Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Winning story competitions

The Judges' PoV

Time - In 2014 the Bristol Story competition attracted over 2,500 entries. The Bridport receives over 6,000. If one person read all those stories it would take them several months. In practise the task is often shared, and not all the stories are read from start to finish, but it's still a lot of work, so judges will seek any excuse to reject a piece. Don't make it easy for them.

  • Easiest is to reject a piece because the author failed to follow the instructions. In my limited experience it's not unusual for 10% of entries to be eliminated for this reason.
  • Many other stories fail because the first and last paragraphs/pages aren't good enough. Not infrequently the judges only read that much of a story - in many cases they don't need to read any more than that.

Boredom - It's a relief to find something a bit different to relieve the grind of reading dozens of competent stories.

Reputation - Judges don't want to damage their own reputation (presumably they want to judge again). Equally the competition organisers want people to enter in subsequent years. So the choice of winners need to be convincing to the kind of people who enter such competitions.

Judges' Reports

Online reports often point out common subject matter (if you write about the death of old parents, expect competition from similar stories) and lack of a turn (or a change in the main character) as reasons for competent stories not winning prizes.

Your PoV

Judging is usually a two-stage process - a short-list is generated, then winners are chosen. In some ways it's similar to applying for a job - first you fill in the application form making sure that you don't make silly mistakes. The aim is to survive the first cull. Only if you get an interview can you begin to be individualistic.

Although the first prize is likely to go to a standard story, there's scope for diversity if there are several prizes, especially if an anthology is being produced. A variety of styles will enhance the judge's reputation and will encourage further entries in future years. So you might enter a piece aiming for the anthology rather than the first prize.

The judges are likely to be able to appreciate a wider range of styles than those they write in, but don't expect too much generosity if you send an avant-garde piece in.

Your story

The simple guidelines on how to write an effective short story apply, only moreso - an eye-catching title, a character one can empathise with, a paraphrasable plot, a single PoV. First-person narratives are recommended (in the "MsLexia" article, Jill Dawson is quoted as saying that "It’s no coincidence that the top prizewinning stories were all written in the first person"), adding at least one strange character helps, and you needn't fear that dramatic life events will appear melodramatic.

How many stories?

Given the chance element, perhaps it's worth entering more than one entry. In the "Writers Write" article Alex Keegan says "For most competitions I enter at least three stories, and so often it's my third-string, the one I perceive as weaker which brings home the bacon".

Where to send them

Three places to look for UK and some non-UK options are

Other articles

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