Short-Story Competitions, Increasing Your Chances of Winning

by Alex Keegan

Planning, Working Hard, Getting Better

For increased chances, I'm tempted to just say write better stories and that has to be the way forward, but competitions are always in part lotteries and there are ways of improving the odds. First, find out where the competitions are, schedule your attacks on them, then spread out your submissions evenly through the year. Use the competition deadlines as a stimulus to produce new material and always attempt to produce at least one new, fresh story per competition. Even if you don't win, every fresh story you produce is another step along the road to success, every one a slight polish to your craft.

As for where the competitions are, get up and go looking! My website lists U.K. competitions and has a link to a great Canadian site which gives details of competitions there and in the U.S. Try Poets & Writers, Writers Digest, and Writers News from the U.K., or buy the excellent Novel & Short Story Writers Market, a super publication from Writers Digest Books, or its poetry equivalent. If you're serious about getting ahead you must invest time, energy and a few dollars to become better informed and methodical.

Entering at the Last Minute...

Is Baaaad! Do some statistics; think a little. Some competitions may have as many as 10,000 entries. The largest U.K. competition gets up to 5,000 stories entered. In 1997 two judges read all entries. There were no pre-readers. That's just two judges and 5,000 stories. In some competitions no reading begins until after the closing date, in others it does. Where it does you've increased your chances, where it doesn't, you haven't hurt them, but you've left time to do one more story before the deadline!

Last year I won a Literary Prize and at the prize dinner I chatted with some of the organisers. They told me that the bulk of entries come in the last few weeks. Let's say that's 4,000 entries in the last 4 weeks (it's worse than this).

Now, imagine you're a judge, you're conscientious, you want to be fair, but for four weeks you and your fellow judge have to read 500 stories each, 70-80 a day each, every day for 28 days. How hard is this? Is it even possible? Are you going to be jaded, maybe bored, and maybe less than perceptive? If the first paragraph is awkward or weak and today you have 75 more stories to read, how long and how hard are you going to struggle?

If the judges genuinely were to read every word carefully, 75 x 2-3,000 words they would be reading 150,000 - 225,000 words a day. It simply can't be done well and don't forget that those stories which catch the eye will have to be read and re-read, notes made, texts discussed.

The editor of another competition informed us that he used readers and they were all instructed to always read all of a story. But he also informed us that 85% of the submissions for the competition arrived in the last ten days! Which means in the previous 100 days they received just 150 stories, 1.5 a day. At the last minute they received 950 stories...95 a day. Now do you really fancy being in the crush or would you rather be read without pressure? Enter early!

Sharpening Just One Story

It's a method, and I suspect some very good writers might argue it works. And if you're the type of person who needs 37 drafts to perfect a story, you might have to be like this, but I would suggest it's better to get more tickets in the lottery. Use the competition to energise your output. Write two, three, four, even five stories and submit them! Not enough money for the entry fees? Rob a bank! You want to be a writer, don't you?

For most competitions I enter at least three stories, and so often it's my third-string, the one I perceive as weaker which brings home the bacon. In one literary competition my make-weight was a story called "The Card". I have always had a soft spot for "The Card," and it's a nice story but I was convinced that the first two stories were "higher" lit (they've both now been published). I thought this cute story had relatively little chance. I was wrong. It was my third chance which caught the judge's eye...

In a second competition the same year, I again entered three stories and again my number three rushed past the other two to get noted.

Don't sacrifice quality for quantity just aim to get both. Remember even good stories can be missed in the crush or simply not be to a judge's taste.

Digging Out Your Old Stuff -- Lazy, Stupid and Counter-Productive (But Other Than That, OK)

Sure, you may have a gem of a story which missed out somewhere else, so try it again with this competition, but write new, write fresh, write today, as well, write at the highest point so far on your learning curve.

If we improve by writing then our next story should be our best, certainly our next five stories will on average be better than our previous five. Don't forget, deadlines are good for us, they sharpen our wits, make us produce, and the key is as it has always been -- write, write, write, submit, submit, submit. Write your best, your freshest, good new work.

Trying to Please

The key to good writing is honesty, passion and practice (plus lots of reading and eyes kept open to the world). Bending your passions fraudulently just to suit an audience might work for some genre writers or one kind of best-seller, but it's unlikely to trick a judge, especially in a literary competition.

It's tempting to target, but if doing so distorts what you are, how you think and what you think, how you express yourself, you're wasting your time. Far better to concentrate on the things which matter to you, the things which energise you and release your juices. Don't be a fraud. Write what you want to write, and damn the world. If you're good enough, honest enough, you will eventually be seen. Honesty, Passion, Honesty, Passion.

Writing Blind

Good idea, huh? Literary magazines say "read us before you submit". Doesn't the same apply to competitions? Why not read the collections of past winners (for a start they should be good writing which might inspire you) and if the competition is run by a publication, check out what they say about writing. Some judges like earthy language, some don't. Do you write even remotely in their ball-park? Would meeting their criteria ruin you?

If you know who the judges are and they are published authors, read their books, get a feel instinctively, intuitively, for where they are coming from. You should never stop reading, but why not read specifically, alter your mind-set, expand, explore? You never know, some trivial reaction to those three books by the judge you have just read may set off bells in his head, answering some call he only half knew he had made and suddenly you find yourself in the final...

Does this contradict the previous section? No, not really. First, we write with our hearts, gut, soul, then we re-write like a surgeon, cutting, shaping. Do you have to say f**k there to make that point? If yes, leave it in, if no, if the story doesn't suffer artistically, consider removing it. There is a great difference between fraudulently distorting you writing and tweaking it to make it more accessible. Many of my stories are colloquial Welsh with Welsh town names. Where these names matter they stay but I also "translate" my stories and use their essence, but with U.S. destinations perhaps or simpler language. It's nice too, when essentially the same idea can get published as a different story. Be true to your artisitic goals but be flexible while remaining honest.

Staying With the Herd

Safety in numbers right? Baaaa, baaaa. After my "Tomatoes, Flamingos" made it into a recent anthology I discovered that one of the reasons it was picked from the crowd was the sheer-relief experience by the first-line judges. After 300, 400 stories, up popped mine, lightweight, humorous and different. I never aimed for this, it just happened, but remember, so many stories are much of a muchness. Striking out, being bold or funny can wake up a jaded judge and get him to read you.

I spoke today to a poetry judge a former National Poetry Prize Winner. We were discussing another winner we had heard read which seemed not that great poetry. "Oh," said my correspondent, "I doubt it was. It's the way big prizes work."

Was he talking bribery and corruption, nepotism or sleaze? No.

"Competitions break down into bands," the judge said. "It's fairly easy to eliminate the bad poems, not too difficult to discard the mediocre." He paused and took a long suck on his pipe. "But Alex," he said, "the trouble is that top third, there are so many good poems, so many which work well, are fine in their way. What happens gradually is a kind of word-blindness, a mental gagging, and the poems can merge into one another. If something comes along which isn't bad and is above mediocre but is fresh, then it wakes us up, excites us, and gets that buzz attached to it, which, had it been a submission on a quiet day, might merely have raised a smile."

Be Fresh, Innovate, Stand Out

To sum up: enter early for competitions, enter in the middle of the period, stick in a late, fresh story, enter a few. You will increase your chances and help out the organization running the competition.

Try to be honest and passionate, consider a story which is unusual, not so obvious, definitely consider humorous entries, ones which can wake up the judges. And be as well-presented as possible; don't break presentation rules.

Good Luck!

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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