Friday, 31 January 2014

Subject Matters: How to win a short story competition

By Jane Ayres

You’ve posted off the final draft of your short story to yet another writing competition, paying attention to all the ingredients you know judges look for - like structure, plot, pacing, characterisation, dialogue, and language.  But how important is your choice of subject? Will it engage your readers - or alienate them?  What themes do you intend to explore in your story? And what part does subjectivity play in the decision-making process?  After all, writing competition judges are human beings, aren’t they?

Short story competitions are a great opportunity to develop your writing portfolio, improve your discipline in working to deadlines – and maybe even win a prize.  But is it really down to luck?  Or can you do anything to maximise your chances of success?

There are hundreds of competitions to choose from, and whether or not they specify themes and topics, or appear to provide an open-ended brief, when it comes to wining short story competitions, subject really matters.  Some competitions are extremely helpful when it comes to guidelines on the genres they will consider, and give clear and specific guidelines, and useful advice.  Others vary.

Whether or not you agree with the exclusion of particular categories is irrelevant.  If you want to succeed in competitions, the guidelines are there for your benefit, so read, absorb and inwardly digest before you start to write.

Judges sometimes complain about repeatedly seeing tired, over-used story lines. For instance, the main character turns out to be a ghost or the narrator is really a dog.  Maybe the down-trodden wife leaves her boring/cheating husband or an evil murderer finally gets his come-uppance.  On the whole, death in various forms is a popular subject so the occasional humorous tale can make a refreshing change.

If you want to submit a horror story then consider the monthly Dark Tales writing competitions (  Keen to produce a heart-warming romance?  Try the Cremona Romance Short Story Competition from The Cremona hotel in Bournemouth, for romantic stories with a seaside setting. (
(Don’t get your entries mixed up for these two!)

The Mona Schreiber Prize wants humorous fiction and non-fiction. “Comic essays, poetry, short stories, scripts and humorous shopping lists are all acceptable.” (
The James White Award for science fiction stories gives very specific advice on choosing your subject.

The Tom-Gallon Trust Award advises, “The submitted story should be traditional, rather than experimental, in character.”  ( ). The advantage of all these guidelines is that you are given clues and signposting about what is likely to be acceptable. 

The Annual New Writer Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes ( ) want fiction on any subject or theme, in any genre (except children’s) and are looking for “bold, incisive material in any genre providing it reflects today’s writing.”    But “today’s writing” encompasses a huge arena - are we talking Lee Child, Dorothy Koomson or JK Rowling?  All of these writers have different, unique voices and all represent current fiction.  Don’t they?  Which leads to the issue of subjectivity.

The part that subjectivity plays in judging writing competitions is often overlooked and rarely acknowledged.  Even where the accepted genres are stated, writing about certain subjects will not do you any favours.  Some subjects are perhaps generally accepted as taboos, for instance stories that incite racial hatred or describe gratuitous acts of sadistic violence, but in addition judges will have their own particular dislikes, subjects they find revolting or distasteful, or situations that strike a very personal chord.  It’s part and parcel of being human.  So if you write a story glamorising a burglar and the person judging has just had their house ransacked, your theme may not be well received.   You should also bear in mind that some competitions produce anthologies of shortlisted work to go on sale to the general public.  Understandably, they will not wish to offend or alienate sections of the community.

Stories are often penalised for being unrealistic.  Again, this can be subjective.  I have known of stories criticised on this basis when they were based on actual events, on situations that the writer may have actually experienced or witnessed.  What is unbelievable to one reader may be perfectly acceptable to another, depending on their own life experience and attitudes, which is, after all, what shapes our personalities, outlooks and values. For this reason, you may find that a story doesn’t make the shortlist for one competition but wins a prize in another.  Speaking from personal experience, a previous story, rejected by an editor who “hated the characters”, went on to win first prize in a national short story competition.  (Moral - if you believe in yourself, keep at it!)

Of course, what judges look for above all is a well written story with that extra something, that mysterious, elusive quality that makes it stand out from the rest.  What, nowadays, is referred to as “the wow factor.”

So if you want to succeed in short story competitions, read the rules, do your research, and acknowledge the role that subjectivity plays in the decision making process.  Use common sense about the choice and treatment of your subject.  Outside the competition arena, the rules may, or may not, differ.  But that’s another story…

About the author:
Jane had her first short story published in a UK pony magazine when she was 14. Since then she has written many books and stories for children and teenagers, and published work has been translated into nine languages. A passionate cat lover, Jane is donating all author royalties from her e-book Coming Home to the charity Cats Protection. See the trailer here:

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