Competitions are a way to develop your skills as well as a source of inspiration.
Plenty to Choose From
There are masses of writing competitions; from the questionable ‘ads’ asking for entry fees but not mentioning judges or prizes, to the internationally prestigious big winnings like The Bridport Prize. This attracts thousands of established writers worldwide; all most of us are likely to gain is the thrill of addressing the envelope with our entries quivering inside.
But the middle ground provides plenty of contests offered by reputable organisations up front with details of past winners, current judges, and reasonable prize money without profiteering on entry fees. And it’s essential to research previous winning stories and judges to get the tenor of the competition – it’s a waste of time to submit a tale of fluttering romantic delights if they want the pounding heart of darkness.
More to gain than prize money
Three other criteria I use to select a favourite competition are that it:
* runs several times a year; this gives me more opportunities to improve my story writing, and I don’t have to wait a whole year to be luckier next time.
* offers optional critiques; these are a real treasure and usually at excellent rates. I check it is not just a tick-list but an adequate critique that gives me plenty to work on. Very few competitions offer this service.
* publishes winning and short-listed stories as well as awarding cash prizes. I’m old fashioned enough to prefer print anthologies or magazines, something to prop against the milk jug in the morning, but if other criteria are met, I’ll go with the online version.
My top three competitions
(1) Flash fiction is a genre in its own right. The Flash500 on-line competition was started in 2010 and has become extremely popular, receiving several hundred entries from 40 or more countries for each contest. It runs quarterly with a different judge each time. Optional individual critiques cost £10. Lorraine Mace’s eagle-eyed critique includes a full-page feedback on plot, characters, structure etc, and detailed editorial comments using Word’s ‘track changes’ programme. The most thorough entry critique I have found.
And prizes begin at £300. Writing a complete story in just 500 words stretches your powers of imagery and precision. Why not take up the challenge? Full details on www.flash500.com
Flash500 publishes winning stories and judge’s reports on its own web site and in the ezine Words With Jam – the best-kept media secret; subscribe online, it’s absolutely free and crammed to the margins with tips, humour and inside stories on writing and writers (www.wordswithjam.co.uk ).
(2) Writer’s Forum is a UK, monthly quality magazine for writers of all genre, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. It is available on subscription or in newsagents; I even saw one recently on the shelf in the Far North of New Zealand, so it can’t be hard to find. They have a monthly competition for short stories of any genre from 1000-3000 words, and an optional full-page critique. This is exceptional value for a constructive, individual verdict from the bench.
The magazine publishes three winners in the next issue with a detailed write-up by judge. These stories and the comments are a rich source of critical insights on storytelling. Entry is continuous – if a story is too late for one issue it’s carried through to the next, no sweating over deadlines. Further details are on their website www.writers-forum.com
(3) Cinnamon Press, an independent small publisher in the UK, runs an innovative range of story and poetry competitions each year for writers anywhere, and some are free to enter. In different schemes they award cash prizes, or free places on a mentoring programme, and publish winning stories and top runners-up in an anthology. Competition details may change, so it is advisable to check their website: www.cinnamonpress.com
You never know where a short story competition might lead. When award winning author, Julian Barnes, entered a Times ghost story competition in 1974, his winning entry was picked up by Jonathon Cape and became his first novel, Metroland.
But for your story to win it must reach the judge; not be binned by one of the sheriffs because it doesn’t comply with the rules. One of the commonest reasons for disqualifying a story is exceeding the word count. Magazine fiction editors normally allow up to 50 words over their word count guidelines – they will edit the story anyway. Competitions don’t.
I asked Lorraine Mace about this, she said, “The story would be disqualified even if it was a single word over the allotted count. It’s a question of fairness to all entrants. The rules are there to ensure that everyone is competing on equal terms.” So check the word count carefully. With Flash 500 the word count excludes the title: in other competitions it might not.
Another regular transgression Lorraine pointed out was authors putting their names on the manuscript. Most writing competitions are judged anonymously – again, for fairness. If an author can be identified on the manuscript, it doesn’t get passed to the judge.
Sue Moorcroft, author and competition judge from Writers Forum, made a comment on three winning stories that provides excellent advice on how to write a winning story: “They’re beautifully written, making them effortless to read. To achieve effortlessness takes a lot of effort! To combine it with the storyteller’s talent of keeping revelations to the finale is a winning combination.”
I hope you feel inspired to try some of these competitions or find others that suit you, and stretch your talent. Good Luck!
Trish Nicholson is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, a global history of storytelling dedicated “To all who love story, wherever you are.” You can read the background to the book here
And read a review here