At the end of our second short story competition, I put together these guidelines based on comments from our readers and administrators about what makes them want to recommend – or throw out – a competition entry. Some of these points may seems obvious but it really is worth checking your entry to see how it measures up.
Read the competition rules before you start, when you finish, and once more as you prepare to send in your entry. Keep a competition check-list, and as you parcel up your precious work refer to the list at every move – format, word-count, required cover-sheet information, closing date, fee, who is the cheque to be made out to? Please do this – we all make a lot more administration errors than we ever know about. Why waste the hours you have put into your work by sending it to the wrong address, misdirecting the cheque or missing the closing date? And don’t expect the readers to make an exception for you because your story is so good – if the entry breaches the rules, it will probably be sidelined by an administrator before it gets to the readers so your brilliance won’t be discovered.
Don’t trust your computer’s spelling and grammar check. We’ve all heard those hilarious stories – ‘I mis-spelled Gabriel and my computer corrected it to Garfield’, ‘it’s turned burglar into bugger,’ etc. It will give the readers a laugh but not a big enough laugh for your story to win the competition. And if you don’t know how to handle punctuation and capitalization, find out. If you let the computer do it for you, it won’t do it well enough. Readers might take on a story that needs correction but it has to be exceptionally good for them to make those kind of allowances. Why set extra obstacles to your progress?
Don’t use fancy fonts, complicated formats or great new gizmos you’ve just downloaded. Whether you are sending paper or e-copy, the easiest format for most people to handle is a Word document (the file tag should be .doc or .rtf) on standard A4 paper with automatic (not hard) returns at line-ends. Anything else makes extra work and risks annoying (or at worst defeating) the competition administrators.
Creative and Style Points
Look long and hard at your title and first paragraph. Readers have a huge pile of work to consider and although they try to look at each one with equal enthusiasm, it’s hard to stay fresh. All our readers speak with delight of those moments when they start a new story and the opening startles them awake. It’s neat, smooth and original, it entices them to read on…. Is your opening that special?
Now look at the ending. It might be happy, it might be tragic or it might point to untold events in an imagined future but it must leave an impression. Don’t let the story just tail off – the reader will get to the end and instantly forget it.
Try to avoid telling the reader too much. Find a way of getting characters and events to unfold your ideas for you. It is much more fun for readers if you lay a path for them to make their own discoveries. Remember that old line from schooldays – don’t tell me, show me.
Introduce a question in the reader’s mind as soon as you can. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as the ‘whodunit’ of a murder mystery but there must be something to suggest that the reader will discover a treasure if they read on.
Read the direct speech of your characters aloud. Ask yourself if those people would really talk like that. Many stories are rejected because the writer has forced the characters to spool out information in an unnatural way. Make sure you have set out the dialogue in a logical and consistent way. For example, if you start out using double quotes for speech and italics for thought, keep it like that. Changing half way confuses the reader and infuriates the typesetter.
Ask yourself what is unique about your story. If there is nothing in the plot, the characters, the setting or the language itself that you believe is new, you can bet there won’t be anything the judges haven’t seen 50 times over.
If your word-count is near the maximum for the competition, look for opportunities to edit. Where two stories are being compared, the shorter, more tightly edited one is likely to be chosen.
Make sure you know why you are writing the story. It may not have a plot but it must have a point. If you know the point, it will be easier to see where you have wandered off the track. Cut irrelevant paragraphs and keep it clean and focused.
Avoid bashing on about the big topic of the moment unless you really have something new to say or an unusual angle on the topic.
Finally, don’t send work that doesn’t impress you. When you’ve finished your story, put it away for a few weeks then get it out and pretend you’ve never seen it before. Read it because you want to enjoy a good read. If you don’t enjoy it, the judges probably won’t. Be really honest with yourself about this. When you read your work you will either get a sinking feeling and start praying for blind luck (you aren’t going to win) or you will get excited butterflies, thinking this really is a special piece of work (you may well be going to win). If you get the sinking feeling, do yourself a favour. Ask yourself – and your best friends if they are honest – do you lack confidence in yourself or do you have doubts because there are faults in the work? If you suspect it is the latter, do take the time to re-think and re-write. When that cheque and/or that offer of publication come your way, you will be so glad you did.
Now, write that winning story and send it in.
Why not send your next entry to us at Earlyworks Press? We usually have poetry and short fiction competitions running and we set occasional specialist genre competitions and web-based challenges. We are story addicts and we are looking forward to a good read!
Kay Green is editor and competition administrator at Earlyworks Press.
Writer, editor and English teacher, Kay Green is a lifelong lover of story in all its forms. Her collection ‘Jung’s People’ was first published by Elastic Press and is now available through her own small press, which is also a club for the promotion of independent writers and illustrators. The club has an online forum for developing stories and poetry and ‘enclaves’ around the UK where like-minded writers get together for workshopping and discussion, and to organise book fairs and other activities.