I was delighted this week to give a talk at the Evesham Festival of Words in the UK about writing to win short story competitions. I won a big one in the UK some years ago called the Bridport Prize and more recently I have also become a judge for story competitions.
So I was asked for my suggestions about what a writer can do to improve their chances of winning these big writing contests.
I offered five simple tips I think can put people on the right track towards doing well in these competitions. During the conversation we all had after my talk a fellow writer added an important bonus tip – which is to seek out the competition anthologies which publish the winning stories in these competitions and read them, so getting an important insight into what it takes to win.
Here are my original five tips:
Write a story
Look – I just said I had tips, I didn’t say they were going to be any good.
No, to be clear, what I mean here is write a story, rather than something else. So many of the pieces of writing which get submitted to story competitions are not stories strictly speaking. They are all sorts of things. They are think pieces or colour pieces, or first chapters or any number of things.
So I would say write something which is clearly a story, it has a beginning, middle and an end, it goes somewhere, it has a narrative drive and events and characters who are affected by those events.
Some people say to me, you can have stories with too much plot, and quite right you can – you want just enough plot, not too much, not so full of incident you don’t give yourself room to write. But you do need that story.
And one reason for that is that entries which are not stories will get weeded out, even the very best of them. It might happen in at the beginning of the process, the short listing stage, it might happen right at the end, but it will happen.
I have an example for you. The year I won the Bridport Kate Atkinson was the judge. You’ll know her I’m sure, a very accomplished author and very nice person too. She was introduced at the awards dinner as having won the Bridport short story prize but, when she got up to speak she admitted that actually she hadn’t won it, she’d come second or third, something like that. Later I asked her what she’d entered and she told me it was the first chapter of her acclaimed novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which she’d been working on at the time. You might know it, it’s the one about the child, as yet unborn, speaking from inside the womb. It is a brilliant piece of writing, but it’s not a short story, it’s the start of something bigger, and it didn’t win.
Make it short
And by short I mean exactly the maximum length that is allowed in the competition rules. If they ask you for a 5000 word story then aim to give them one which is 5000 words long but could not possibly be 4999 words because then you would miss something important out.
Perhaps it doesn’t help us to think in terms of length of the story, how many words, think instead of mass or density – the size of the story. You can always add or subtract words but you are not looking to create a long, thin string here – you are creating worlds, you want a certain size of planet on which your story lives and your characters breathe.
There’s a phrase in boxing that a good bigun always beats a good littleun and that’s why you should try to turn in a story of the optimum mass – give them the right sized planet otherwise it will be dwarfed by all the bigger, richer more complex planets that other people have made.
Give it the best you’ve got
You’ll notice I’ve not said much yet about the themes you might choose in your story, or what genre you might write in and so on. And you know what? I’m not going to. Because I think that’s up to you and I also think that if you do it really well it doesn’t really matter. Say I had won the prize with a sci-fi story and I said you must write science fiction to win and you were a romance writer then you might find that hugely discouraging and unnecessarily so because I would be generalising from the particular. I don’t believe it matter what style you write in so long as you are on the top of your game.
Let’s be serious for a moment. To win one of these top prizes you have to write a top story. So what I would say is, make sure you deliver the best example you can of the best thing that you do. Think what makes you a special writer.
Think what has won you prizes before – because, again there are exceptions, but mostly people who win these prizes are experienced short story writers, they will have won before, or come close, in some of the smaller competitions. They will know what they excel at, they will know themselves as writers. If that’s not you yet then my advice is learn – there are many competitions out there at all levels, enter some smaller stories in smaller competitions, win smaller prizes, work up to the big ones then give them a go.
Have a distinctive voice
It’s very useful if you can turn in a piece with a distinctive voice which is consistent throughout the story. I know from experience that when judging many, many, stories, no matter how hard you try to concentrate, the words can end up merging into a blur from one to the next. If you can turn in a story which is going to make the judges sit up and listen then you are half way home.
Write something which only you could have written, which sounds like itself, not like the story before or the story after. That’s how you pick your work out from the pile.
The peerless short story writer Raymond Carver felt this voice was the most important thing a writer could have. In his essay On Writing he says talent is needed but talent on its own, he says, is not enough – in fact, he’s never met a writer who didn’t have talent. What picks out the best from the rest is a way of looking at the world, and describing it, which is different from everyone else’s way. Every good writer makes the world over to their own specifications.
He says: “It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”
Polish it until it shines
Give yourself plenty of time to write and more time to rewrite. We all know What Hemingway said the first draft of anything is.
Making your story shine, making it work as well as it possibly can, is something else which can pick it out of the pile. So weigh each word, make each word count, don’t be afraid to cut to the heart of what you have.
I worked on my Bridport story as much as I have on any piece of writing, but still, when I read it out loud for the first time in public after I had won, it was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was reading it and someone laughed in an odd place – just one laugh. And when I checked there was a double entendre which I hadn’t put in there. Despite all those rewrites I had missed it, I’d put in what Martin Amis refers to as a ‘false quantity’ so you can never have enough elbow grease.
So there we have it – my top tips for doing well in story competitions – share yours in the comments?
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