FREE ENTRY TO A PAID COMPETITION!
If you're planning to get 2013 off to a flying start, you could do a lot worse than get started on an entry for the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. For a start, it's free to enter and the winning entry will be published on their website and receive a print copy of my anthology, Somewhere to Start From. First and second place stories will also give their authors a head-start by earning them free entry into the Erewash Writers' Group Open Short Story Competition,which has cash prizes and closes in September next year (follow the link for more information). Oh, and just in case the bold text isn't starting to annoy you, the theme is "Start".
As judge of the competition, I'll be picking a winner from a shortlist selected by the Writers' Group, so I thought it might be helpful to highlight a few of the factors I think will help make the difference between a contender and an also-ran. So, here are some things to keep in mind when you're penning your entry:
The theme should be the theme
Themed competitions represent two tests. The first is, as with all competitions, a test of how well you write. The second, and in some ways secondary, is a test of how well you integrate the theme. If the theme was "rabbits" I'd be disappointed if an otherwise brilliantly written story had nothing but a passing mention of the fact that the protagonist had a pet rabbit as a child, and this turned out to have no bearing whatsoever on the events of the story. It might win an open competition, but it wouldn't be fair to the other competitors who'd gone to the effort of making the theme part of the story - whether that's by writing a story about somebody buying a rabbit for their kids, or dealing with an infestation of wild rabbits under the house, or awaking, Gregor Samsa-like, to find he has been transformed into a giant rabbit.
The theme should go all the way through the story like the writing in a stick of rock. If you take it away, the story shouldn't work any more. So make sure you build your story around a start of some kind, weave it into your prose, and make your characters care about it.
500 words isn't a lot
Flash fiction requires a different approach to a regular short story. The real beginning and end often aren't actually in the story at all. You need to drop clues into the text so the reader can work out how the characters got there and where they go next. You don't have the space to take a run-up at the story, so grab the reader's attention right at the start and whisk them straight into the drama. Keep the momentum building and finish as early as you can without leaving the story feeling incomplete - your story should leave the characters changed in some way, but don't labour this. A lightness of touch is required here, just give the reader a clear idea of where things are going and leave them to figure out what happens next.
Keep things compact: no more than two or three characters, one or two locations. Descriptions aren't story, and they gobble up word count, so limit the things you have to describe to an absolute minimum.
The first thing you think of probably isn't a great idea
Most people's brains work in reasonably similar ways. The first half-dozen or so ideas you come up with are likely to be the same as the majority of your competitors. Brainstorm. Type the theme into a search engine and skip to the later results pages to see what comes up. Get a blank piece of paper and try some free-association to explore the theme as fully as you can. Twist the theme - think about all the different things that have a start, or can be started, or start happening whether anybody wants them to or not. Look for unusual combinations of characters and motivations; play with contradictions and subvert stereotypes.
If, after all that, you feel particularly drawn to write about one of the first few ideas on your list, that's perfectly fine, but remember your story will need to stand out amongst similar entries. This is your chance to play with language to find a unique "voice" for your story, or do something interesting with the story's structure - maybe a disjointed or reversed time-line, or an unusual form (can you tell your story via an exchange of text messages, a to-do list, a lonely hearts ad, etc?).
Even tiny gems need polishing
A short word count will not hide sloppy writing - in fact, it tends to highlight any flaws. So, edit, edit, and edit some more. Hunt down and destroy all typos. Make your characters as vivid as you can. Describe scenes with a sniper's precision - one or two well-chosen elements can be far more effective than a blunderbuss approach of listing everything in the room. Examine every word and ruthlessly strip out anything that doesn't pull its weight. Break it down, chop it up, and rearrange it until you are sure you have the very best version of your story possible. Then hide it away for a couple of weeks while you work on something else. When you come back to it, imagine someone you don't like wrote it and it's just won a competition. Is it a deserving winner, or can you see the faults in your nemesis's prose? If you don't spot anything that needs changing, read it again, slowly, and out loud (or preferably, get somebody else to read it back to you). Still satisfied? Good - it's ready to go.
Rules, of course, are made for breaking. These guidelines aren't a formula for winning - they're just advice to help keep your story on-track. The winning story may not fit any of these (although I doubt it will be badly edited), but whatever form it takes will be right for that particular story. So, trust your instincts, and enjoy the process of creating your story. And, most importantly... Good luck!
Click HERE to go to the competition page.