Sunday, 12 February 2012

Why Can’t I Win any Short Story Competitions?

The writer can do a lot to ensure the story entry has a fighting chance of getting shortlisted in a short story competition. The following tips on creative writing and submission guidelines may help.

Short Story Advice for Writers

Your short story might comprise a taut story crafted with perfect prose and the most original and compelling plot, but if the following guidelines are not adhered to, the story might just as well be crafted by chimp and scribbled on toilet paper.
  • Word count too high. Story competitions can be quite strict on this matter, and a simple word count will expose story entries that go over. A short story competition that demands no more than 2000 words means that words in excess of this may take your entry out of the running.
  • The wrong genre. If the competition is looking for captivating children’s stories, don’t submit an erotic yarn. Similarly, if the competition is searching for a crime story, don’t submit a sci-fi story.
  • Submission too late. Make sure the story arrives before the closing date. Late entries will not be considered.
  • No contact details enclosed. Don’t forget to include your name and contact details when submitting your short story.
  • No fees enclosed. Make sure a cheque is enclosed to the correct amount and to the correct payee.
Making a Short Story Great

OK, with the entry correctly submitted, you stand a better chance of competing with thousands of other entrants for that coveted first prize. But you could do more to enhance the reading experience of the judges to ensure there are no spelling errors or grammatical blunders. If submitting a postal entry, use crisp white paper and don’t try to cram it into a small envelope or the creases may spoil the effect.

Writing Contests against Other Writers

Writing a short story is not as easy as it sounds. Unlike a novella or novel, every word becomes even more crucial. A beginning, middle and end are crammed into a mere few thousand words, which mean no dallying over the opening and no padding out at the middle. Get straight to the story. Try cutting the first hundred or so words from the first draft to throw the reader more abruptly into the action.

Narrative Style for Short Stories

Get the red pen out whilst drafting a short story. Cut the following words from the prose: flabby adjectives that qualify a weak or inaccurate noun. Wispy clouds could be cirrus; a large city could be a metropolis.

Cut flabby adverbs that qualify weak verbs and make them accurate. Run quickly could be raced or cantered. Think carefully could be cogitate or peruse. Stare fiercely, could be glower.

You could polish your writing style further by looking for passive sentences. Overuse of the verbs, was, were, are and is, could be indicative of passive writing. Change ‘the trees were swaying’ to ‘the trees swayed.’ Change ‘the man was walking down the street,’ to ‘the man walked down the street.’ Give nouns something to do as opposed to just sitting there letting things happen to them: the moon smoldered; the water simmered; the geyser belched. These are known as active sentences and works to make your writing snappier and more immediate.

Active Writing for Short Stories

Propel the reader into the protagonist’s world by using the five senses to describe sensations as opposed to using abstract concepts. Rather than say ‘she felt frightened,’ describe the sensation of fear, which can be subjective. Did the character’s hands quake; did her breathing take a jolt? Make sensations tangible regarding smells, tastes, sounds and sensations.

Cutting redundant adjectives and lazy adverbs as well as changing passive verbs to active verbs will cut your word count significantly leaving more room for the story. This in turn will allow more room for dynamic descriptions.

Creative Writing Tips for Storytelling

Look for clichés and sentences that add nothing to the story. Such sentences may lurk in the shadows, cowering against the editing pen. Weed them out: sentences that repeat something already mentioned earlier; sentences that harbour repeating words or simply slow the pace unnecessarily. Watch out for overly long paragraphs and/or sentences. Slice in two, sentences that contain more than 40 words or so. Chop paragraphs that are more than 12 lines long.

Short Story Competition Advice

But what of the content of the story? It is all very well having a perfectly-crafted prose, but this will count for little if the story itself is not original or compelling. Think about the following writing tips:
  • Take a familiar story and set it against a different background. For example, a detective story could be set in a monastery; a tale about a beauty contest could be set at a prison.
  • Make the protagonist different to the expected. Make a nightclub bouncer female; or a sensational guitar player three-fingered.
  • Look for every opportunity to pull a twist on the reader. A story told in the first person may relate on a hero’s day keeping watch against snipers in the Middle East. Only at the end do we learn the hero is a twelve-year-old boy.
  • Write about something you know about and project it onto the character or the story to add authenticity. A writer’s experience at a children’s home could be projected upon a story about a girl who has been evacuated during the war. The feeling of displacement and possible alienation could be made more convincing by the writer’s empathy.
Remember the short story should have a beginning, middle and end. The story should be peppered with conflict. The protagonist should have a goal and something should stand in the way (which might be person, animal, natural or inner belief). Look for ways of (convincingly) upping the stakes and creating a seemingly impossible situation.

Having said that, some short stories describe a slice of life or the world according to whomever. This can be very effective for suspending the reader. An original slant can make your story stand out.

Creative Tips for Short Story Writers

Don’t put your short story out of the running because of a technical aberration. Keep the word count within guidelines, pay the correct fee and make sure the entry has arrived prior to the closing date. Perfect your narrative style to tighten the writing, leaving more room for the action. And finally, look for original ideas. Relate the story to something you know about to give it authenticity. And lastly look for opportunities to increase the ante. Make the reader want to read on and make it original.

Creative Writing Tips for Narrative Style

The perils of passive writing
Make the most of adjectives
How to use adverbs
My characters behave like puppets

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