The fruits of your loins and your brains
Short stories are like children: You sweat buckets trying to produce one, and when it’s there, you’re not sure what to do with it. Mercifully, the options for short stories are limited. Maybe you write to entertain friends and family. Perhaps you’re aiming for publication in magazines. Or are you cutting your teeth on short fiction as a warm-up to writing a novel? Whatever your purpose, the day will no doubt come when you’re tempted to enter a competition.
Short story competitions
Google “short story competitions” and you’ll quickly discover more than 200 covering all lengths and genres. The organisers may be based anywhere in the world, but thanks to email entry, you can choose whichever ones suit you best. Some are free to enter, others cost £15 or £20, but the average entry fee is around £6.
Testing the waters
After 30 years as a writer, but only two as a fiction writer, I started entering competitions. I’d invested quite a lot in courses, seminars, and How to books, and I wanted to see if these attempts to hone my skills had paid off. I entered few contests – one every three or four months – but it was motivating to have a deadline and to keep rewriting a tale till I was happy with it.
At the same time, I got into the habit of reading winning stories. Most reputable short story organisers publish the three winning entries. (A few don’t, because they want you to buy the online anthology; that’s just mean.) Reading successful stories is worthwhile for several reasons:
Firstly, it’s highly enjoyable.
Secondly, it gives you an idea of what you’re up against. Sometimes, you think, “Wow, I’ll never be able to write like that,” but you have to dismiss such thoughts. Our aim should be to become as good as we can.
Thirdly, you get a feeling for what each competition expects. Some attract entries that are literary/traditional; others go for the zany/modern. Such preferences are not always mentioned in the rules or contest descriptions.
Weighing things up
After reading 20 or 30 groups of winning entries, I took stock. Often, I thought all three winners were brilliant. Sometimes, I thought one of the three was lucky to be there. Almost never did I think that all three were brilliant and in the right sequence.
In my own case, I wondered how a story that doesn’t even make the longlist in one competition can be placed in the top three in another. It may be that standards in one competition are higher than in another, or that one attracts ten times as many entries. But it may also be down to the factor that converts many competitions into little more than lotteries: lack of consensus in the judging.
The judging process
Most short story competitions have only one judge. (Some of the larger competitions use preliminary readers to weed out the non-serious contenders.)
It’s purely a question of money. Writing circles and arts organisations are rarely awash with funds, and a judge of any stature expects a decent fee. A panel of judges would be far better, but there isn’t enough in the pot for two or three fees.
Judges usually have an impeccable pedigree: they’ve written half a dozen novels, won three or four major prizes, or are longstanding lecturers in Creative Writing. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they are acting alone.
Eliminating the weakest 75% or 80% of entries is the easy part. (How do I know that? Keep reading.) The difficult part is choosing a winner from 20 or 30 outstanding, well-crafted tales. Spare a thought for the poor judge. Unless the contest is themed – and most aren’t – he or she has to judge stories of horror and dystopia alongside ghost stories, murder, and romance. There’s no chance of comparing like with like. However neutral a judge strives to be, personal taste will enter into the final decision. It cannot be otherwise. In the end, it’s down to one person’s opinion.
A fairer way
Isn’t there a way of organising things that’s fairer for the contestants and which need not break the bank of the organisers? Yes, there is.
By far the most satisfying, helpful, and enjoyable short story competition I have taken part in is the Manchester-based Poetic Republic contest of 2015. The brainchild of Peter Hartey, who died suddenly in that year, this contest has not run since. I sincerely hope that it, or something like it, will be revived very soon.
The contestants are the judges.
The contest was founded in 2008 as a poetry competition but was broadened to include a parallel short story contest in 2014. It was judged entirely by the entrants. A condition of entry was that you had to rank stories sent to you, and to write a critique for at least the top three.
How the Poetic Republic Short Story Contest worked
In 2015, there were 200-odd entries, which were judged in three rounds. In round one, we were all sent seven stories. We had to rank our top three and write a short critique for each. If we wished, we could add critiques for the other four.
The standard of the stories in round one varied enormously. I wrote above that the easy part was eliminating the bottom 75% or 80%. I’d originally seen that in an article in Writing World by writer-cum-judge Sue Emms. It was called, “Through Judge-Coloured Spectacles: How to Win a Writing Contest”. Now I saw what she meant. Three or four of my seven stories showed lack of writing ability, lack of originality, poor structure, poor characterisation, lack of cohesive plot, poor grammar and/or punctuation, or a host of other weaknesses. It was easy to home in on the top three.
Judging seven stories was the minimum requirement for every contestant, but if you wished, you could volunteer to judge seven more in the second round and a further seven in the third. Acting as a judge was instructive and thought provoking, and I was happy to judge twenty-one stories.
By the second round, more than half the stories had been eliminated. Those in my second set of seven were all good or outstanding, and the judging was far more difficult. I again tried to comment on all seven, since feedback was the main purpose of the whole contest.
In round three, those of us still left in the judging process were sent a final batch of seven, from which the top three would emerge.
Aftermath and Conclusions
Comments from fellow contestants were published periodically, though entrants eliminated after round one didn’t get many. I got 23, which helped me enormously.
The story I had ranked Number One in round two didn’t make it to the final seven. I liked all the final seven, but not as much as that one. What does that prove? Exactly what I said above: that, if you’re confronted with 10 or 20 well-crafted stories, it’s all down to personal opinion. You can throw a handkerchief over those in the home straight. Close your eyes and stick a pin in.
I won nothing in that contest, though they informed me later I’d made the top 20. I felt strangely empty when it was over. It had been a fascinating, intense, rewarding experience, lasting several months. I left with a huge sense of satisfaction and the feeling that we had all been treated fairly. Above all, I knew that I would always prefer to be judged by 200 fellow writers than by one.
If any of you know of any other peer-judged contests, or if you are thinking of running one, please contact me.