I'm about to begin reading the shortlist for the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. I'm excited about this, and looking forward to reading the stories and seeing how all the different writers responded to the "Start" theme. I'm wondering how hard it will be to pick a winner - will there be a clear favourite, right from the first read-through, or will it be a process of erosion, with "lesser" stories gradually falling away until the eventual victor stands alone, all-conquering?
What it also means, is that I won't be reading any of the stories that didn't make the shortlist. Different competitions work in different ways - sometimes the judge will read all the entries, sometimes just the longlist, sometimes (as in this case) just the shortlist. Debbie and the Erewash team have selected the 20 best stories from an overall pool of over 130 - which is a great response - so the vast majority of entries have fallen at this first hurdle.
I want to offer a note of encouragement to anybody whose story didn't reach this point. I know free contests are a popular place to make your short story competition-entering début, and it can be very disheartening when your entry appears to sink without trace. It's easy to take this as a kick in the teeth, to think that your story must have been rubbish, even that you are a rubbish writer. It's easy, but it's the wrong way to look at it.
The main thing to bear in mind is that the odds are against you. This is the case with any writing competition, it only gets worse as you move up into bigger and more prestigious contests, and it's something you just have to accept. In this case, only the top 15% get onto the shortlist. In terms of the numbers alone, the odds of any particular story winning the competition is less than 1%.
No writing competition should ever be a lottery, of course, but there are a huge number of factors over which you have no control that'll determine whether your story goes forward or not. So much of writing is subjective: subject, style, genre, pace, point of view, even which tense it's written in - all of these can influence whether a particular reader thinks a story is any good, and it all boils down to personal taste. The stories I'll be reading are those that appealed most to the Erewash Writers' Group readers, and whichever one of that selection appeals most to me will be the winner. I have no idea how well my tastes and those of the Erewash crew overlap, but it's entirely possible that if I had read all the stories I would have chosen one of the 110 stories that have already dropped out.
However, this isn't meant to suggest the system is unfair and you can assume your story was perfect. It may well be, but if you haven't made the shortlist, consider it as a prompt to re-examine your work. There will be a (hopefully small) proportion who were disqualified; usually this is down to a small error - going over the word count limit, leaving your name on the manuscript (I did that myself recently and it's absolutely gutting), or some other lapse of concentration that means your story couldn't be considered. I know at least one writer scuppered their chances by publishing their story online.
If you got everything right, from a basic administration point of view, it's time to take a good, honest look at your story. Often, just having a bit of a break from the story while you're waiting for the result will to the trick. Ask yourself: Does it begin in the right place? Does the ending resonate? Is the structure you've used the best way to tell the story? Are the characters as strong as they can possibly be? Is your dialogue realistic? Does the plot make sense? Does it take at least one of the characters from one place / state of mind to another? Look hard, be brutal, and chances are you'll find something crying out for editing. And then, send it somewhere else. Good luck!