Outlet Publishing and their team have kindly asked me to help judge their short story competition, and even though I haven’t written a short story myself, yet, and I’m certainly no expert. I am an avid reader and I have been through the writing and publication process, so I do feel in my humble opinion that I have a basic understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
Over the past two months I have read dozens of entries written by young, hopeful candidates. Some have been very good, others not so, but as the entries have been piling up around me I have noticed similarities and reoccurring patterns. The same mistakes have been cropping up again and again, and there appears to be a preference towards particular genres and themes. The latter is neither strictly bad nor good, but the former is most definitely bad. With this in mind, I am going to share with you some insight into what I feel short story competition judges are looking for, and hopefully help you and your short stories shoot to the top of the winning pile.
Tip Number 1: Read The Rules.
This may seem obvious, but make sure you read the competition’s specifications, rules and guidelines. I don’t know if it was because candidates couldn’t be bothered to read the rules or if they simply misread them, but a couple of the short story submissions I have recently received didn’t sit within the required word count. Judges may be able to forgive a word count that falls 10% above or below the maximum and minimum requirement, but if your story is more than 10% above or below then don’t submit it. Also, some competitions state a specific age range or country of residence, so make sure you read everything carefully before submitting your work.
Tip Number 2: Quality Over Quantity.
The rules of the short story competition may state a minimum and maximum word count, but as I have recently discovered, just because a story is longer doesn’t mean it is necessarily better. In fact, most of the stories that have stood out to me so far have had a word count between the lower and middle range of the scale. That is not to say that you need to heavily edit your story if it hovers somewhere near the maximum word count, but if your story is longer then you need to seriously consider if everything you have written is absolutely necessary and paramount to your story. Keep in mind that a lot of judges, myself included, will be reading dozens if not hundreds and thousands of potential entries. After reading a number of entries one after the other, I have to say the slightly shorter stories tend to make me smile more than the longer ones. So unless your story is truly magnificent and you are 100% confident that it will hold the reader’s interest, you may want to look over it again and see what you can edit.
Tip Number 3: A Positive Resolution.
Your ending doesn’t have to be all rainbows and butterflies, but having even the tiniest bit of hope or positivity at the end of your short story is better than having a downright negative, depressing one, or one with no resolution whatsoever. This is particularly important if you’re writing a story that sits within the horror or thriller genres. There is no problem with writing a scary story, but if it ends on a dark note it is unlikely to sit well within the reader’s mind. As I was judging the short stories, I found that even the darkest stories were great to read and possible contenders for first place as long as they had some sort of hope or positive spin at the end.
Tip Number 4: Avoid Too Much Gore And Death.
Maybe it is just me, but I have found that an awful lot of entries seem to be about someone who has died, someone dying, or someone who is about to be murdered. As much as this can create tense and exciting stories quickly, which I understand is a must with short stories; it is also pretty depressing and sometimes disturbing. I know that some people love reading about creepy monsters and murderous psychopaths, but you’re giving me nightmares guys! Instead of thinking what a great story your entry was, I’m still scarred and thinking about how poor Jane and Bill had their entrails ripped out in all it’s bloody, gory detail. It is an immediate turn off, especially when the ending seems to go nowhere and hasn’t got the slightest whiff of positivity. I want to have some faith in the knowledge that despite poor Jane and Bill’s demise, the evil antagonist is going to get caught or at least receive some sort of recompense, even if you tease me with the idea at the end. This isn’t strictly a rule to follow but perhaps something to think about before you start writing.
Tip Number 5: Surprise Me.
Short stories that surprise me are going to grab my attention and are the ones I struggle to second-guess. I recently read a short story where the writer had managed to disguise the biological sex of one of their characters. It was clever and it definitely had me singing praises for the writer. If you can surprise your reader with something that is still relevant to your story then your work will immediately stand out. It gives your story that extra something that may just set it apart from the other entries.
Tip Number 6: Be Careful Using Literary Terms & Expressions.
I am guilty here, I have done this, I have done all of this. Whilst I have been reading through the many entries, I have been asked to look out for use of metaphors, alliteration, idioms, etc. You need to be careful here as you don’t want to overuse literary terms and as much as we want to see them, we don’t need to see hundreds dotted unnecessarily throughout your piece. Unless it is absolutely crucial to your story, avoid clichés (e.g. fit as a fiddle or bat out of hell). Judges are looking for originality, but they’re also looking for clever, talented writing. So if you can come up with an original literary term or expression, then use it. If you’re unsure about whether your words may be clichéd or not, then make sure you do your research before submitting your work. If you can’t think of anything original then steer clear of literary terms and expressions and just focus on the story.
Tip Number 7: Make Me Laugh.
It is hard to try and make your reader laugh as every reader is different and you can’t possibly cater for every person’s sense of humour. However, if your short story has some sort of comical aspect and manages to draw out a chuckle, then it is sure to stick in my mind. Judges will look back at your work with fondness and will remember the stories that make them smile or laugh; it might just be enough to make your work shine out above the rest.
Tip Number 8: Smash That First Line & Paragraph.
You want to please the judges and hook your reader? Then it is important to get the first line and paragraph right. Do not start with ‘my name is…’ it is boring. As long as your opening line and paragraph grabs the reader’s attention then readers are happy to discover details about your characters later, including their names. The best way to grab a reader’s attention is by having some sort of action or event happening in your first paragraph. My advice is, write so the reader will want to continue reading and find out what is going on.
Tip Number 9: Satisfy The Reader.
This tip is probably the most difficult to achieve and is similar to tip number 3, you need to satisfy the reader. Short stories are notoriously difficult to write because you have to build characters, a world, and fit a story into a limited amount of words. Not only do you have to do this, but the better short stories tend to have some sort of point or meaning. If your story is just weird or ends with no real conclusion or point, it is not going to satisfy the reader. Think about what you’re trying to get across to the reader with your story, what do you want them to think and feel at the end?
Tip Number 10: Check Your Work.
It is the most frustrating thing in the world for a reader, particularly when you’re judging stories for a competition, to come across spelling mistakes, typos and missing punctuation. Even the best short stories I have read so far have had a couple of errors, and as much as judges may be able to excuse one or two errors, any more than that and you’re seriously damaging your chances at winning a prize, let alone wining first place. Please check your work for errors, and check it more than once and even get a friend or relative to check for mistakes too. Once you’ve submitted your work, that is it, you can’t take it back and make corrections later.
I hope that some of you have found these tips useful, if you have any suggestions or additional words of advice then please feel free to add them in the comments below. Also, if you’re a UK resident between the age of 16-25, then you’re running out of time to submit an entry to Outlet Publishing’s Young Writer’s Short Story Competition. The closing date is February the 28th 2017, there are no hidden fees and first prize is £150. Click here to find out more.
I would also like to remind you that Westwood Books of Sedbergh are giving 50p to all customers who purchase books from their second hand bookshop during the month of January 2017. There is only a week left, so if you’re making a trip North, up the M6, then make sure to stop at Sedbergh.