Entering Short Story Competitions

800px-13-02-27-spielbank-wiesbaden-by-RalfR-037Should you bother?
It’s a yes in my view. I used to enter lots of short story competitions when I was first starting out as a writer, and for a good while after too. I got precisely nowhere in most of them of course, but I did win some, including a big one in the UK called the Bridport Prize which is quite well thought of among those who take an interest in such things.

I’d advise anyone to have a go at these competitions if they are currently piling up stories or have a few stashed away in a drawer. They give you something to aim for and provide a tremendous boost if you get a win, place or are shortlisted. Dare I say it, they also get you used to the disappointment of losing – and that’s quite a useful thing to learn when you start looking for a publisher.

Are you better off submitting to magazines?
A writer asked me recently on Twitter whether the odds are better of getting your work published in magazines than they are in winning these competitions and to be honest I don’t really know. But what I’d suggest is there’s nothing to stop you submitting to magazines and websites and, at the same time, entering competitions.

If your aim is publication then it’s worth knowing that the competitions often produce anthologies which include not only the winners and runners-up but sometimes short listed entries too.
I used to submit to both competitions and magazines of various types – I found my rates of success and failure about the same for both.

800px-QWERTZ_swissShould you write stories specifically to win competitions?
For the most part I used to write the stories I wanted to write then try to find a suitable home for them. I did that rather than trying to write to order for particular competitions because my primary aim was to produce the work I had to to grow as a writer. Some competitions are very specific in the type of story they require in terms of theme, genre etc, but the majority keep things fairly vague, some just give you a maximum word count. Plus there are a lot of them so you can find a home for most things in the end.

Does it cost much?
Inevitably, it does cost money to enter competitions, but I used to see it as money well spent as it gave me a sense of purpose with my work. I wasn’t just filling up my computer hard drive with data, I was creating something with which I had a chance of winning glittering prizes.
If I’d not won anything I would still have considered that the motivation the competitions gave me to write made them worthwhile, but I did start getting among the prizes and of course that changes the financial situation in your favour – especially if you have a big win, running into the thousands.

Read the small print
One piece of advice I’d offer is to read the rules, tiresome as this may be, before you submit. For example, one reason I don’t enter these very much any more is that many don’t allow published authors. If you have a book out you count as a pro as far as the organisers are concerned – they treat me and Stephen King just the same, probably due to the huge sums of money we both make from our books (irony alert).
That’s just one example of a rule you might stumble over – there are many more, and it would be a shame to have your masterpiece ruled out on a technicality.

Where do you have more chance?
Obviously the bigger and more high-profile the competition the more entries it will attract. So if you are starting out look for:

  • new competitions,
  • ones which accept hard copy entry only,
  • ones which offer smaller prizes,
  • ones which are open only to people from your region. All of these will give you a higher chance of success.

Where to find them
Lists of these are all over the internet, but here’s one or two of my favourite places to look for the latest competitions.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

24 thoughts on “Entering Short Story Competitions”

  1. Thanks for sharing this info and your experiences. I have a bunch of shorts that have piles up and I’ve never tried sending them out. It’s a goal for 2015. I’ve bought a calendar and I’m ready to properly research and organize sending a bunch of them out into the world.

  2. Thanks for all the lovely information on short story competitions, Chris. Since Jaye and I both entered the one at Magic Oxygen, we have been considering this as a goal for 2015. Seems great minds think alike, at least we think so!

  3. What a useful and interesting post, Chris. I’ve never tried short story competitions – probably because I haven’t written many short stories! One of these days – when the cloud of these studies everyone’s getting sick of hearing about (including me) has lifted, maybe I’ll give it a go!

    1. Thanks Val – it was my way in to writing I suppose, though of course people take various routes, it does lend a fun element to things but inevitably you lose more often than you win!

  4. Yes, I think it is worth doing if only because it may find a home for those unpublished stories and sometimes it gives you motivation to write more. I have been entering comps for years with mixed results. Often publications in anthologies rather than real cash back. It is a bit like a betting shop. You win occasionally but are left out of pocket because of the entry fees.
    My biggest regret both for competitions and for submissions to small magazines is that the word count is so low. Of course it is good discipline to write stories of less than 2000 words but look at the classic short stories and you realize a decent, literary story needs more space.

    1. Many do have quite low word counts as you say – though the competitions with larger prizes do tend to ask for longer stories too – perhaps they want to get their money’s worth! There are also some competitions for novellas and others for unpublished novels.

  5. I read an article in Writing Magazine that discussed the merits of writing the story specifically for the competitions. It made the point that the general entry ones will attract more entrants than those that have set criteria. This also works as a way of giving yourself writing practice by using the competition specifics as writing prompts.

    1. I’m sure there’s a lot of sense in that Nicola. It wasn’t the way I did it for the most part but it sounds like it might work. I suppose it depends whether you have a clear idea about what you want to write or are prepared to have a go at writing to order.

  6. I’ve just started putting myself forward for comps like flash fiction and such, it sounds cheesy but I just want to write so any chance I get to practise is great. I surprised myself though, you know writing to a strict deadline didnt think I could do it, but that extra pressure really spurred me on.
    As alaways great post Chris!

    1. Thanks Sabrina – I really do think it’s a great chance to practice (and sometimes you get to win too!) I judged a literary competition just last weekend and it reminded me how great they are to be involved in.

  7. Thanks so much for this info! really helpful. Ive got a few written but they never seem quite good enough to send out. One more polish up and then send out in 2015 🙂

  8. I frequently enter both poetry and short story comps. It helps me refine and improve my writing – when I don’t get anywhere I take the piece and look at it with critical eyes, tweak it and send it out again. (And again and again on occasion!) Sometimes just that tiny change can make all the difference.

    1. I agree Corrinna, I have done exactly the same with some of mine and in some cases it has resulted in them winning or being published in the end, as well as helping me refine my craft.

  9. Why this advice Chris?
    ‘ones which accept hard copy entry only’

    I tend to avoid anything, comp or agent submission, that asks for hard copies only. It is an expensive route and also waste of resources.

    If there is no email submission I tend to ignore except as a last resort.

    1. I’m sure you are right from an environmental point of view Lucille, and fair enough. My advice was more aimed at finding competitions where there is more chance of winning. Because it’s easier, and cheaper, to ping something off by email than to post it more people enter the email competitions than the post ones, as a result there is more competition.

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