Short Stories And Stuff

Short Stories

I was surprised to see Iain Pattison scoop first prize in the recent Writers Reign website short story competition. Not because I don’t think he’s a good writer: quite the opposite.

In case you’ve not heard of Iain, he’s the author of ‘Cracking The Short Story Market’ (which I can highly recommend); he often judges short story competitions, runs workshops and courses and, on his website, he’s described as ‘one of the UK’s top experts in the art of crafting and selling short stories’.

So, what am I surprised about? Well, to be honest, that someone of his calibre and experience is entering these sort of short story competitions. (I didn’t enter by the way, so this is not sour grapes!)

When I encourage my students to enter short story competitions (for all the reasons that I listed once before – here), I tell them to avoid the high-profile competitions, like the Bridport, Mslexia or the Asham .

These are prestigious competitions, offering great prizes but the entry fees are steep and they often attract established, published writers. The competition – excuse the pun – will be particularly fierce.

I’ve always told my students they’ve got much more chance with the smaller competitions, that have lower entry fees (Writers Reign’s competition was £3.50 for one story or £6 for two), which offer smaller prizes (first prize was £100, with runners-up getting £50 and £25), which will have fewer entries AND, which won’t attract ‘the big boys’.

But, it seems, I’m wrong.

One of my favourite authors, Kate Atkinson, started her career by winning the 1986 Woman’s Own Short Story Competition.

And another ‘Kate’ – the novelist Kate Long – had success early in her career with short story competitions, which kept her going while she was trying to get a novel published. “It’s possible I might have given up if I hadn’t had that encouragement and validation,” she says in an interview on Morgen Bailey’s site.

In another interview, on Womagwriter’s blog, she admits that she doesn’t feel she can enter short story competitions any more because, “ in my view comps are for giving un-agented writers exposure, to help them make contacts, to give the kind of boost and reassurance I know I appreciated when I was working in an editor-free void.”

I’m inclined to agree with her. But what d’you think? Are all short story competitions ‘fair game’ for anyone who wants to enter? Or should the more successful writers ‘play fair’, concentrate on the bigger competitions but steer clear of the smaller ones – and give the rest of us a chance?!


I can’t believe a whole week’s gone by but, since my last post:

– My Dad’s been in hospital having a hip replacement op. This has caused – and is still causing – STRESS! It’s hard to write anything when your mind is elsewhere. I’m sure you understand.
– The builders have started work on our house. They are currently demolishing the roof to put in a new window. I am making tea. Lots of it.
– I’ve now got 198 followers! Yippeee. I only need two more, to get to the magical 200 and then I’ll be running another free writing competition, so watch this space…

This entry was posted in Blogging, Competitions, Short Stories, Successes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Short Stories And Stuff

  1. Bernadette says:

    Hi Helen
    This is a tricky question that has been discussed before and the range of views seems to vary enormously. I’ve also been surprised at times to see what I consider to be well known names in competition listings
    The problem I see is where you would draw the line. Other people’s views on how ‘successful’ people are from the outside could be different from how a writer views themselves. For example, I’ve had quite a few stories published, and still enter some comps. You are a writing tutor yourself, as well as your publications, and still enter some comps. Other people might look at us and think that we should be excluding ourselves. I don’t know Iain, though I know of him, as you do. Maybe he sees this as a valid market for his work, as you or I might.
    And the markets are so slim these days that any opportunity for paid publication has to be considered.
    So my view is, if the comp is open to published writers, then it’s open. If a writer is happy to enter a comp for the prize money/publication on offer, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t. If a comp wants to encourage new talent then it should exclude whatever category of people it deems fit. And I do think it will still be the case that the less prestigious/lower prize comps will certainly be less likely to attract many of the more succesful writers, who may feel it is either inappropriate or not worth their while to enter, so the advice to your students will still hold good.
    It will be interesting to see what other people’s views are – and whether it makes me feel that I need to amend my own competition entry policy!

    • Yes, it’s an interesting topic, Bernadette and thanks for your comments. In many ways I’m sure you’re right. If a competition is ‘open’ then it’s open to all and may the best man or woman win. The only thing I’ll add about my being a tutor and also entering competitions is that I would never enter a competition which I’ve actively flagged with my students and encouraged them to enter (eg: sometimes I find local or ‘smaller’ competitions, linked to literary festivals or local papers, which I flag with them. I steer clear of entering those myself, as it wouldn’t seem ‘ethical’ somehow).


  2. morgenbailey says:

    Thank you very much for the mention. Kate Atkinson’s also one of my favourite authors (I’m working up the courage to invite her to an interview)… and would love to grill… er, chat with you, Helen. 🙂

    • Morgen
      That might be fun, although I’m sure you’ve got some more interesting and successful writers to grill/chat to before you get to me!!

      • morgenbailey says:

        Hi Helen. I interview a real variety from household names to debut authors, and some unpublished but the interviews (and author spotlights) are one-offs so I always recommend that an author has something to plug… er, for sale. 🙂 Would be good to have you. My only pre-requisite is that someone writes and you (and your readers by the looks of it) definitely fall into that category. 🙂

        My email is if anyone reading this is interested. There are plenty of opportunities (as well as the interviews / spotlights, there’s guest blogging, flash fiction, poetry and loads of info. – comps / submissions etc) and it’s all free. 🙂

        Morgen with an e

      • morgenbailey says:

        PS… I already knew your name, by the way – I have two of your stories: ‘Maureen the musketeer’ and ‘A long haul ‘. 🙂

  3. Hi Helen, I enter competitions, and do quite well as I haven’t yet had a womag story accepted. I do have stories accepted, and I consider myself to be quite good, but if I were in a position where I had regular stories published, I’d back off from the competitions. It’s a personal choice, but it’s a bit pushy I think, then again if you’re good enough and bold enough! I saw Iain’s name and thought ‘that’s a bit odd’ then again, he’s proving that we should read his book and learn maybe? Hope you’re Dad gets better soon. My Mum came home from hospital today as well, and is getting better.

  4. spabbygirl says:

    I agree with you, it’s a bit like an Olympic gold winner entering a local running contest and winning, it doesn’t put them in a very good light. I know his book is a good book, I’ve read it, but if you’ve witten a book which says you’re an expert, professional, then it’s a bit pushy to enter a win a small competition. It does him no credit. Hopefully competition organisers will remember that and put in a clause to avoid that sort of thing in the future. I hope you’re dad is ok now.

    • I’m not suggesting that there are rules to stop certain people entering – I think that would all get messy and a bit silly. It’s just that I’d expect some people to ‘self exclude’, if that makes sense!

  5. As long as the writer is within the rules then I don’t think it’s unfair of established writers to enter competitions. Some comps are designed to encourage new talent and the rules will make sure that happens. Other competitions have different aims in mind.

    Just because a person has sold a few (or a lot) of short stories or had books published doesn’t mean they don’t want to win prizes or that they don’t need to find other ways to make money. I don’t think anyone would suggest a novelist shouldn’t also try to sell short stories or that someone who has been published in one magazine shouldn’t also try to get into others even though in these cases being a name might be of benefit whereas with most competitions being judged anonymously the established writer’s work (and everyone else’s) will be judged entirely on its merits.

  6. Thanks for another informative and thought provoking post. I don’t have a strong opinion myself on this topic, all the above comments resonated with me to an extent. Wish I could add to your follows (as it is I’m already following!) to push you over the magic 200 – bring on the competition – hooray! Ummm, is Iain allowed to enter yours?! Smiles, Harula xxx

    • Of course Iain would be allowed to enter!! As I shortlist and then get someone else to choose the overall winners, it could happen! Would serve me right, wouldn’t it? And, talking of numbers of followers, I had to laugh tonight, as I spotted that, following my last post, someone’s UNSUBSCRIBED, so now I only have 197 ‘followers’!

  7. KH says:

    Hi Helen – thanks for all the info. I hope your Dad is on the mend and your stress levels start to fall. It’s awful when the people we love are not as fit or well as we’d wish them to be so good thoughts to you and your Dad. With regard to the entering of competitions I too would have thought that those who are well published would steer clear of the smaller competitions. It would be interesting to know though how many of the lower prize competitions Iain has entered and been unsuccessful in because a less published writer has won the judges approval. Good wishes KH

    • KH – hmm, that would be interesting, I agree (to know if this was just a ‘one off’ or if Iain regularly enters all the comps). I’m starting to feel a bit guilty – I hope his ears aren’t burning!!

  8. Tracy Fells says:

    Hmm this is a difficult topic. It would be good to know why Ian Pattison entered a small comp in the first place & I guess we’re assuming it’s the same Ian P who also judges comps (could be a coincidence on names…). My own personal rule is if I come first in a comp then I don’t enter it again – as it can be galling to keep seeing the same names win the same competitions over and over. But I also enter the big comps, because you never know! Hope your life stresses begin to calm soon and I’m sure you’ll hit 200 followers. You get a mention in my Writing Magazine article on entering competitions – it will be in the comp special issued early Oct so do look out for it 🙂

    • Tracy It is the same Iain Pattison – it’s listed on his website as a win, and fair enough, I suppose. He’s entitled to celebrate his success. Maybe we are judging him too harshly. It’s not easy to win a short story competition, as we all know (I’ve only won one, ever and it wasn’t a particularly prestigious one) so maybe he has just the same struggles as the rest of us and is just as surprised and delighted if one of his stories is picked as a winner? I don’t know – I think I have confused myself now!!


  9. Thanks for that Helen. It’s a subject that’s also come up in the writing classes I help run. It’s interesting that you should mention Iain as I thought the same thing when he came second in a recent competition in which I came third. Not sour grapes either, but just a brief ‘is that allowed when he’s so well published?’ However, where do you draw the line? I’ve had other comp successes and had stories published in women’s magazines. Should I exclude myself from smaller competitions? Personally I don’t feel ‘successful’ enough for that, but others might disagree. Comps might stipulate (and sometimes do) that you can’t have been published at all to enter. That can be annoying too. There certainly isn’t an easy solution.

    Hope your dad’s well soon.

    • Thanks Francesca.

      I don’t want to see anyone excluded from competitions and, as you say, where do you draw the line anyway? I don’t consider myself ‘successful’ enough either, to exclude myself from competitions, although I suppose compared to someone who’s never had anything published, then I am. I think all I’m saying is that there are lots of short story competitions around and if you’re a well-known/published/successful writer then it seems only fair to not enter the very small ones, which are likely to attract the more novice writers. But that’s only my humble opinion – I know lots of people don’t agree.



  10. Elaine Everest says:

    Hi Helen,
    An interesting conversation and something that crops up in other competitives arenas. I’m involved in the dog showing world and we have the problem of champion dogs being entered when to be honest the owners should step back and allow newcomers and youngster take a turn – if they are of suitable quality of course. We also have different classes so perhaps this is the way forward with writing competitions? Instead of one ‘open’ comp there could be one for those who have not yet won a first prize and a second class for those who have a first prize in an open competition? It is something we may look at when we have another competition at The Write Place.

    • Elaine that sounds like a good idea (different classes). Entering – and hopefully being placed or at least shortlisted – competitions is one of the few ways that beginners or novice writers can get some idea of their progress or whether what they’re writing is any good, so it’s a shame if they stand no chance due to the ‘professionals’!


  11. Carol says:

    Hi Helen, I’ve only just come across your website and this is a very interesting topic. As a very newbie writer, and one who has had no success with short stories, it can make you feel like you’re pushing water up hill when you are competing against successful writers. However an ‘open’ competition is what it says ‘open to all’. I would like to see some competitions which are aimed at new and unpublished writers, this would be helpful and perhaps more encouraging. Otherwise we have to keep trying maybe one day push that water to the top of the hill.

    • Carol, very true – and I don’t think there are many (any?) comps aimed at newbies or those who’ve never been published. As you’ll see from Elaine’s comment, she’s thinking about having a newbie category for the next competition that she runs on the Write Place’s website, so that might be worth keeping an eye on.
      When I get up to 200 followers, I’ll be running another small free writing competition and I think I’ll do something so that there’s separate judging/prizes for those who’ve been published and those who haven’t, as there’s clearly a ‘need’! So keep your eye on my blog too!

  12. As a novelist, I’m amazed that professional writers have the time to write for and then enter short story competitions! Unless they are simply entering stories that they have ‘lying around’, in which case I’d favour the ‘short story with a theme’ method of weeding them out!
    But if the competition is ‘open’ then it’s ‘open’, you enter and you take your chance. Don’t some of the writing magazines have competitions specifically for the newbie or those who have never won a competition?

    • Jane
      the answer is, in short – no! Sometimes I spot a competition that’s only open to non-published writers but they are few and far between! If I spot any, I’ll make a point of posting them on the blog.

      • Bernadette says:

        This one is for writers who’ve had no more than two stories professionally published (and isn’t as regional as it sounds!).
        This one has a New Writers contest a few times a year (but is quite literary) for people who haven’t published anything in a publication with a circulation of more than 5000. (Apologies if the links don’t go linky, but you can cut and paste).
        There probably are others, if you look for them.

        The comments have been very interesting overall and I certainly think having more comps for ‘unpublished’ writers (however you define it) is a good idea. The Woman’s Own comp used to also state that you couldn’t enter if you’ve had more than two things published, though I don’t know if they still say that – or even if they still run it!

      • Thanks Bernadette, that’s really useful. And yes, your links did go linky! Hurrah!

    • morgenbailey says:

      Hi Jane
      I hope you’re well and look forward to seeing you next month at I’ll be doing an eBook workshop during your reading (not in the same room, I hasten to add!) so I won’t get to listen to it but I’m sure we’ll see each other before / after. I’ll be free in time for your signing. 🙂
      Anyway, to add to earlier comments, the place that leaps out to me is The New Writer magazine that champions new writers and is very active on Twitter (@thenewwritermag). I did a blurb about them recently:
      Morgen x

  13. Pingback: Hysterical writers competition « Where do you get your ideas?

  14. Debbie W says:

    Hello Helen, this is an interesting point to raise. You may or may not be aware of Erewash Writers’ Group competition website

    We are currently running two free entry competitions and these close 8th November. One of our competitions has two categories of entry ie two age groups.

    We recently held our first competition open to entries from outside the group. It attracted all levels of writer from complete newbies to the professional. One of the successful entrants, their story chosen by our judge Keith ‘Carrot Nappers’ Large, told me they’d never even entered a writing competition before.

    I think it’s a good thing any writer will want to join in with a competition, whatever their experience and ability. In my opinion that’s what competitions are there for, to encourage us all to write and to give everyone an outlet for our short stories and other works. They’re also fun as they provide deadlines to work to and in some cases, themes to challenge us.

    Although one of our current competitions is already categorised so that entries from children will not be judged in competition with adult entries, we will consider this point you have raised when organising our future competitions.

    If I may add, we are in the process of putting a call out to seek a judge for an open competition we intend to hold in 2013. We are also seeking judges for mini competitions. At present, we are delighted Rosalie Warren author of ‘Coping with Chloe’ is judging one of our free entry competitions. If anyone reading this knows of anyone suitably qualified, please will they email Debbie at to register their interest.

    Best wishes,
    Debbie W

  15. PhilippaB says:

    I’ve just discovered your very sympathetic blog (and have signed up as a “follower”), hence the late reply to the post: you raise a very interesting question, and one that poses a real dilemma. As a (so far!) unpublished writer, it does sometimes feel that you’re up against Olympic medalists – to use spabbygirl’s metaphor – with not a hope in hell of outrunning them, though it doesn’t stop me trying! (Eternal optimist.) I think the path you’ve taken with the random word competition (which I’m looking forward to tackling!) is the way to go, offering a category specifically for new writers. Surely the big competitions attract enough revenue/have the organisational capacity to be able to do the same?

  16. Christine Steenfeldt says:

    Hi- I read your letter on this subject in Writer’s Forum and was curious to know who the published author was. I found your blog and have just found this post so now I know! Having read all of the previous posts, it’s clear that there is no definitive answer as to whether established writers should exclude themselves from the smaller, less prestigious competitions. I recently had a story shortlisted for a flash fiction competition and saw that I was in good company as Della Galton had a story also shortlisted. Whilst I was surprised that she had entered, being what I would consider an established author and authority on the short story, I was nevertheless, heartened and gratified to know I had written something considered to be on a par with one of her stories. The one comment I would like to make is that imagine how Iain P would have felt had he only been shortlisted so that his name was out there as having failed at something he is considered to be an expert on! By the way, am I allowed to say that I thought the story in question somewhat pedestrian and the ending predictable?
    I’m enjoying your blog by the way and so glad I happened upon it!

  17. Christine Steenfeldt says:

    Have you seen this month’s copy of Writer’s Forum? Some lively debate on the subject! Well, two letters! But good to know your letter sparked a reaction.

    • Hmm, yes Christine, have just read them! Thanks to Debbie for the support. Clearly ‘Jan Cook’ has taken something of a dislike to me (I’m putting it in inverted commas because I’m not actually convinced that’s the person’s real name!!) BUT she didn’t actually understand what I was saying. I wasn’t saying that it was wrong for writers with any kind of publishing record to enter competitions – I was pointing out that I felt it was only right for more successful writers to avoid those SMALL COMPETITIONS that are clearly aimed at beginners or novice writers! Handbags at dawn or what?! 🙂

      • Christine Steenfeldt says:

        I take your point and agree with you. Always good to get people talking and debating though!

  18. Pingback: Morgen’s Saturday Shout-out 001 « Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog

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