Entering Short Story Competitions

A new judge's fresh insight into short story competitions.

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I’ve entered a load more competitions recently, including just about everything I see that’s free. It’s amazing how many of these exist. Thanet Writers does an excellent monthly round up of these opportunities, first Saturday of every month: do look out for it. I’ll occasionally pay to enter, if I think I’ve got a half-decent chance of winning, although so far I’ve only managed to lose my money as well as my dignity. The joy of entering so many is you can’t remember which you’ve entered, or when you can expect to hear. No crushing sense of defeat when the deadline passes without a word; no need to imagine a group of beardy intellectuals passing your much-cherished masterpiece about a smoky room, chortling, “Is this some sort of joke…?”

Maybe it’s only me that does that.

Being a judge on a short story competition has given me new insight, and made me care a lot less when I don’t win competitions myself (which is always, so far), or even get a response (more than half the time). Often, writers, myself included, get so anxious and worked up about entering the competition, they don’t take time to read the rubric properly. We received heaps of perfectly brilliant short stories for the Thanet Writers short story competition we were forced to discard, simply because they made no mention of Thanet. Others were clearly meant for the competition, but had been submitted to the usual short story portal. They might have won, but they went to the standard, non-competitive bit of the website. Some were just under or over the word limit. Perfectly good, but didn’t meet our stated criteria. I submitted my novel to the Richard and Judy Covid competition and pressed ‘send’ a second before I realised I was just under their stated word count. I could have added another paragraph and taken a shot at fame. Idiot. Slow down. Read the rules.

Some competitions insist the work be unpublished, so I’ve got a couple of stonking short stories squirrelled away that I keep submitting. Well, I think they’re stonking. No one has agreed with me yet, but I’ll have another half dozen goes before I’ll even contemplate an alternative truth. Writers need an undentable ego more even than caffeine and a scabby laptop.

My esteemed colleague Anthony Levings tells me he views all competition entries as part of some future collection of short stories, or as training for “the novel”, so he doesn’t get hung up on winning. This seems a very sensible plan. Writing something fresh in response to a competition’s particular theme – “time” or “winter” or “the mark on the wall” – can trigger all manner of fresh creative responses, and even if you don’t win, you got a thrilling new story out of it and have pleased yourself, if no one else. Submit it elsewhere, or save it safely for a better opportunity.

One final pertinent anecdote. I looked through all the short story entries, even though I wasn’t involved in putting together the long list, because I’m nosy and Covid had shut the pubs. One story was so flawless, brilliant, perfect, innovative, that I felt a stab of jealous rage in my stomach from which I’ve genuinely yet to recover. I think I may have lain on my bed for a few minutes contemplating the futility of my ever bothering to write anything again. Well, there’s our winner, I thought. Nothing else is going to come close to that.

When I received the long list, however, I scanned through and discovered in total disbelief that my dead cert winner hadn’t even made it through the first round.

The point is: don’t be disheartened if you weren’t chosen. Writing is subjective. Something that sends me weak with admiration won’t touch another editor in the same way. It’s merely personal preference. Don’t assume you’re rubbish. You might just not be to one person’s taste. I’ve wasted way too much time assuming I’m a useless failure because I’ve yet to get anywhere in my literary career. Don’t you do that. Maybe the right person hasn’t read your work yet, but when they do, your resultant success will be stratospheric. Keep writing. Eventually, with perseverance, you won’t be the only one your writing pleases. Promise.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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