Tips for Short Story Competitions

Just a quickie from me today because I’m trying to do NaNoWriMo and I’m already behind on the wordcount! Eek!

As you probably know, the idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November, which works out at just about 1,667 per day, so that’s what I’ve been aiming to do.

My ‘novel’ (idea-for-a-novel might be more accurate) is historical so I’m having to do a bit of research as I go along (otherwise I’ll just be writing complete twaddle!) That’s my excuse for the slowness, anyway and I’m sticking to it!

Anyone else out there doing NaNoWriMo? How’s it going?

Short Story Competitions – Tips & Tactics

Since my last post, I’ve been to a talk by writer Vanessa Gebbie on ‘tips and tactics’ for entering short story competitions. Vanessa has won and been placed in lots of prestigious short story competitions (eg: the Bridport Prize, which she talks about here ) and she also happens to be the main judge of this year’s Evesham Festival of Words’ short story competition (more of that anon).

‘Word Cricket’

At the start of the session, she asked us to do a ‘word cricket’ exercise (which I’ve subsequently done with my own class and it’s great fun). If you do this with a group yourself, it’s important to state at the beginning that no-one will be asked to read their work aloud (because otherwise they’ll censor what they write or worry about what people will say/think).

The idea is that you’re given a starter phrase (eg: ‘The door creaked open…’ ) and then you ‘free write’ for 10 minutes (ie: don’t take your pen off the page, just write whatever comes into your head, in a stream-of-consciousness way) but at regular intervals, the moderator will ‘bowl’ you a word that you have to insert into the writing immediately, or as quickly as you possibly can.

Our workshop/talk was held in a museum that had a World War I display, so many of the words that Vanessa ‘bowled’ at us, had a military theme (eg: trench, wire, shell) but you can use anything. I was particularly evil with my own class and gave them words like ‘seagull’, ‘balloon’ and ‘tiger’.

At the end of the 10 minutes, when Vanessa asked how that had felt, the words ‘exciting’, ‘liberating’ and ‘fun’ were used. A few people agreed they might have an idea for a story (or a character) and apparently, this technique has been used to generate the first (very rough!) draft of stories that later went on to win prizes.

What are the ‘rules’ for writing a short story?

One of the attendees was clearly new to writing and he asked how to write a short story and for some rules and an explanation of the difference between novels and short stories (phew, how long have you got?!).

‘Read lots of short stories’ was the clear and obvious answer (read lots and see what can be done with the form). But as far as ‘rules’ are concerned, Vanessa’s not keen on them.

I, for example, was always told that you should start a short story as close to the end as possible and that you should have as few characters as you can get away with. But Vanessa wasn’t keen on any of those instructions. There are ‘no rules’, she told us. If you can make it work, then anything goes!

If you’re thinking of entering the Evesham Short Story competition (more details here), here are a couple more things to think about:

Vanessa likes a good title (some of her own story titles are “I can squash the King, Tommo…” and ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’). So, try to think of a good title and start your story with some punchy first lines, that demonstrate a strong, clear voice. In the first few lines of a short story, the reader must be convinced that you, the writer, can tell a story and that reading it is going to be worth five or ten minutes of their precious time.

She also advised anyone sendng a story to a competition, not to leave it to the very last minute (which is what I do!). Why? Because the ‘readers’ (and I’m one this year), will have less time to spend on your story. Many stories are submitted in the final few days of a competition, which puts the readers under pressure to read them and come up with their shortlist. If you send your story in early, then you’re effectively buying more time; more time for your story to be read and considered and, hopefully, put on the ‘possible shortlist’ pile.

Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition

The adult competition costs £5 per entry and closes on 22nd March 2019 (so there’s plenty of time but don’t leave it too late!). There’s a first prize of £150 and runners-up prizes too and as there’s no anthology this year, if your story is placed (or wins), it’s up to you whether or not it appears on the Festival website. If you’d prefer for it not to appear, then of course you’ll be free to do something else with it, as it will be considered ‘unpublished’.

There’s also a junior competition (judged by Ann Evans and open in two categories – 8 – 11 years and 12 – 15 years), which is FREE to enter. We’d love to encourage more junior entries this year, so if you work with children or young adults – or have one yourself, that likes to write – please do consider encouraging them to enter!

Right, end of not-so-short post. And it’s back to the 1940s for me ….

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7 Responses to Tips for Short Story Competitions

  1. Ninette90 says:

    I’m doing NaNoWriMo but, I have only managed 600+ words so far. I’m using it to try and finish my already started (several years ago) novel — tomorrow I will get down to it and try and make up some word count over the next week. Thanks for the competition tips and the exercise idea — I’ll give that a go at the earliest opportunity.

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Good luck with your NaNo-ing, Ninette! Glad you like the exercise! If you haven’t got anyone to shout words at you (apart from ‘We’re out of milk!’ I mean), you can always open a novel at random and just pick the first word your finger lands on!

  2. Linda Tyler says:

    I’m doing Nano – my third year and my third novel. Up to 8700 words so far with the current one.Trying to get into the RNA NWS next year, so please don’t advertise it any further!

    • Helen Yendall says:

      You’re doing well on NaNo, Linda! I won’t mention NWS again!! (although when I was on the recent writing course, one of the tutors, who’s involved with the RNA, she said they had increased the number of NWS places and thought it was about right now – so that most people who want to, will get a place. Don’t quote me though!)

  3. Keith Havers says:

    That word cricket looks good. I’ll give it a try.
    My advice on short story comps is to read the rules carefully and abide by them. Stick to the theme if there is one. If it asks for a short story don’t write an article. If it asks for 1000 words don’t write 1200.

    • Some good tips there, Keith! I’m sure there must be lots of entries to competitions that fall at the first hurdle (here’s another one – putting your name on the story when it’s supposed to be anonymously judged!).

  4. pennywrite says:

    Word Cricket sounds fun! Have enjoyed doing NaNo several times in the past, but this time could not imagine putting in the hours at 5am, so well done you…

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