Behind the scenes at the short story competition

cathedral                                                                   Wells Cathedral

 

Wells Festival of Literature is almost here and I’m judging the short story competition, so this seems as good a time as any for a post on competition entries.

It’s always a fascinating experience and a privilege to read so many people’s creative offerings.  At the same time, when you’ve judged or sifted for a few competitions,  you begin to notice that many entrants lose out – spoil their own chances, in fact – in ways that could be avoided.  So here, for what it’s worth, is my entirely subjective take on how to avoid these pitfalls.  (If you read this with incredulity because you would never make any such mistake, all I can say is:  Bravo!  May your thoughtful approach be rewarded soon – if it hasn’t been already.)  First, though, let’s look at what you can’t influence, commonly known as:

Luck

In 2016 a short story of mine was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Wonderful, said my friends. Shortlisted for the Bridport – well done! There’s something most of them didn’t know, however. The year before, I entered the same story in the same competition.  It sank without trace.

The harsh truth is that success is partly down to luck. For this reason, it’s important not to beat yourself up. I’ve heard a judge say how sad it is that the writer who comes fourth has no idea how close they were to winning.  I agree – and it’s even sadder when you realise how little difference there may be between the story judged to be the best and the one that comes fourth. At the top end of a shortlist all the work is likely to be of a high standard. The judge has to choose between stories of similar length but different qualities; it’s like judging oranges against pears.  Personal preference always comes into these things, so while the process can’t be described as random, it’s fair to say that another judge might have rated your story more highly. Moral of the story: remember how subjective story-judging is, and don’t lose hope. At the same time, don’t make that element of chance an excuse for not perfecting your work.

While we’re on this topic, let’s not forget that your story is subject to chance long before it gets anywhere near a judge. As I’m sure you’re aware, big competitions employ sifters to whittle down the entries into a shortlist. Perhaps you’ve been strategic about your entry. You’ve researched your judge and discovered that he or she writes suspense-filled narratives spiked with gallows humour. You have a story rich in those very qualities – hooray! – so you send off that one. Very sensible of you.  Your sifter, however, prefers something with a smidge more optimism, or at least redemption.  Your story strikes this person as brash and heartless.  Result: it never gets past its first reading.

From the judge’s point of view, receiving a shortlist selected by other people can be a curious experience. Sometimes it seems as though there’s a zeitgeist at work: a very high proportion of the entries are grim and dark, or wittily satirical, or (as actually happened to me once) feature Women Getting Over Things, with much angst and some bleak scenes at the breakfast table. As judge I have no way of knowing for sure whether this year’s writers were gloomy, witty or stoically Getting Over Things, but my guess is that what I’m given reflects the tastes of the sifters.  This isn’t blame, by the way.  Arts are arts.  People’s responses to them are subjective and always will be.  There’s nothing to be done about it, unless you know a magical spell for ensuring that your story only meets with people who like your sort of writing.  If you do, please can you share it with me?

The things you can change: self-inflicted injuries

Ignoring the rules

I’m almost embarrassed to write this, fearful that readers will think, ‘Oh, surely not. She’s making it up.’   I’m not making it up, and you’d be surprised how often it happens.  The rules stipulate that stories must be submitted anonymously; scripts arrive plastered with writers’ names and addresses. I know of one instance where such a story reached the shortlist only because a kindly competition organiser took the time to go through it with a black marker pen removing all ID. That was kindness beyond the call of duty. The normal practice is to throw any work with a name on it straight into the bin, not shriving time allowed.

Squandering your title

At the cinema lately, I sat near a couple who chattered through the start of the film, only falling silent when the dialogue began. I itched to strangle them tell them that the film starts when it starts, with the first images and sounds, and that these are deliberate and chosen for a reason – even if there’s no dialogue yet. Similarly, a story starts with the title, but some writers seem not to realise this – at least, judging by the dull titles I see. When you are writing to a strict word limit, it’s crazy to waste those few words. They are your first chance to make an impression on the reader. Whether obliquely, ironically or in a straightforward way, your title sets up the reader for what follows: ‘Anna and the Blackmail Party’ piques my interest, whereas ‘Anna’ suggests the writer couldn’t manage a title, so just made do with a character’s name.

A student of mine was having no success with a very good story, a deliberately fractured narrative about a woman disorientated by brain surgery. I suggested she should mention the operation in her title, to flag it up to sifters reading under time pressure.  With its new title, the story was entered in another competition and was placed. And the moral of this tale (in case I haven’t nagged enough about it) is: your title is a precious resource.

Dithering 

Readers want to feel that they are in the hands of a master (here I meet the sexism of the English language, in that I can’t use mistress in the same sense, but never mind). You signal your mastery by your beautifully controlled, evocative and precise prose. Once you’ve persuaded the reader that she’s safe (by which I mean, not wasting her time reading this stuff) she will go anywhere with you. On the other hand, any hint of clumsiness, dithering or over-description in the first few paragraphs will turn her off.  Most readers make up their minds very quickly about whether something is worth reading.

If you have something to convey that will stretch to breaking-point the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief, get it in early.  This is perhaps counter-intuitive advice, because it’s not how we usually behave with other human beings.  As a rule we try to put people in a good mood before asking a big favour; confidence tricksters lull their victims into trust before the sting.  For similar reasons, writers sometimes hope to present readers with an apparently normal world and then spring the weirdness on them.  This, however, can be a high-risk strategy.  At the start of a narrative, your reader is open-minded about what sort of story this is, and is more willing to accept the unlikely. Once the reader has decided he’s reading a domestic comedy or a Gothic horror story, it’s as if you’ve signed a contract with that reader: you break the contract at  your peril.  So be bold, like Kafka:

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’

The opening sentence of ‘Metamorphosis’ doesn’t prepare the reader for this extremely unlikely event but drops the bombshell at once.  If the reader accepts that this is a story about a man turned into a beetle (as it is often translated) and is willing to read on as poor Gregor sickens and dies, the battle is won.

Suppose Kafka had written a story about a dying man, all very realistic and believable, until in the final hours of his sickness, pow!  Gregor turns into a beetle!  Imagine your reaction as a reader.  I think mine might be to throw the book across the room.

It’s not impossible to move from an apparently normal beginning to something outrageous. Shirley Jackson does it in ‘The Lottery’, one of my favourite stories, though Jackson’s horror is something that just might conceivably happen, given a particular kind of society.  We know that human beings have it in them to behave as they do in ‘The Lottery’; it makes sense psychologically.  Turning into a beetle is never going to make that kind of sense.  For most of us, most of the time, it’s less risky to take the plunge with this kind of thing early on.

Lack of reading

Every competition attracts stories that are unoriginal and/or outdated in ways that betray a lack of reading. A judge rarely sees these as the sifters catch most of them, but I know they are out there because I’ve sifted and because I used to teach creative writing courses. Most writing teachers have met students who announce, ‘I don’t want to read other people’s work in case it influences me. I want to be original.’ Their work is never original. How can you stand out from the common herd when you have no idea where the common herd is grazing these days?

Stories with obvious pitfalls

Certain types of stories keep cropping up in competitions, despite being minefields for writers. People gamely continue writing them, which is fine if you’re doing it for fun, but bear in mind that (in my opinion, at least) you are unlikely to win prizes with these sorts of stories. For a start, most of them have been done too often before. Under this heading come most stories (there are always exceptions) about dystopian schemes for managing population growth, stories written in oldee-worldee language about witches and wizards on mystic quests, stories about hobbits and fairies, and stories with novelty narrators (the story is told to the reader by a squirrel, a pot of ink, a dress, a pet cat or whatever).

This last kind is especially tricky for two reasons. Not only has it been done to death, but it involves the reader in complex technical problems.

Narrators have to address the reader.  Creating a suitable voice for an inkpot or a squirrel is more difficult than it may seem. Suppose we allow that a pet cat can speak in English – OK, it’s fiction, we’ll allow that much – there’s still the question of the cat’s understanding and vocabulary. Does Puss understand redundancy? Would she recognise Strictly if it came on TV while she was in the room?  Does she know that those tubes of cloth men wear on their legs are called trousers? Can she distinguish wool from denim? Why on earth would a cat even grasp the concept of clothing? When a dog narrator tells me, ‘My mistress had a lovely wedding reception, with Greek food and freesias everywhere in the marquee’ I immediately lose faith in that dog and that story.

If you want to see the mess even an experienced writer can make, try Jack London’s White Fang, in which London gets into the most awful muddles trying to convey what White Fang thinks (no, wait a minute – believes – no, sensesfeels…how about feels?  Has an instinctive feeling of, perhaps…?). London ties himself in knots, but at least he makes an honest attempt to get inside the head of a canid and imagine what its mental processes might be like.   My intention isn’t to mock him, not at all; I think he should be honoured for that attempt. The reason he finds it so difficult is that it is difficult, or rather impossible. We don’t know what it’s like to be an animal, and animals don’t think in human language. Under those conditions, anything we write will be at best a botch. We try to make it convincing and throw ourselves on the mercy of the reader.

The most common solution is to ignore the difficulty altogether and make the animal a human being in animal shape. This produces characters like those of Beatrix Potter or Walt Disney, animals who have hats, front doors, and beds with cute little tartan covers. They work for younger readers and can be fun for adults too (I’m thinking of The Wind in the Willows) but they are unlikely to win you any prizes for adult fiction.

Flirting with the judge

Some writers insert coyly expressed hopes that the judge will like their work.  Don’t. Just don’t.

The shocking reason why exciting stories lose out

Oh, all right, it isn’t shocking.  It isn’t even thrilling, but I love those clickbait headlines with the word shocking in them.

Like so many things in life, this bit comes squarely under the heading of ‘dull but important’.   The main reason exciting stories lose out has nothing to do with ancient storytelling formulas or a secret nobody has ever told you before that in one simple move will transform your dialogue (useful as those things might be).  Nor is it the work of the Illuminati,  or because the judge is jealous and hoping to steal your ideas. In my experience, the biggest reason why many stories are doomed never to win a prize is poor prose.

Is that it?  Yes, that’s it.

As I said earlier, for some years I sifted for the Bridport Prize. Entries for the Bridport are up to 5,000 words long, double the usual word limit for competitions.  Sifters are expected to read each story right to the end, just in case an apparently clumsy style, the sort that would normally land the story straight on the NO pile, turns out to be a device.  With hundreds of entries for each person to sift, the effect of reading 5,000 words of sparkling, honed prose, then 5,000 words of sloppy, badly-constructed sentences, becomes ever more obvious. Bad writing drags.  It leaves the reader feeling drained. Even if a sifter is favourably impressed by the original ideas in a piece and lets it through for that reason, the professional writer who meets it later in the process will almost certainly be less forgiving.

I’ve already identified some hackneyed ideas that keep turning up. A much sadder aspect of competitions is that I’ve often read stories full of originality but so badly written that they had no chance. Since sifters don’t see the names of the writers, there was no way I could contact those people (even if I had time in the middle of the sifting process) and say, ‘You have wit, a fertile imagination and a feeling for drama. You have empathy. None of these will get you anywhere until you learn to construct grammatical sentences.’

Perhaps this sounds like a petty, pedantic fetish of mine? If so, it’s one I share with anyone likely to be asked to judge a competition. One year the named judge for the Bridport was Michèle Roberts. She came to talk with the sifters and asked me what I thought was the biggest weakness in the submissions I’d read. I told her it was the standard of the prose, and that it was a pity so many wonderful ideas were spoiled by weak writing. She said she absolutely agreed.

Whoever judges a competition and awards the prizes is, in effect, signing her name under the winning entries and saying, ‘This is my idea of a great story.’ It would be embarrassing for that person to sign her name to poor writing and have readers say, ‘Did you see the story that won first prize? The writer couldn’t spell or use the full stop and the judge didn’t even notice!’  This reason alone – the embarrassment factor – is enough to ensure that badly-written work won’t be rewarded.

Some competition entrants seem to believe, understandably but mistakenly, that all you need for a winning story is a great idea: the idea’s the thing!  It isn’t. It’s the start of the thing.  A writing prize isn’t awarded for having a great idea but for writing a great story – this is a crucial distinction – and while originality is a wonderful quality in fiction, it can’t make up for bad writing.  Anyone entering a competition is up against professional writers who have developed their skills and – let’s face it – aren’t devoid of ideas, either. Stories are judged as finished works of art. In the past, I’ve heard students express anger at this state of affairs: ‘That means professional writers have got it all sewn up.’  It would be more accurate to say, ‘Writers with a professional attitude to their work have got it sewn up.’  The anonymous entry system is, in fact, extremely democratic; it gives you as good a chance as anyone else, provided your work has equal merit. Who gets the chance to put on a balaclava and try their skills on the football pitch alongside the pros? Or pop on a mask and sing with the National Opera?  Nobody at all, that’s who.  Yet anyone can enter for a fiction prize, anonymously and on an equal footing with the stars of the literary world.

Obviously, if you knew there were faults in your writing, you’d fix them.  But what if you can’t tell?  We all have this problem.  Trying to spot such things alone is like trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; we learn to correct our writing faults because someone else makes us aware of them, be it face-to-face or via a book or website.  The most straightforward way is to ask the opinion of someone who has the necessary knowledge and will be honest about your work.

If it turns out that your prose is letting you down, there are things you can do.  Join a writing group where people are honest and precise, though polite, in their feedback (my brutal advice is to avoid ‘touchy-feely’ groups where everyone worries so much about being rude that nothing critical is ever said).  Read more widely, stretching yourself and paying close attention to how respected writers handle such things as exposition, paragraph transitions, dialogue punctuation – whatever isn’t working for you. Invest time in working on your weaknesses (I warned you this section would be dull).   It isn’t much fun tackling the use of the semicolon or the ways of mending a comma splice.  It is, however, deeply satisfying to be able to fix your broken sentences.

Here’s a book that might help, written by the aptly-named Francine Prose.

If you struggle with nuts-and-bolts sentence structure, try the Purdue OWL (= online writing lab).  It’s American but still very helpful for users of other varieties of English, with clear explanations,  lots of examples and some tests you can do at home.

That’s it.  I’m off to read more short stories.

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