Getting Published: Gladiator Style by Roland Watson-Grant

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Roland Watson-Grant

Roland Watson-Grant

How To Take On Writing Competitions

Storm the gates. OK, I’m being dramatic, but entering a literary competition is one way to cross over that moat around the writing career you dream about. A decade ago, that was me, using my keyboard as a battering ram until an International Literary competition catapulted me over the wall so to speak. Since then, I’ve entered at least six international prizes, with each one giving me the leverage I needed at different stages of my writing career.

I’m not alone. Check the tale of the tape. All these names have writing competition in their resume: Lucy Caldwell, Chimamanda Adichie, Akwaeki Emezi, Ingrid Persaud and more, just in case you need convincing that this might be your first step. If you have the writing chops and the guts to take on a few juggernaut judges, then here’s how you can sharpen your style and get ready to go gladiator-style in a local or international literary prize.

Who’s Judging You?

While you’re readying your army of words do a bit of espionage. You’re most likely competing with hundreds or thousands of writers wielding different levels of experience, but the judge is the one who decides if you win. Find out all you can about who will make that decision in your writing competition.

What’s their preferred genre? What have they written? What’s the voice they write in? Of course, this doesn’t mean your writing has to match the judge’s likes, but it definitely means that now you have a better idea who you’re dealing with.

Show Me What You’re Working With

Let’s check at your verbal weapons. If you know your use of humour is the bomb, then don’t go off writing something that won’t light up a few laughs. Don’t overdo it, but get your best skills in there. Are you good at snappy exposition? You’re going to need it. As a matter of fact, in a competitive environment the story need to crackle of the page and move at a pace that makes a judge want to keep up.

Fire First

Yeah, that first line has got to be hot. Especially if you’re entering a short story or poetry prize, please note: after they read yours, judges have dozens or hundreds more stories to trudge through by a deadline. That means instead of painting a rosy picture with paragraphs of description or backstory that have very little to do with the plot, hit them hard with a strong opening line.

Remember, your opening line must:

  • promise your reader a story (“A flash of electric blue from the sky, and the field was full of orange fire)
  • establish the tone of your story right away
  • introduce the voice readers will ‘listen to’ for a couple thousand words. First impressions last.

Take it from a person who has read hundreds of stories for the world’s most global literary prize: don’t hide the most engaging language all the way down in paragraph three. Start strong and then rewind to hours or days before the incident if you have to. Word to the wise: those first lines have to be fire.

Strategize Wisely

So, you’ve had a hankering to test out that cute idea of creating an 8000-word short story out of the direct message between yourself and your mom. Cool. Do a Jennifer Egan and test the boundaries of form, BUT maybe not in a competitive environment. Truth is you’re probably going to get tangled in the novelty of it, something that takes a while to unravel, when you really should be working on the conventions of what makes a story a story. Be unique in HOW you tell the story, but in most cases—except where the competition calls for it— experimenting with form isn’t necessarily going to help you win.

Keep your strategy simple. Insight, Idea, Execution, then submit your story on time. Let’s go.

Insight: There’s a condition called Misphonia.

Idea: A person has a visceral reaction to a baby crying or some kid crunching Funnyuns.

Execution: Write a story where someone looks like a horrible monster for screaming at a baby in a park or a kid snacking, but the poor guy suffers from a condition most people do not understand.

Submit your story on time. This one’s pretty straightforward I think

Take No Prisoners

Yes, you want to break your reader’s heart. Get them to love your characters and even if your story is steep in your local culture, remember that being human is universal. Everybody can relate to loss and love and fatal flaws. So, there’s no need to go Game of Thrones on the judges or have eighteen voices narrating. A heartfelt human story with a single, memorable voice works just as well.

The Power of Voice

Finally, remember that Jericho story where the warriors shouted, and the walls of a city came tumbling down? You might want to think about that. Sometimes voice is what puts your story over the top. A decade ago, I wrote one short story, one flash fiction and three poems and emailed them all to the Lightship International Literary Prize in Hull, England.

Then closer to the deadline, a voice came to me at 3 am. An American voice with Caribbean instincts insisting on being heard. Sketcher, became the final short story I entered, and the one that survived the judges’ cut. The plot had holes in it, but the voice was urgent, funny, and the unreliable narrator was one I was rooting for as his bonkers tales about his brother materialized out of my keyboard. I wanted to believe and I made the judges believe as well  That’s the power of voice.

You’re a Gladiator. Enter the Plaza

Here’s your opportunity. Enter The Plaza Prizes, a new International  literary prize judged by some of the biggest names in the creative industries. We’re scouting the globe for real talents giving them a platform to connect with readers. Even a longlisting in the top 20 will look great on any writer’s CV. To be shortlisted in the Top 10, may create a platform that literary agents will be interested in.

To win, or place second or third, is a validation of your skills that might just get your work published in future. I’m living proof it can happen. Alma Publishing snapped up the rights to my first two novels: Sketcher (2013) and Skid (2014).

About Sketcher:

Nine-year-old “Skid” Beaumont’s family is stuck in the mud. Following his father’s decision to relocate and build a new home, based on a drunken vision that New Orleans would rapidly expand eastwards into the wetlands as a result of the Seventies oil boom, Skid and his brothers grow up in a swampy area of Louisiana. But the constructions stop short, the dream fizzles out, and the Beaumonts find themselves sinking in a soggy corner of 1980s Cold War America. As things on the home front get more complicated, Skid learns of his mother’s alleged magic powers and vaguely remembers some eerie stories surrounding his elder brother Frico.

These, as well as early events that Skid saw with his own eyes, convince him that Frico has a gift to fix things by simply sketching them. For the next few years, Skid’s self-appointed mission to convince his brother to join him in his lofty plan to change their family’s luck and the world they live in will lead to even more mystery and high drama in the swamp. Atmospheric, uplifting and deeply moving, Sketcher – Roland Watson-Grant’s stunning debut – is a novel about the beauty of life no matter how broken it is.

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About the author

Roland Watson-Grant studied Literature at the University of the West Indies. A former teacher of English, he now works in advertising as a creative director.

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