Saturday, 6 February 2010

Writing Competitions and How Not To Shoot Yourself in the Foot

The short story can be as diamond bright as a poem – although it’sKnives Cover often more accessible; it can be as epic as a novel, although it’s a much shorter read. My own first publication was a short story and I have published various short stories among the novels ever since. Last year Iron Press published a collection and this winter - at rest between two novels - I have been gathering another dozen in the hope of another collection.

In addition to this,  for the last fifteen years or so I’ve been involved in sifting, evaluating, adjudicating and  judging short stories entered into competitions by writers hoping to launch their own writing careers. Some writers who have drifted to the top of my various story piles  have gone on to have writing careers; to publish novels; one winning story went on to be a film.

One consistent experience,  as an evaluator faced with a pile of hundreds of 'Short Stories' scripts, is the reassuring certainty that the cream of the writing does generally rise to the stop. The  eye and the mind are  arrested by crisp  imaginative writing,by  innovative notions and by glorious language. They are heartened by powerful renderings of authentic emotion - from pathos to panic, from passion to murderous hatred, from despair to delight – all  in fresh modern prose. Great writing has such qualities stamped through it like Blackpool through rock.

Although the ‘fresh modern prose’ must be a constant, one has to admit that it is rare indeed to find all of the above named qualities in a single text.  But any story that rises to the top of the judging pile will demonstrate at least two or three of these qualities.  And every top class story showcases a unique voice, that story-print that defines any successful writer.

On the other hand, through the years I have been increasingly haunted by potentially talented writers who could end up nearer the top of the pile, but instead they shoot themselves in the foot by submitting their precious stories  in a form and style that stops a judge seeing through the jungle of infelicities to the good story at the core.  There should be no barrier between the  reader and the meaning. A judge ,who should not even have to think about the presentation, has to deal with creased, over-used paper; indistinct, ill photocopied text;  and single-spaced text instead of easy-to-read double spaced text.

In terms of style I’ve been amazed to encounter some highly inspirational writers who don’t have a handle on syntax. Sometimes paragraphs are used as spacers rather than a framework for meaning. I’ve met one or two cases where the writers  just abandoned the problem of paragraphs and presented  their story in Soviet blocks of print.

And I am sympathetic with - but disappointed in  - writers who avoid the vivid and life-giving energy of dialogue and retreat into telling and exposition – to the detriment of both style and story.  Knives PagesThe fact is,  dialogue dresses the page with white space and allows the reader to breathe her or his imagination into your story. It makes them listen as well as read…

I know from my workshops that some new writers struggle with dialogue. However, to  make a story live it is seriously worth studying good modern writers. How do they achieve good dialogue without exposition? How do they breathe sound and life into these speakers.?

Finally a word about themes.  Many – even most - writers dig into their own lives to excavate themes and incidents for their stories. Death, birth, lives in retrospect, love, betrayal in the family- all these themes come up again and again on these piles. Where this works it can be brilliant. However, much that one encounters is very thinly disguised autobiography - as appetising as thin soup.  It’s more akin to therapy than literature. One’s own experience needs to be re-imagined, re-located, objectified and universalised in a  powerful fashion to make it work afresh for others. (This is why some stories based on ‘the child’s eye view’ can  work well – here time, transformation and distance come to the writer’s aid in re-imagining experience).

I think that if some of the good, competent writers who end up in the middle if the pile would take notice of any or all of these points then the possibility that their work might rise to the top in their next competition would be very much enhanced.

Happy writing


PS  Don’t forget to look out for The Woman Who Drew Buildingsthe woman who drew buildings[1]  – Just out in paperback.


  1. What a privilege it must be to be trusted with other people's "babies".
    It must be tremendously hard work as well. Yet, I imagine finding the flash of gold amidst the spoil must be very rewarding.
    On your suggestions about themes. One's own experience may (I suppose will) colour one's writing, but I think a much wider net needs to be cast.

  2. A really generous post Wendy, offering great insights and invaluable advice for all short story writers and all those entering their work for competitions. I agree completely with your observations on the use of dialogue in the short story although I have to admit I hadn't really thought about it until now - I will definitely be taking heed!

    A x

    A x

  3. Wendy: thank you so much for this post, which is chock-full of valuable advice. I'm going to print copies for fellow members of my writing group as several of us are planning to submit short stories to this year's round of literary competitions. I'll let you know how we get on . . .


  4. Dear Al - I am always very respectful of these 'babies' but, as I imply here, everyone should dress their babies in their best to send them out in the world...
    Avril - the new short story project that you described on your blog will, I know, showcase the best of these qualities...
    Dear Boots - how nice it is to be of use to you and your writing friends. Let me know if some good comes from it. Top tip is to read some great stuff - as I know you do. Joyce Carol Oates and Willian Trevor set good models, I think. I reckon your own short stories will have a vivid core...

  5. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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