher may want to take a winning entry further now and again, but only if they’re judging.
  4. You’re hoping that the competition judges will spot your incredible talent and somehow propel you to stardom. Even if a publisher was judging on the competition, they’ve probably jetted off to another appointment already…

There are some ‘so-so’ reasons too, which sort-of overlap with the ‘bad’ reasons but – as mentioned – the world of competitions is a tad murky:

  1. You’ve only recently started writing and you’d like to know how good you are compared to other people. This might be helpful but it really depends on who is judging, who entered and how many people are in your category.
  2. You’d like some feedback on your work.
    Some competitions do offer feedback, but useful and thorough feedback can’t be relied upon as often the number of entrants is unexpectedly large, and competition organisers need to rush replies to stay sane.
  3. As an unknown writer, you were going to send your text to a publisher but think if it got placed in a competition first you might avoid the slush pile. If you win, and the entries have been judged by a publisher, then they may offer to look at your manuscript further, or even take it to acquisitions. But just because a publisher likes your manuscript doesn’t mean they’ll want to publish it. It may not be right for their list.

The wolf has taken part in competitions – with mixed results. First of all, years ago, a friend encouraged me to apply for the ASA Mentorship Award. For this prize you enter a project (novel, picture book etc.) and you hope to win a mentorship with a prestigious published author, who will (hopefully) aim to help you bring your work to publishable standard.

So I spent months getting my first picture book together, written in rhyme and all the illustrations drafted. Of course I didn’t think any of this through. I just knew I needed to meet someone who knew what they were doing, and the $60 entry fee did not put me off. Of course validation, possible fame and the hope someone might declare ‘this is the best thing we’ve ever seen’ pushed me on. My project didn’t win or get an encouraging ‘commended’ even and I was actually quite crushed. Now, looking back at what I sent in, all the mistakes are so evident: inconsistent characters, forced rhyme, an incomplete story and a presumptious covering letter: “The book’s language is intended to be rhythmic and rich in description…” (cringe…)

Embarrassing drawings and rhyme for Picture Book One. How can a squawk be 'slight'?

Embarrassing drawings and rhyme for Picture Book One. How can a squawk be ‘slight’?

However, entering the ASA Mentorship did force me to attempt a full picture book, which meant valuable hours spent drawing, researching and writing.

I applied again the next year, with a better covering letter and a simpler rhyming project. The drawings are still not, er, up to standard but they were better. This is the best one by far:


The covering letter was very ambitious this time. Here’s an excerpt:

One evening, when I was six, our family visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Upon entering, we found ourselves afloat in a shifting kaleidoscope of vibrant, fragmented colour. Stained glass glowed like treasure. I was entranced. Later, I wondered if it had been a dream.

I aim to create a picture book which has the same effect upon a growing mind as Notre Dame had upon mine: a luminous book, which hints at the unknown, with velvety shadows and sparkling lights; a book that ignites a child’s imagination and leaves them dreaming of glittering creatures and fantastical surroundings.

Lar de dar! The drawings didn’t quite live up to my intro – I’m not sure what would. This is a project to go back to later, probably years in the future – once I’ve learned to use gouache like the wonderful (and recently late) Brian Wildsmith perhaps.

The letter was also packed with lies – I didn’t visit Notre Dame until I was 11 and, apparently, I sulked throughout the visit.

My application sank once more, but then I learned about the Maurice Saxby Mentorship. Applications were being invited for a two-week mentorship program based in Melbourne, offering access to publishers, editors, authors, illustrators and a mentor. I applied, with a yet another picture book draft:

Book no. 3 - monsters!

Book no. 3 – monsters!

And this time I got in. Validation! Fame! Not quite, but the mentorship was invaluable and strengthened my resolve to keep going. It gave me practical insight into the publishing world, contacts, technical tips and meant, from then on, I could attend industry events without feeling like a total newbie. Mentorships like these are worth applying for if you’re starting out, and this one was less well known than the ASA Mentorship so the chances of getting through were better. It’s certainly worth looking around for anything similar.

I also entered several writing competitions and got nowhere, though one particular competition gave feedback, and I noticed that my two entries had been placed 1st and 2nd, until a ‘guest publisher’ did the final judging and demoted them to 4th and 5th. Now it seems ridiculous to even remember this, but at the time I read and re-read the comments from the organisers, and looked up the publisher-in-question and pulled faces at her online staff photo. It all seemed very important at the time, because I was desperately aspiring and hadn’t published anything.

But a few years later, after long hours drawing and developing ideas, I entered my folio for the Five Mile Press Illustrator Prize and won a book contract. And, having put together so many never-to-be-published books beforehand, I was finally ready to do the work.

So yes to mentorships – if you think you stand a chance. And yes to competitions with proper prizes. And if you’re an illustrator developing a folio, you may as well enter the odd artwork into something when you get the opportunity (as long as you don’t have to pay $$$s to do so). But both the Maurice Saxby Mentorship and the Five Mile Press Illustrator Prize seem to have disappeared this year, so it’s important to keep an ear to the ground as opportunities come and go.

And back to competitions: There are a few competitions run by knowledgeable, professional individuals who love writing and are usually associated with writers festivals or organisations – these can be worth entering for the ‘good’ reasons above. But there are a lot more competitions have been put together by A) opportunistic, money-grubbing dilettantes who hope to make money from aspiring writers and B) by terrifying wolves who just love to mark down other people’s homework.

The wolf is a tougher animal these days, who skims competition notices with a snarl, uttering: “Chicken feed!”

BUT if you have something decent to send out, here are some good competitions, which offer more than a $12 bag-worth of birdseed. They may or may not be open right now, but are worth bookmarking for the future:



1 Comment

  1. October 22, 2016 - Reply

    This is such a great article (and hilarious too)! It should be required reading for all aspiring and emerging writers/illustrators. Wolfie, you’re a gem.

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