As a writer I was unsure what to expect when I was first invited to judge a prose competition. My first thought was to write myself a set of guidelines which would act as a life-raft if I felt overwhelmed. Reading them in hindsight, they seem a little obvious. Yet some of the advice I gave myself still holds good and, supplemented by experience, forms the basis of the following advice for writers intending to enter short story competitions.
- Read the guidelines thoroughly. Don’t start writing until you have understood what is required of you. Have you been asked to write to a theme or, perhaps, respond to a work of art? It’s easy to get carried away with your own ideas but you can waste a lot of time by not giving your subject sufficient thought or planning at the outset. It’s much more difficult – if not impossible – to try and squeeze your work into a pre-set mould after it is written. The story will suffer and you will become demoralised.
- Be sensible. If the word limit is 3,000, then you can bet that is what the judges want. Don’t be tempted to try something radical; for instance, a short piece of 450 words. Judges need to compare like with like. By not using the full word count, you are altering the goalposts. Very short pieces avoid the complexity of maintaining a story’s pace. This will put you at an unfair advantage compared to other entrants who have struggled to write a full-length story. If your work is good, you may make it to the shortlist but it is unlikely that you will win.
- Prepare and research. Original ideas will make your story stand out from the crowd. Think like a journalist and try to get a unique angle on the story that everyone else is covering. Read around the subject, listen to music, look at pictures and photographs to get some inspiration. Think like a method actor and immerse yourself in the subject. Then give yourself some thinking space. Don’t start writing immediately. Just make notes of ideas and themes and work them out in your head before you start to write.
- Sequencing. A logical progression of thought is essential to any piece of writing. Without it, you will quickly lose the reader’s interests. The standard plot format of ‘beginning, middle, end’ is difficult to beat. It lends structure and will help you to track the progress of your story. Contemplative, lyrical prose can also be a winner but it is more difficult to write as it tends to be less structured. Only embark on this looser form if you are confident that you can make it work.
- Scenes. A series of short scenes separated by blank lines can really help to give a story pace. They enable the writer to switch from one place – or time – to another with greater ease and fewer tedious explanatory paragraphs. Scenes are a ‘fix’ for long, rambling chunks of prose and great for action stories. In fact, they can help to leaven most forms of short story. Just don’t overdo the number of scenes. Too many can be counter-productive.
- Character development. The same rules apply to both novels and short stories. Avoid laborious explanations of your characters’ psyche. Rather, drop hints about their character traits through dialogue, their mannerisms and the way they interact with other characters. Remember, no-one in real life comes equipped with a CV unless it is for a job interview. You have to work out real people for yourself. The same applies to fictional characters.
- Descriptive passages. While it is important to set the scene, you will probably need less text than you imagine. A sentence or two is usually sufficient. Don’t waste valuable word-count on long descriptive passages. Avoid excessive use of adjectives. Keeping your text crisp and tight will maintain the pace of your story.
- Don’t be over-ambitious. Remember that you are writing a short story, not a novel. A hugely complicated plot with lots of sub-themes will not fit a limited word count. Aim for subtlety rather than grandeur; the intimacy of a Flemish interior rather than a landscape, water-colours rather than oils. There are various devices that can add texture and shading: humour, irony, pathos, a cliff-hanger, an unexpected twist in the tail. Choose wisely and remember, due to the concentrated nature of short stories, the spotlight will focus relentlessly on the quality and style of your writing.
- Mid-life crisis. Does the middle of your story arc or sag? The mid-way point is a notorious black spot where writers often get lost and lose the plot. It is essential to stay on course, keep the structure tight and maintain pace.
- Edit, edit, edit. This is what separates the winners from the also-rans. Read your story aloud before editing. This will highlight lots of glitches such as plot faults, bad sequencing and duplication. Just changing the order of paragraphs or sentences will often help the flow. Ruthlessly check grammar and spelling. I have read stories that had typos in the first line!
Now all you have to do is find a competition and start writing. Good luck!
I am a novelist, historian and former lawyer. I have written two books: The Devil Dancers, a historical novel set in 1950s Ceylon and Barley Bread and Cheese, a short story collection inspired by Rochester Cathedral. I am currently editing my third book, a historical novel which explores an unusual angle of British history in World War II.
Follow me on Twitter: @T_Thurai