I'm a big fan of having a go at short stories, even if it's not your main form of writing. In writing short stories, not only do you learn about the art of characterisation, backstory without waffle, and beautiful, effective descriptions, but you also have to learn how to be economical with your prose - something a lot of novelists could learn from! The other huge benefit is the shorter form gives you more opportunity to go wrong. It might take you a year to write a terrible first draft of a novel and be ready to start again; it might only take you a few days or weeks to do the same with a short story. You can go through the editing and refining process - and all it teaches you - much quicker.
I'm also a big fan of competitions. They are a great way of helping you to assess your own writing. A story that gets ignored in a massive competition might get shortlisted in a smaller one; a story that didn't win on draft three might only need one more re-write to claim a prize in another competition a month later.
When I first started writing I entered a lot of short story competitions. In recent years, focussing on novel-writing and having a baby have reduced my short fiction output dramatically, but I still try to keep my hand in and I am looking for recommendations of good competitons to try. So what makes a good competition?
The answer is probably different for different writers, but for me a competition needs to...
- Have good communication with the entrants. This means a definite deadline not only for the entries but also for the results. There is nothing more maddening than entering a short story competition and still having no idea when you might find out if you've won something three months later.
- Publish shortlists and/or longlists. This isn't an absolute necessity, but I think it's a good thing to do. There will be writers (such as me) who get a huge boost from knowing they nearly got a prize, even when they didn't win.
- Have entry fees that are in proportion to the prize money. This isn't so much about value for money as knowing the organisers actually value what the writers are doing and aren't just out to make some dosh. £10 entry fees for a total prize fund of £50 is not cool.
I like to mix and match entering big, prestigious competitions - Fish, Bridport, Costa, Bath, Bristol etc. - with smaller local ones, open theme with set themes, and flash fiction with full short stories. This way I can work on different aspects of my writing and work out what level my writing is at. What do you look for?
After writing the opening to this blog post I went to pick up the actual post from the doormat only to find that Writing Magazine have their competition special this month. I'm obviously on trend with my blog posts for once! If you fancy a go at some competitions now is the time to grab a copy of WM. I shall be perusing the listings as soon as I can, but I'd love your input too. Which competitions would you recommend that I either enter or avoid?