Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff


Category: Competitions (page 1 of 11)

Some More Thoughts on Failure

Inevitably, once I’d hit the “Publish” button on my last post, it struck me that there were a whole load of things I’d meant to say but had forgotten. Or to put it another way, the post itself wasn’t actually ready for the world. So here are a few more thoughts on the subject of failure. I’ll probably forget something important in this post too.

Anyway, what I meant to add was that as well as “the world not being ready for your story” and “your story not being ready for the world”, there are a couple of other frequent reasons for failure. First of all, there may simply be too many other really good entrants to that particular competition. Yours may simply not be up to scratch, and however hard you polish it, it still won’t ever be good enough. (Very rarely, the opposite is occasionally true: Zadie Smith famously refused to pick a winner for the 2007 Willesden Herald Short Story competition because she felt that none of the stories in the preferred shortlist was worthy of the prize.) I’ve got plenty of stories like this lying around and I know that whatever I do to them, they’re never going to win a prize or get published anywhere nice, usually because the central idea has turned out to be dull or unoriginal or (frequently) both.

The last major reason for failure is that your story is one of those ones that people either love or hate and that so far you’ve managed to pick the haters. This is particularly tricky if you’ve entered it in a competition where there are two stages to the judging process and you’ve therefore got to get it past two different judging agendas.

I checked back over the stories in DOT DASH (I have all this logged for easy access – did you know that?) and one in particular stood out: “The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife”. The first version of this was entered in a closed competition on the much-lamented Slingink website, where it pretty much bombed, coming 31st= out of a field of 57. This is what the judge said:

Compelling and thrilling once it’s going. The opening feels a little stumbling.

So the question is: what did I change to improve that stumbling opening before the same story took second place in the 2008 City of Derby Competition? Let’s take a look:

Ah. OK. So that would be no substantive changes at all, right?

Now this story subsequently went on to be chosen for BBC Radio 4’s 2010 Opening Lines season. So presumably I made loads more changes to improve it for that, yes?

Hmmm. Looks like it mostly involved strengthening a few of the verbs:

In other words, the story that got broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was to all intents and purposes the exact same one that failed dismally in a closed competition. Now it’s entirely possible that the Slingink judge was right and that it did need some more work to sort out that opening. But it could also be simply down to a difference of opinion.

That said, I have a couple of stories where the difference of opinion has lasted almost a decade. But we’ll get there. Eventually.

The Importance of Failure

Considering its significance in the life of a writer, we really don’t talk enough about failure. This is a shame, because failure is a good thing. Things are sometimes meant to fail. They can fail for any number of reasons. For one thing, the world may not be ready for them. This is a tough one, and all you can do is shrug and say something along the lines of ‘But your kids are gonna love it!’ (there’s a Marty McFly quote for almost every occasion) and move on.

More frequently, they may not be ready for the world. You may have written something that had a decent idea at its heart, but ultimately failed in its execution. In my case, it’s usually (but not exclusively) the ending that needed more work. But you sent it out anyway, because you’d rushed to meet the deadline, so it would have been a waste of effort, right?

Occasionally, a rush job gets through and while this can be gratifying in the short term, in the longer term it can be something of an embarrassment. For example, my first ever competition winner, the story ‘Convalescence’, was a classic last minute effort. I vividly remember racing over to the University of Hertfordshire on the actual morning of the deadline in order to deliver my entry by hand before 9 o’clock. I had about 5 minutes to spare. I was dead chuffed to win third prize for that, although it was only when I was proofreading my entry for the anthology that I realised that my protagonist had changed his name from Mr Sanderson to Mr Anderson half way through. More importantly, it was only when I submitted it to an audio story magazine for possible publication a couple of years later that I got the feedback I needed to get the confused ending sorted out. So the version that appears in DOT DASH is significantly different from the one that appears in the University of Hertfordshire’s VISION anthology.

What would have happened if ‘Convalescence’ had failed at the UoH, as perhaps it should have done? At the time, it would probably have been a bad thing for me, because the success of that story was what gave me the green light to make a proper commitment to my writing. But what if I’d taken that failed story and fixed the issues with it and then sent it in to another competition? Would it have won a first prize somewhere?

Obviously, I’ll never know. It’s equally possible that it wouldn’t have won anything at all anywhere else. Such is the nature of competitions.

The reason why I’m thinking about failure today is that yesterday I failed to make the longlist for the Bath Short Story Award. I was slightly miffed about this at the time, but after some more thought I’m actually quite pleased, because it was the first time out for the story in question and, while the idea had been germinating for a loooong time (we’re talking several years here), I did run out of road shortly before the deadline. I had to drop one entire section of the story that I just didn’t have time to sort out, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a proper go at that. Also, in the time between sending it in and yesterday’s announcement (not that I’ve been going over it in my head for the last few months, oh no), I’ve come to realise that I missed at least one significant trick, and there are also things about the overall background to the story that I’ve explained badly or not at all.

So it’s possible that there is a more exciting future for that story. It’s also possible that I may have got it completely wrong and that the central idea is fundamentally flawed to the extent that no-one’s ever going to be interested in it. But what I can say is that the way it was when I sent it in to the BSSA, it didn’t deserve to make the cut. I should add that if it hadn’t have been for the BSSA deadline, it probably wouldn’t have got written at all. I need deadlines, even if the way my brain actually handles them is highly suspect.

Of course, it’s going to be trickier to rationalise what happens when the Bristol Prize longlist is announced next week, because the story I’ve sent there is one that has failed and not-quite failed on a number of occasions already and is now at the point where I think it’s about as good as it’s ever going to get. So next Wednesday could be a difficult day for me 🙂

In other news, I found out yesterday that Poetry Kit have made LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF their Book of the Month for July, so it’s not all bad by any means. And that takes me to another key point about failure. Failure is a lot easier to handle when you have more than one iron in the fire. Chances are that unless you’re amazingly unlucky or inept, something is going to come good.

National Flash Fiction Day Anthology

71fj8Ot8RHLIs it that time of year already? Apparently it is. A week tomorrow (June 25th) is National Flash Fiction Day, 2016. I think I’m right in saying this is the fifth incarnation of the event, which suggests an impressive level of commitment from Calum Kerr and his loyal band of organisers.

As ever, there was a microfiction competition, for which my very short piece “Saved for Later” was longlisted – although it was up against some stiff competition (take a look at the second prize winner in particular) and got no further. I was slightly anxious that this might mean that I was going to miss being included in the NFFD anthology for the first time ever (as I didn’t even get a free pass this time – for the last couple of years I’ve been a microfiction judge). However, my submission “Family Values” was indeed selected, so my record remains untarnished.

And here’s the book itself – rather striking, don’t you think? You can buy copies here and if you take a look at the list of authors, I think you’ll agree with me that it promises to be rather special.

Fish Poetry Shortlist

Fish_logoAnd so this year’s Fish campaign draws to a close, with longlistings in the short story and flash categories and (yay!) a shortlisting in the poetry category. I didn’t make much of a fuss about the longlistings, because the Fish longlists do tend to be rather long, but I’m quite pleased about the shortlisting, given that it makes my entry one of the sixty-odd selected out of an entry of a thousand or so.

The poem in question is the same one that was commended in the Café Writers Competition a little while back, which is nice in some ways because it means that two entirely separate judging panels have decided that it has merit. It’s also slightly frustrating because it also means that two entirely separate judging panels have decided that it doesn’t quite have enough merit to get a placing. Such are the joys of competitions.

Shortlisted Thresholds Feature

2016-04-20 22.26.27

Well, I didn’t get any further than the shortlist. But I still won some cool swag (I’ve got a couple of them already, but the rest are all new). And here’s my piece, published today with some very nice comments from the judges. Oh all right, if you absolutely insist. This is what they said:

‘A highly inventive and playful piece that recreates – with verve – the Borgesian tension between philosophical inquiry and creative mystery’; ‘witty and clever’; ‘a creative approach to the brief, with an admirable satirical and philosophical tone’.

And in case you’re wondering how I ended up writing it, it was based on the submission I did last year for Tessa Hadley‘s short story module on the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA. Rule no 1 of writing: everything is recyclable…

Thresholds Feature Writing Shortlist

Well, then. I seem to have made it through to the next stage. This is all rather splendid, because it means that whatever happens, my piece will be published on the Thresholds website. It also means that whatever happens, I’ll win something. I’d completely forgotten there were prizes for all the shortlistees, and to be honest, that stack of books is almost enough to make me hope I don’t win either of the big prizes. Almost, but not quite.

In other news, my 2009 story “Hidden Shallows” was one of managing editor Camille Gooderham Campbell’s picks from the Every Day Fiction archives. In case you’re interested, here’s the Dashipedia entry about how it came into being. (What, you mean you’ve never looked at Dashipedia? Took me bloody ages, that did. Did George Saunders bother doing something like that for “Tenth of December”? Did he hell.)

Thresholds Feature Writing Longlist

Quiet here, isn’t it? The reasons for my silence are not entirely unrelated to the terror alluded to in my previous post, which has induced one of my (thankfully quite rare) episodes of frozen brain. Anyway, I had some good news today from the people who run the excellent Thresholds annual feature-writing competition. Last year I failed to make the longlist, although they did like my contribution sufficiently to subsequently publish it. This year I have gone at least one better. There are, however, fourteen very talented writers (including several online chums) still between me and that £500, so I’m not counting my chickens quite yet. Instead, I’ll just be adding it to the list of things to worry about…

Café Writers Poetry Competition Commendation

PrintI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I still don’t really understand poetry. With fiction, I can read most things and have a decent stab at working out what they’re going on about, however opaque or experimental. But there is a sizeable body of poetry that eludes me completely, and I’m forced into a position where the best I can say is that sometimes I like what I read and sometimes I don’t. I really don’t feel I’m that much above the level of understanding shown in this hilarious exchange on the York Literature Festival / YorkMix poetry competition.

Which is an odd way of introducing the fact that I’ve just won a commended prize in the latest Café Writers competition – one of a dozen prizewinners chosen out of almost 2000. Yes, you read that right. 2000. I still can’t really get my head round it. It’s actually the best competition result I’ve had in years, whether fiction or poetry, and yet I still don’t really feel I know what I’m doing.

The awful truth is that I haven’t actually written a poem for over a year. There are good reasons for this – I’ve been concentrating on my current novel, for one thing – but it still means I feel like a bit of a fraud. I like writing poetry, though, and I’m sure I’ll go back to it soon once the first phase of novel edits are done. And maybe I’ll understand it a bit better one day so I begin to feel like a proper poet.

Oh, and I do like the published prizewinners, by the way – especially ‘Living in Trap Street’, which is wonderful. Take a look.

Fish Off The Hook

Excellent news. The people at Fish have sorted out the problem with my entry. The problem – as far as I can make out – seems to have been a twofold one.

First of all, there definitely seems to be some kind of issue with the “buy one entry, get one half price” offer. I know of at least one other person who has had a similar problem (although, for reasons related to the second part of the problem, they got their entry fixed a lot quicker than mine). The good news is that they appear to be going through all the “unpaid” entries by hand and sorting them out. (I don’t envy them having to do that.) However, if you have taken advantage of this offer, it might be worth checking your author page to see what the status of the second one is.

The second part of the problem was to do with my having two author accounts and e-mailing them from the address that was tied to the wrong one. For some reason, they don’t seem to be able to look up entries by using the name of the account (which I was giving them), or indeed by using the number of the entry (which I was also giving them). They can only look them up by using the e-mail address, which of course was the only piece of information that I was (implicitly) giving them that was wrong. The result of which was that I appeared to be banging on about a completely unrelated entry that was (a) paid for, (b) for a different competition and (c) several years old. They almost certainly assumed I was some kind of crank.

Many thanks to the people at Fish and also to those who helped behind the scenes.

The only thing is, after all that, I’m really not sure if the entry’s any good. But I guess it’s the principle that counts.

The One That Got Away

UPDATE This issue has now been resolved satisfactorily. More information here.

Attention short story writers! Has anyone else had problems with their entries for the Fish competition this year? Or is it just me?

This is what happened to me.

I’m a pretty regular entrant for the Fish competitions. They’re pricey, but there’s potentially a fair bit of kudos to be had if you get into the winners’ enclosure. I haven’t, as it happens (and chances are I won’t in the future once this post has gone live) but I have been shortlisted for the poetry competition in 2014, the flash fiction one in 2008 and the full length short story one in 2009. Long shortlists, but close enough to make it think it might be worth carrying on entering.

On November 30th of last year, I uploaded two entries for the short story prize, noting that whereas the price for one entry was €20, the price for two was €30. I duly paid my €30 via PayPal. However, I didn’t receive any confirmation that my stories had been entered, so I went to look at my author page on their website, where it appeared that only one of the stories had actually been entered. The other one was flagged as “unpaid”.

So I wrote to Fish via their online form:

I just entered a couple of stories for the short story prize and paid €30 (order ID XXXXX). However, only the first one is showing up as being “paid”. Can you reassure me that both will be entered into the competition?

I also mentioned underneath my sign-off that my user account was JonPin. Remember this, because it will be important later.

On December 1st, I got this message back:

You have uploaded and paid for one Flash Fiction entry.

To upload more, simply repeat the entry process.

Let me know if I can help in any way.


This is what I wrote back:

I hope not! If you take a look at my account, you’ll see that I uploaded and paid for two short stories (entry ids SS15/YYYYY and SS15/ZZZZZ). I paid €30 for this (€20 for the first one and €10 for the second one). However, only SS 15/YYYYY is marked as having status “Marked”. SS 15/ZZZZZ is marked as having status “Unpaid”. I hope this doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been entered.

I then got a generic e-mail from the “Fish Publishing Team”:

We noticed you are experiencing difficulty uploading one or more entries to the Short Story competition.

Entry lines have been extended until December 3rd at mid-night GMT, to assist you with any technical difficulties you may have encountered.

Let us know if we can help in any way.

To which I responded thus:

No problem in uploading at all. The story is there and, crucially, paid for. The problem is, as I’ve already reported to you, it’s showing up as “Unpaid”. So extending the deadline isn’t going to do me any good, I’m afraid.

Their response on December 2nd was not entirely helpful:

Your entry is showing up as paid from this end.

So I replied with this:

Sorry to be pedantic, but do you mean that BOTH of my entries are showing up as paid? Because SS15/ZZZZZ is still showing up as unpaid.

They replied with this:

Yes, with the e-mail address: [redacted 1] there is one entry. Do you have another account set up with a different e-mail address?

which at least explained some of the confusion. It turned out that I had a zombie author account (jonpinnock) at Fish containing a single one page story entry from 2013 which was tied to the e-mail address [redacted 1]. My main author account was tied to a different e-mail address, [redacted 2].

Unfortunately, the people at Fish had assumed that because I was e-mailing from [redacted 1], I was referring to the zombie account, despite (a) the fact that I’d told them I was specifically referring to the user account JonPin, (b) the only story in the jonpinnock account was one from 2013 and (c) none of the short story identifiers I’d given them matched up with the zombie account.

I thought I could clear things up by sending them, on December 3rd, a couple of screenshots from JonPin:

Please find attached two screenshots (user JonPin). The first is from my payment screen. As you can see, I’ve paid for TWO entries, the first at €20, the second at the discounted price of €10.

[screenshot showing entry ID XXXXX with two stories, YYYYY at €20 and ZZZZZ at €10]

The second screenshot is from my entries screen, where it shows the second entry as “Unpaid”.

[screenshot showing YYYYY flagged as “marked” and ZZZZZ flagged as “unpaid”]

Please can you sort this out?

There was no reply to this, so on December 7th, I e-mailed them again:

I was just wondering if you’d got any closer to resolving this. It’s still showing exactly the same – both paid for, but only one marked as such. The account name is JonPin, and I think it’s tied to account [redacted 2].

There was still no reply from Fish, so on December 17th, I e-mailed them again:

This still doesn’t seem to have been resolved. I just logged in again as user JonPin and the situation is exactly as I reported before: two entries to the short story competition paid for, but only one of them marked as such. Can you please either confirm that both have indeed been entered (and marked as such) or refund the fee for the second entry, €10.

Which seemed fair enough.

However, there was still no response from Fish and to be honest I got caught up in Christmas and other stuff and didn’t chase it any further. But then on January 25th, a stray neuron fired at Fish HQ and the following e-mail popped into my inbox:

From this end, you have uploaded one entry and paid for it and there is no sign of  another entry.
What competition did you enter it to? Can you please forward a copy of your PayPal receipt?

Apologies for any inconvenience.

Gritting my teeth, I responded with a screenshot of my PayPal receipt:

I entered two stories (SS15/YYYYY and SS15/ZZZZZ) into the Short Story Competition. I’m attaching my PayPal receipt which clearly shows that I paid €30, i.e.€20 for the first one and then the discounted price €10 for the second.

I hope it isn’t too late to sort this out.

There was no response to this. So yesterday (January 26th) I thought I’d nudge them along once more in case they were still confused about what I was talking about:

I’m attaching a picture of part of my author page (JonPin). As you can see, I have one entry flagged as marked and one flagged as unpaid. Can you please either (1) reassure me that the “unpaid” one (which, as we all know, has actually been paid for) has been entered and marked or (2) refund me the €10 for my second entry.

What worries me is that this suggests there is a problem with your entry system and I’m sure there must be many others in the same situation.

So far I have had no response to this at all.

Anyone else taken advantage of the €30 two-story discount? If so, have both your stories been entered? Have you checked?

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