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.

3 thoughts on “Whitt and wisdom

  1. First, Gordon, thank you for the accolade – wholly undeserved – of ‘fine writer’. I can only assume you must have seen the very thin nib I use on my old Parker pen? 🙂

    I enjoyed reading your piece on the Whittaker Prize, but feel I must remind you that there was barely the thickness of a cigarette paper (to employ an out-dated metaphor that you are probably far too young and clean-living to understand) between a group of us at the end of the competition. Okay, the top two did roar away a bit, but only by a handful of points. Any of you guys could have taken the top slots.

    I agree entirely your assessment – and measurement – of success. You, and I’m sure most of us that entered, created new work under pressure. That has to be a successful outcome.

    As to critiquing: I agree about the value of critique. I’m fortunate in belonging to an excellent Writers’ Circle where we do this both live and online. But I’m afraid I did not do any of it in Whittaker. I’m such a slow writer, and reader that, if I really did justice to every piece entered ( the only fair approach, in my view) in each round, I’d have spent each fortnight critiquing and not have written anything. So instead I chose not to post my pieces and not to give or accept critique. My loss, I feel.

    Yes, the competition was a success, but so are you. And not by failing better in this case. No failure in your Whittaker showing, my friend, only the sweet sibilance of success.

  2. Excellent post, Gordon. “Failing better”–I like that. I failed better than in 2008, which was the last year I competed. Funny, another writer told me my best story in the competition was the one that I scored worse on too. The judge gave me a 60 on that one–which killed my ranking, not that I’m bitter, no not me. I do remember one of the judge’s stupid comments to you–discounting your piece because it was sci-fi or something-a really innane remark that had nothing to do with the quality of the piece. The other contestants, as you mentioned, make this competition–along with the organizers. I never cease to be disappointed in the judge’s but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from them. Yes, I learned more than how to take my lumps. I almost learned how to control my temper. I’d like to try the competition again, when I’m not finishing graduate school, to see if I’m more focused. I’m glad you feel good about the things you do. It makes me feel better for not realizing my dream with this competition. I applaud your adventuresome spirit–writing out of your comfort zone and submitting all new pieces. I ended up submitting seven new pieces and revising two standing pieces, and all things considered. I feel good about that.

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