News room: How to win a short story competition

How to win a short story competition  by Sarah Juckes

Winning a short story competition is great for your writing CV. But what makes a prize-winning short story? Is it the form, the language, or the topic?

We’ve spoken to the judges of some of the leading writing competitions to find out. So grab a pencil and start making some notes!





Richard Beard – Costa Short Story Award 2015 judge


What makes an outstanding short story for you?

An outstanding story, by definition, stands out from all the others. Every year at the Costa certain patterns emerge, either entries in a similar style or on a similar subject. We read a longlist of sixty short stories, and if your Japan story happens to hit during the Year of Japan then standing out suddenly gets harder. There’s an element of luck involved, but authenticity always makes itself known, as does conviction. When a writer fully commits to a story, it shows.


“Don’t be frightened of falling
short of the word requirement.
There’s a natural scepticism
about a story that (miraculously)
comes in at 3999 words.”

What are the best short story topics/themes/forms?

The short-story form is flexible and open to innovation, and a story on a theme or in a form that feels standardised will quickly lose interest. The best topic for any writer is whatever topic genuinely engages their energy and enthusiasm and intelligence. Anything else is a rehearsal.


What are your top tips for new writers hoping to win a short story prize?

Don’t be frightened of falling short of the word requirement. The Costa asks for 4000 words as a maximum, but a word-count is included with the entries and there’s a natural scepticism about a story that (miraculously) comes in at 3999 words. Or even at a round 4000. A brilliant 2500 word story is as likely to win through, if not more so. Also, with so many entries to read, I have a fondness for stories in which something actually happens.


Richard Beard (@BeardRichard) is the director of The National Academy of Writing and has published five novels including X 20: A Novel of (not) Smoking, Dry Bones and Damascus, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In 2008 he was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and in 2010 was longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. His latest novel is Lazarus is Dead .



Nikesh Shukla – Bristol Short Story Prize judge 2015


What makes an outstanding short story for you?

“If you win, it’s out of pure
luck. Just write the short story
you want to write and hope
for your best work.”

Precision and control. The ability to give me a worldview in a short space of time. Making me work for a resolution. Leaving me still thinking about the story days, months, hours, seconds, years later. Too many short stories are imprecise, full of too many words, or trip up at the end.


What are your top tips for new writers hoping to win a short story prize?

Here is the actual reality of it. Write like you want to write the best short story you can. Not because you think it’s going to win. I’ve entered, judged and managed short story prizes before. Each one is a crapshoot. You’re lucky if you win at all. You know why? And here’s the reality – the winning short stories are the ones that every single judge likes. Do you know how hard it is to get one person to like your stuff, let alone four or five judges? If one judge is really passionate and the others are so-so, your story won’t win. If everyone wants it to win except for one person, it won’t win. Usually, it’s everyone’s second or third favourite story that wins – that’s because everyone has different tastes, which is subjective anyway. There are no rules for literary merity and no hard and fast guidelines for what is outstanding. So if you win, it’s out of pure luck. My advice is: why concern yourself with all that drama? Just write the short story you want to write and hope for your best work.


Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) debut novel, Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011. His latest novel is Meatspace. His short stories have been widely published and broadcast including in Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, The Sunday Times, Book Slam and on BBC Radio 4.




Clio Gray – HISSAC Short Story Award judge chair


What makes an outstanding short story for you?

As Judge Chair of the Annual HISSAC Short Story Award, I read upwards of 400 stories per year in a short space of time. An intriguing title will always pique my interest, but the story then has to go on to smack me between the eyes in the first paragraph. If it can lead me straight into a strange new world and out the other side again, I’m a very happy judge.


“An intriguing title will pique
my interest – then the story
has to smack me between the
eyes in the first paragraph.”

What are the best short story topics/themes/forms?

We get a great many stories on post-apocalyptic futures, dementia, bereavement, domestic abuse and addiction (I don’t know why!) so it is always refreshing when we get something completely different that introduces us to brand new territory we’ve never visited before.


What are your top tips for new writers hoping to win a short story prize?

Intriguing title;
Strong start that immediately pulls the reader into the story;
Follow through, develop your characters/situation, and give us a satisfying ending – it can be ambiguous, but it needs to be deft in its wording and sew the story up.


Clio Gray writes historical adventure/crime fiction; her latest novel – her first full length unashamedly literary novel, The Anatomist’s Dream, was nominated for the Man Booker 2015. She also won the Scotsman / Orange Award in 2006 for her short story I Should Have Listened Harder and has maintained a keen interest in short stories ever since.



So there we have it! What do you think makes a killer short story? Share your thoughts below.



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Written by
Sarah Juckes
Published on
05/08/2015
Tags
Short story, Competition, and Writing advice

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