Competition writing

Okay, so you’ve had a go at writing a short story … or perhaps you haven’t.
Whether you have experience or not is of little consequence when it comes to writing a short story for a competition, right?

Wrong.

If you’d never trained for it, would you try to swim across the English Channel, which is a distance of approximately 22 miles?

If you’d never trained for it, would you attempt to run a marathon, which is a distance of approximately 26 miles?

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I know that my two examples might sound extreme when compared to writing a short story, but my point is simple – there are few competitive things we should attempt without training, or at least some experience.

How hard can it be?

Let’s look at a handful of the reasons that some stories get thrown away by the judges without ever being read – no matter how brilliant the stories might be.

Breaking the rules:

1. Handwritten entry, when it should be typed.
2. Single-spacing, when it should be double-spacing.
3. Use of fancy fonts, when the rules state Times New Roman only.
4. Exceeding the word count.
5. Personal details on the manuscript – when they should be supplied separately.

The list of rules can be long or short depending on the particular competition, but the important point is, to follow the rules.

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Competitions come with a variety of guidelines for entrants, so let’s have a look at some typical competition ideas.

1. A themed competition is a popular one, for example:
a) Marriage
b) Nature
c) Fear
d) Celebration

2. It might be a phrase, for example:
a) A day at the seaside
b) A driving lesson
c) A first date experience
d) Your worst nightmare

3. You might be given the opening sentence, for example:
a) “I told you not to load the gun before we left the truck.”
b) Jason turned and looked at the source of the noise, but couldn’t believe his eyes.
c) Catherine climbed onto the rocks exhausted.
d) Gerry had never been compelled to use his weapon in a live situation.

4. Perhaps you are given a closing sentence, for example:
a) Harry held the girl close, but it was he who cried.
b) “I’ll be off home then,” Ted said.
c) The boat slipped under the surface.
d) “Thank you,” Harriet said, and her eyes closed.

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There are thankfully plenty of opportunities to enter competitions where there are no set subjects, themes, genre or styles, although word count will usually be stipulated.

What can be won in a writing competition?
The answer to that question is as varied as the competitions.

Let’s look at some examples:

1. Publication in a magazine.
2. A cash prize for the first three placed stories.
3. Flights or holidays.
4. Inclusion in an anthology.
5. A free writing course.

There are many more prizes but generally, if you make sufficient effort with your entry and you follow all the rules and guidelines – you will get something out of the deal.
I’ve won entry in an anthology in a national competition, and I’ve won cash in an international competition. Coming to think of it, I think I’ll have to enter another soon.

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When entering a competition I would suggest that you check the date and give yourself a minimum of four weeks to produce and send your entry. Let’s take an example of a story being entered with four week’s notice.

Make a note of:

1. Submission date.
2. Payment required (if any), and how it should be paid.
3. Word count parameters. It is usually either a maximum or a minumum and maximum, but it will be clearly stated.                     For example: ‘entries must be no more than … words.’ or, ‘entries must be between … and … words.’
4. Note any compulsory target area; opening line, closing line, theme, genre, subject, etc.
5. Font, line spacing, page numbering method, one-side of page, two-sides of page.
6. Personal details and story details on separate sheet.
7. Date of competition result being made public.

Why do I suggest a minimum of four weeks to complete the entry?

1. At the earliest opportunity start writing story ideas. I don’t mean titles, because although the title is important, it’s not as important as getting the job started early.

2. If possible, get a first draft written within a week of the decision to enter.

3. Note the word count beside the working title, save the story and leave it aside.

4. At the earliest – don’t get the story out again for at least three days.

5. Print the document so that you can edit on hard copy. This allows you to circle words, sentences, paragraphs, etc, or delete them with a red line. I advocate this method because you can then change your mind when you re-read the amendments. You might want to keep a line or paragraph, but move its position within the story.

6. The ‘hook’ is a key part of a short story. That is the line, phrase or dialogue that ‘captures’ the reader’s (or judge’s) imagination. I aim to have a hook within the first 30 words. When I perform each edit I examine the story to see if I might have a line somewhere else in there that might make a better hook.

7. Never settle for your first choice of title. Give your story a ‘working title’ so that you can get started, but a good habit I’ve found is to maintain a ‘shortlist’ of titles. In the final editing stages I am more critical of the manuscript, but I also know it more intimately and that is when the right title will stand out from the others.

8. As with all creative writing – ensure the final drafts are printed before editing, and read aloud, keeping a (red) pen handy for amendments.

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Among other general points it’s useful to remember that you should never copy all or part of another author’s work. If you wanted to push the boundaries and it worked for your story, you might use a quote from Shakespeare or similar, but even within a short story, my advice would be to follow it with something like, ‘as Shakespeare once wrote ….’

The best policy is to avoid quoting anybody, or from anywhere else.

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No guide would be complete without a short list of ‘do not’ example, so:

1. Do not dig up an old story that you’ve always hoped to adapt for a competition.
2. Do not try to shorten something else or take an excerpt from a longer piece.
3. Do not use your story as a platform to rant, or preach.
4. Do not send an entry that looks tattered or less than presentable standard.
5. Do not use one of the many cliché endings. Two examples:
a) he woke up and it was all a dream.
b) any fairly obvious twist in the tale.

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To summarise on the subject of short story writing for competitions here is a very short list of reminders:

1. Read and obey all of the rules.
2. Write your first draft as early as possible before the cut-off date.
3. Never, ever copy somebody else’s work.
4. Do not use the same story anywhere else until you know if you’ve been successful.
5. Remember to enclose or make your online payment if required.

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This is a general guide to entering short story competitions, but if you’re not too sure about the ingredients and principles of writing a short story you’ll find it on my main menu. Writing Tips Writing a Short Story.

I hope this has been of some assistance to you and you feel ready to take the plunge.

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One comment on “Competition writing

  1. Pingback: Change is … Refreshing | Tom Benson - Creative

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