Everyone's a Loser – a guest post by Clifford Thurlow

Everyone's a Loser

 Everyone's a loser, a Chopping Blog post on rejection and writing competitions, by Clifford Thurlow


Clifford Thurlow is the author of more than 20 books


Writing is not a competitive sport. A critic on the New York Times once typed out the first chapter from the Nobel Prize winning novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and sent it to the book's publisher with a synopsis. It was rudely rejected. The critic wrote his piece, giving space to the publisher who justified this aberration as the shortcomings of a callow editor: an error that would never be repeated.

A few months later, the same critic sent the same proposal to the same publishing house and, you guessed it, the Gabriel Garcìa's Márquez masterpiece was returned once again. I don't know if the Colombian author was in on the hoax, but I'm sure he saw the funny side.

The gag was duplicated by Ben Elton with his own novel Popcorn. His suffering the same fate as Márquez is, paradoxically, encouragement to all writers weary of rejection. Rejection is hard to bare. Rejection slips, or worse, the want of rejection slips, will drive some writers to the dusty pile of magazines with ads like 'Are You An Author? Publisher seeks novels, history, biography, poetry (poetry!)…You Too Can Publish A Book: CLICK HERE for FREE details.' Beware. They want your money.

Some desperate hacks try the scatter-gun approach, emailing the same story or the same opening chapters of a novel to dozens of journals and publishing houses (abhorred by editors). They receive faint praise (sometimes) and send back rewrites (abhorred by editors), their work circling the dark labyrinths of the internet like lost rodents in search of a Pied Piper.

When the work finally arrives back, a fait accompli, we sit over a kettle of coffee or something stronger and read it aloud before putting it to one side and taking HG Wells's advice, going back with the element of surprise and attacking the piece at an hour when it isn't expecting it.

In quiet desperation, to stoop for the cliché, we write a cheque for £20 to enter a Writing Competition – add SAE for the return of your story, add £8.95 for the prize-winning anthology, add £10 per 1,000 words for an appraisal of your work (not a tick sheet).

Who are these appraisers? Failed editors sacked from New York publishing houses? The thin lady who carries in her wilting handbag her 1974 A Journey Across Dorset? Retired primary school teachers brought up on Dickens? And prefer Archer. And have never heard of Michel Houellebecq.

A race does have winners: the fastest. Snooker has winners: he or she with the best eye. Football has winners: that elusive collusion of gift and cash. Chess has winners: man or machine. 

Writing is something that can’t be compared or judged. What’s better, Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace or Lao-tzu’s couplet: If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading?  

Now there are some very good writing competitions. I must I confess to have entered some myself, even felt that breathless thrill of crossing the finishing line. But an indispensable device in the writer’s toolbox is research and you should save that entry fee until you find credited competitions. 

Anthologies put out by borough councils, writer groups and low-brow magazines must, by their very nature, appeal to the bland tastes of the "average" reader, whoever that is. Too many stories summon up John Major's vision of matrons cycling to church on misty mornings, long shadows falling over the cricket stumps, circa 1955, a forgotten England long before Brexit. It's valid, of course. Everything is. And that's the point. A 15 year old girl begging in London accepts rape as part of life on the streets. This story is not going to win any prizes – and it's real, it's happening: it's a true reflection of our culture. 

Many writing competitions, if anything, lower standards. They limit writers by setting parameters: no more than 2,000 words; a story that begins, "Jacky knew she'd never see Simon again…"

This isn't writing, as Capote said of Jack Kerouac, it's typing; it's prose painting by numbers. Stories don't have a length. They come into life bearing bundles of DNA and grow to their own length. Each word is born from the last, yet still, conversely, like a mason laying a mosaic, those words only slot into the pattern after being polished by the blood dripping from our brow.

Writing to order comes with a guarantee that what we write won't be as good as what we can write. Writing is a serious business, to quote Hemingway: Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.

Anyone who is serious and has, or strives to cultivate, a talent, doesn't want to waste energy competing with other writers. It's hard enough getting up each day and competing with yourself.



Clifford Thurlow is the author of Operation Jihadi BrideHaving railed against writing competitions I would suggest reading guides to good writing, including my own: Making Short Films: The Complete Guide From Script to Screen. The book – published by Bloomsbury and in its 3rd edition – makes the comparison between short films and short stories in that both weave fine lines more than broad strokes. Both are subtle, often enigmatic, with carefully drawn characters. Explanation is death.

"Whether it’s film or prose, if you’re a writer and want to be a better writer, you won’t find a better companion than Clifford Thurlow's book." – Elliot Grove, Director of Raindance






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