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How To Win Short Story Writing Contests
SHORT STORY WRITING CONTESTS - How NOT to get eliminated in the first paragraph!
There are literally dozens and dozens of short story writing contests running at any one time. Many of these offer good prizes averaging hundreds and some times thousands of pounds. No wonder short story contests are so popular!
Almost anyone can write a piece of short fiction if they put their minds to it and unfortunately almost any does! This is not meant unkindly, I'm a great believer in having a go at anything, but you do need to take things seriously if you are to reap some success.
I've judged and short listed enough competitions to know that around 80% of entrants to short story contests, (goes for poetry too), shoot themselves in the foot after no more than a couple of paragraphs into the tale! Time and again judges see the same basic errors being made which immediately eliminates the majority of entries. If you're not hitting the short list or getting amongst the prizes these insider tips just might help you to reverse the trend.
Fiction Contest Rules are NOT made to be broken!
Short story contest rules apply to all! Break them at your peril!
Study the rules! Obvious, but surprising how many entries get disregarded for exceeding word count, submitting poetry instead of a short story(!) and sending attachments when it clearly states entries to be submitted online or in the body of an email. Read, read and read again so you thoroughly understand what you need to do and by when! Whenever I enter a short story contest I always underline items such as closing dates, word counts and themes etc.
Short Story Titles
Short story contests DO call for them!
It's amazing how many entries you see in fiction contests that lack titles! It is imperative that your story has a title! It sounds obvious but I've lost count of how many entries I've seen lacking titles which makes it difficult for the organisers to keep track of entries and brands you as a rank amateur. You are also missing out on a very powerful selling point! Provided the rest of the story lives up to expectations, a good, attention, grabbing title will help your story stick in a jaded judge's mind.
A variation of this is using the theme as your story title. A lot of short story contests like to theme their competitions, but they don't expect you to use this as a title! Think what would happen if all the entries had the same title!
What's in a Name?
Quite a lot actually!
When it comes to short story contests names can be the one thing that make or break you! A big mistake made by many short fiction writers is not only the number of characters in the tale, (far too many, 3 max is about right), but they have very similar names which makes it very confusing for the judge. E.g. Maggie and Maddie, that's a bit extreme, but you get the idea. Another howler is when a character acquires a new handle mid story! The last contest I judged had Rosemary changing into Alison during a rather gory murder involving a paddle steamer and a weir!
First ideas, bad ideas!
Your short story must be original
Don't go with your first idea! It's not just great minds that think alike, but the majority of short story writers. This is especially true for a themed short story writing contest. The chances are what initially occurs to you will also strike 90% of all the other entrants. If you must use an obvious story line look for a unique way of telling it.
Beginnings & Endings
Your Short Story Must Hook 'em from the start!
Try to come up with a "hook" beginning. After the title, this is your first big chance to capture a judge's interest. Remember he or she will be wading through dozens of entries and will soon become jaded when presented with the same old themes in slightly different packaging. If you don't know what a hook beginning is you need to do more reading! Many of the classics use this feature with very good effect, remember this from Rebecca? "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley …"
Don't use twist endings unless they work really well. Many a good story or poem has fallen at the last fence through a contrived ending. Get a couple of independent readers to critique for you, fresh eyes will tell you if it works or not. If you are desperate to create a twist ending, think of the ending first and work backwards.
Proof and proof again!
Mistakes eliminate entries
Check for typos, misused words and spelling errors. Entries sprinkled with these will be consigned to the reject pile well before the end is reached. As a writer you are expected to have a good command of your tools, spelling and grammar being the two main ones so don't waste your money by submitting sub-standard work. Put the story away for a few days. You'll be surprised at the improvements you can make when you come back to it.
Will all this make me a winning short story contest writer?
Depends how badly you want to win a short story contest!
I can't make guarantees, I'm afraid! Follow these tips and you'll certainly prevent your entry being ditched after paragraph two, but ultimately you need to come up with a story that really rocks the judge. This will depend on how good your imagination is and your ability as a tale spinner.
There are lots of tips and tricks you can employ to help develop this, but the best advice is to read the stories that win contests. You can do this by researching the competition you are targeting and looking for the previous winning entries. These are often posted on a website or published in an anthology.
If you know of a good short story writing contest that pays cash prizes and publishes the winners either on-line or some other publication share it with us here.