Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Long and Short of Longlists

Long lists, what are they good for? Absolutely nothing...

This was the rather tongue-in-cheek comment I made as part of The Writing Competition Entrants' Manifesto, a plea to writing competition organisers to make entering their competitions just a little less stressful for us poor writers. It was a throw-away comment, just putting it out there that I don't like long lists. Little did I know that it would be the part of the Manifesto that attracted most debate.

There are two types of long list: those that appear before the final results are announced, and those that appear after. To be clear, it is the first that I really object to. Waiting for results of competitions can be stressful. Some people get positively obsessed, checking their email, stalking the organisers on Twitter and Facebook. Personally, I like to enter a competition and, as much as possible, forget about it. It helps that I enter a lot of competitions, so there is always the next one to think about. I keep a spreadsheet to track entries and make a note on there when the results are expected, just so I can double check. But generally I try not to think about it too much.

However, if I find out a few weeks before the results come out that I am on the long list, it's so much harder to forget about it. Knowing I've crossed that first hurdle makes it all but impossible not to indulge in those little daydreams where I am the awards ceremony, designer be-frocked, perfectly coiffed and shod, on the arm of Ryan Gosling - oh, sorry, that's my Oscar ceremony fantasy. Moving on...

I find the disappointment of not making the short list or the winner's enclosure worse if I know I'm on the long list. The punch feels a little harder. This may not be entirely logical, but it's the way it feels to me. And the agony of waiting is ratcheted up, another tightening of the ropes on the rack.

For media-savvy competition organisers, publishing a long list before the final results is a great way to get people talking. It's a smart move, even if it does add to the agony of those waiting. The inaugural Bath Short Story Award has been notable for its great use of Twitter. Friendly, approachable, happy to answer random writerly questions, they have ensured that people are talking about them for the right reasons. And with their long list due to be published in a few days time, they have got us all talking about it, even me, a long list refusenik. So the pre-results long list is here to stay. I just have to find a way of dealing with it.

Finding myself on the other sort of long list, the one that is published after all the winners, runners-up etc have been announced, is a different experience altogether. In the past, I've regarded it as a consolation prize. I've had the burn of disappointment, but there is the balm. I recently found myself on the long list for the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize 2013. Fish are famed for their looooong long lists. In this case, it was a list of 348. I was pleased to be there, of course, but when lovely writerly tweeps tweeted to congratulate me, I was a bit dismissive. It's such a long list, where's the achievement in that?

As it turns out, getting on the long list, any long list, is a bigger achievement than I ever realised. Writers who have been on the other side of the judging table tweeted to tell me that the cut from the entire field to the long list is the hardest for judges, and any story that ends up on the long list is a potential winner. As Tracey Upchurch recounts on her blog, she used to think being long listed was like being called someone's 'third favourite girlfriend', but Tania Hershman put her right, pointing out that the long list separates the great stories from the not-so-great. Who wouldn't want to be on a list like that? According to Vanessa Gebbie, getting on the long list means a story 'has legs', one of the most encouraging things you can hear about your work.

So the next time I find myself on a long list, I won't look on it as a consolation prize. Being on the list means that someone, somewhere, read my story amongst many, many others and thought it might possibly be a winner. That's quite an achievement.





10 comments:

  1. Running towards a fiction prize can feel like hurdling -- you have to leap over drafts, submission, longlist, and shortlist before you can see the result! I don't mind the anticipation -- I quite enjoy it -- but the longlist itself didn't really mean much to me until I received Tania's comments (she'd recently judged the Sean O'Faolain comp). Being on the Fish longlist is an achievement and it validates the story -- someone out there read it and thought, "Yes."

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    1. It's true - I definitely didn't realise the significance of the long list until recently. It's better to know that you have succeeded in getting over one of the hurdles rather than wondering if you fell at the first. And that first hurdle is the highest. And now I'm wishing I thought of that analogy while writing the above post.

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  2. Gee, waaaay back in 2005 I was on the Fish Short Story long list and had the same reaction. Disappointment. I shrugged it off as an under achievement. Reading this I may now re-consider.

    Considering I have never, ever made it on there again, I think it's not a bad idea to do so ;-)

    With Bath I think it has been fantastic that they have tweeted about how difficult it was to compile their LL and that only 10% of entries actually made the cut. It really helps a lot to read feedback like that. It puts the achievement into perspective.

    So yeah, Long Lists ....we may be coming around to them :)

    Who'd have thought!

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    1. I was very naive the first time I won a writing competition. It was quite early in my writing career, and I had been working hard on learning how to write and honing my craft. When I won a prize, I thought that meant I had reached the next level, that all my stories would now be prize worthy, because that was the skill-level I had reached. Needless to say I didn't win anything else for ages (years, in fact) and it took me a while to get my head around why. It's embarrassing now to look back on how little I understood then.

      Writers new to the market still often think that writers who have previously won things or been long or shortlisted have an advantage. In one competition forum one person actually said entrants like me should be banned to give other people a chance! I tried to explain that it really is a level playing field, but I don't think they wanted to believe me, because they were still thinking there was some magical leap to the next level where the prizes and plaudits would come rolling in.

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  3. You can't beat a longlist. A longlist gives a competition transparency, assuring entrants that a story hasn't been picked at random. It also gives a larger proportion of entrants some feedback. If you make the longlist at least you can be sure that your writing was or a sufficient calibre to be seriously considered!
    Finding my name on a longlist is thrilling!

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  4. Transparency is really important, and I hadn't thought of that, so thanks for mentioning it. Understanding how competitions work really helps to put things in perspective. When I first started out, I thought the long list was akin to honourable mentions, something put together after the fact as a pat on the back for the also-rans. I know so much better now!

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  6. Thank you so much for sharing this write-up.
    I am so glad that I came across this one.

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