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.
There was quite a heated argument recently on a writers' forum to which I belong about themes. The winner in a competition supposed to be about chocolate hadn't even mentioned it. It's like we were told when taking an exam - read the question several times before answering!
I'm not sure what you're getting at here - could it be you want us to START writing? ;-)
Lizy, I read about that. It is important - I believe - that if you run a themed competition, then the use of the theme is considered in the judging process. I think you have to be prepared for the "best" story not to win, if it ignores or is half-arsed about the theme. I think that's the reason some people can be a bit sniffy about themed comps. But I'd argue it takes a lot of skill to integrate a theme properly, so I don't see the problem.
Patsy - I think you're STARTING to get the idea!
Great ideas and tips here Dan, and what a busy year you've had with your writing and winning.
Thanks, Susan. I hope the tips come in handy!
I remember entering a competition run by a Sunday newspaper. You were given a picture of a room with a spilled vase of flowers on a table, and the remit was a story based on the scene. None of the three winners HAD! When I complained I was told they won because they were good stories!!!! So why bother with a theme????
Hi Dan :)
I guess it depends on how important a role the organisers consider the theme to be and how much it should steer the story. For example, is it to be an obvious thread that runs throughout or simply a springboard for an idea which develops into something completely different - a bit like a Chinese Whisper?
I would have thought that a photograph as inspiration, as Toothlight has described above, would involve a much looser, less obvious connection. For example, the vase of flowers on the table might lead one writer to produce a story about their childhood summers at their grandmother's house and another to write about an illicit love affair.
However, I totally agree that writing to a theme is a good challenge and a great way to exercise the old writing muscles! :)
Hi Marion, I think what you're talking about is the difference between a theme and a prompt. I'd say a prompt could be something like the photo you describe, and the story could well mention a vase of flowers in passing, but not have any major bearing on the story itself.
If the competition had a theme of "flowers", though, I think the story should definitely revolve around flowers in some way. It would still be open to interpretation - it could be about a keen gardener, or a florist, or a bereaved parent laying a floral tribute, etc - but the concept of flowers would need to be at the heart of the story. That's my take on it, at least.
This is brilliant, what a huge amount of brilliant gems about flash writing...It is a tough genre, no doubt but going to give this a go! thanks for the tips!
Hi Rozz, glad you found the tips helpful.
Good luck with your entry! Plenty of time yet, but don't hang around...
thanks for share..
Thanks, Dan. There are lots of interesting points to consider here.
Good luck, Catherine!
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