Thursday, 23 February 2012

How to Win a Short Story Competition (Judged by Me)

A couple of weeks ago I submitted my decision of first, second, and third prizes for the prose section of the Malvern Writers’ Circle Young Writer of the Year competition. The organisers are now hard at work, compiling all the stories and poems into an anthology, which will be launched at the prizegiving evening next month.

I was very pleased to be asked to judge the competition, and I hope that people will feel I’ve done a good job. I won’t pretend it was an easy task. I’ve never judged a competition before and my first strategy – just read them all, then arrange them in order of how much I liked them – fell flat almost immediately. Whenever I’ve read a collection of stories before (whether an anthology by one author, a collection by different writers, or even just a random bunch of stories on a website), it simply hasn’t mattered which one was “best”. I may have had a favourite, but that isn’t the same thing at all. What does “best” mean, anyway?

In some ways, I was lucky. There were two categories, age 13-15 and age 16-19, and in each one I found the story I felt “deserved” to win on my first read-through. It was more of a gut feeling, to be honest. The stories just seemed right. Then came the tricky part. Who would get second place? What about third? Who’d be going home with nothing?

I was stumped. Stories that were strong in some areas didn’t quite cut it in others. There were fantastically realised characters that didn’t seem to go anywhere. There were exciting plots through which underdeveloped characters raced frantically, their only aim seemingly to get to the end of the story. There were beautifully written sections that demonstrated great imaginative skill and writing technique, but didn’t really add anything.

I ended up going back to the two stories I’d identified as winners, and trying to work out what had drawn me to them so strongly. I thought about my own work, the things I regarded as successful, and other writers who’d written tales that had stayed with me. What common factors were there, I wondered. This is what I came up with:

When I read a short story, I am looking for three things. Most importantly, I need to be convinced that what the author is telling me about actually happened. This means having characters I can believe in, events that fit the story’s internal logic (i.e. no matter how bizarre or surreal the actual plot is, it needs to make sense within the unique world of the individual story), and a sense of place.

Second on the list is a need to understand why I am being told this particular story. The writer needs to make it clear why it’s so important I hear about what happened to this character or group of characters at this particular point in their lives. Reading a short story is like sharing a journey with a stranger. I don’t have to fall in love with them, I don’t have to even like them very much, but I must find them and their circumstances interesting or I’ll soon wish I’d picked a different travelling companion.

Thirdly, I need to feel that the story is taking me somewhere new, showing me something I’ve never seen before. This sounds difficult – there are, after all, a very limited number of plots – but in the hands of a skilled writer even the most mundane, everyday activities can be cast in a fresh light.

Breaking it down like that helped me get a fix on which stories were the strongest. Basically, I made story king. A good story told with slightly patchy prose would triumph over a wonderfully written piece that was essentially just a scene or character sketch.

I felt bad because this approach meant that some clearly talented writers went unrecognised. But then, this is a competition. It’s not a hollow, Everybody-Gets-a-Prize day. I made my decisions and I’ll stand by them.

What I would say to those who didn’t win a prize, though, is simple. Don’t dwell. Dust yourselves off and re-read what you’ve written. Read through it carefully; read it out loud to somebody you can trust to be brutally honest. If you find flaws, rewrite as much as necessary, and send it out again. A different judge or editor will evaluate stories in an entirely different way. Keep at it. Somebody somewhere will love your work. I promise.


Teresa Stenson said...

Sounds like it was a really interesting and useful experience for you, as (a) writer as well as a reader.

I like what you say about there not being one way to judge the 'best', only your own way. And you came up with those 3 criteria - I'm not sure I'd be able to be so specific, but then I'm sure being in that position of 'judge' you see things in a new light. A bit like when you first start critiquing other writers' stories, suddenly opens up a world of what-works what-doesn'ts.

Good to read about your experience of it all, ta for sharing.

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Teresa.

I think the way I described it makes it sound a bit soulless, like I reduced it to a box-ticking exercise or something. It was more of a framing device, to try to put my response to the different stories in perspective. I'm always a little suspicious of competitions that work to a checklist.

But, yes, I suspect that I would approach another competition in a similar way, if ever the opportunity comes my way again.