The Short Story Competition Game


By Owen Townend.

When I feel guilty about mindless typing and unfettered creation, I go looking for competitions. After all, short stories that remain in computer folders all their life are not really serving much purpose outside of the writer’s own amusement and vindication.

So I embark on my routine. The usual port of call is The URL is a bit foreboding but they have an extensive calendar of writing competition contests. Money being tight, I initially scroll down the page in search of whatever is free to enter. There aren’t many such competitions but they are present. Some web publications do weekly or monthly calls for flash fiction with a particular theme. In the past I have sent to and the former being very amenable to my quirky subject matter, the latter less so.

If I can find a free submission opportunity asking for more than 250 words, I will take it. Unlike with flash fiction, I prefer not to compose such stories on the fly so I refer to my bank of ‘Advanced Draft Stories’ which I have grouped according to key themes and word length, two features which are often vital to competitions. Here is where doubt usually creeps in and I tinker with the last draft, rewording feeble description and maybe adding fresh dialogue. Then again I needn’t be too precious when responding to a free entry competition so I make sure the story is out of my hands that night if possible.

The competitions where I do need to be precious are the big ones. These for me include The Costa Short Story Award, The Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize and most University competitions from Manchester to London. These tend to cost around £10 per entry and require some degree of planning. I make sure I have at least a month before deadline to pick a suitable length story from my bank, erring on the side of literary fiction as judging panels often have this preference regardless of what the guidelines may say.

Nevertheless, parting with a story at deadline remains sweet agony and I often discover clumsy wording or typos after the fact. Still, once the submission is gone, I soon put it out of my mind. There are many things I can’t let go of in this life but short story competition fears isn’t one of them.

Then again there have been exceptions with regards to re-reading the guidelines. It’s so important not to just glance at the entry fee, maximum word count and top prize but at the full detail. Sometimes you can tell immediately if it would be appropriate for you to enter a particular competition: I steer well clear of set-ups requesting work specifically from women, people of colour and residents of certain locations for obvious reasons. However, there are occasions when you discover an age limit and specific social identities which make you realise retroactively that your submission will inevitably be disregarded. And don’t get me started on page layout: contrary to popular belief not everyone requests Arial font size 12 with double spacing. There are still a few traditionalists around asking for Times New Roman or even Sans Serif. As for submission anonymity, you have to respond to their exact requirements or face disqualification, no matter how baffling or technically frustrating.

As for the submission process itself, I mostly do this via email, tending to begin ‘To whom it may concern’ and ending ‘Thank you for this exciting opportunity’. In this case, a little hyperbole is harmless. There are some publications that use Submittable, a submission management software. The perks of this being that you can track your submission as it moves along the competition process. However, beware competitions that use this service as they tend to have a high volume of work coming in and anything that isn’t exactly what they’re looking for will receive a quick and quiet ‘decline’.

Silent rejection is what I tend to get all across the board. Every now and then smaller competitions will send out a courtesy email saying thank you for submitting but [title here] isn’t what they’re looking for on this occasion yet they hope to hear from you again in the future. As in all things, rejection is the hardest part of the writing process, especially when the buggers won’t even give you useful feedback. Still, if you’re anything like me you’ll have entirely forgotten you sent to this particular competition in the first place and can safely shrug it off. Losing money stings but, meh, back to the drawing board. The trick is perseverance and having plenty of other stuff to be getting on with in the day. 

Regardless I make sure I keep note of every competition I send to with the piece left in precisely the way that it was sent. If it’s an Advanced Draft Story I go back over it, given some time and distance. As for the stories I write for competition, I’m afraid they tend to gather dust. It’s very rare that I look back at them, especially if they were written to fit a particular competition niche such as specific word count (e.g. 101 words) or literary taxidermy (taking a pre-set beginning and ending paragraph and filling out the story between). I follow my passion into the future and get rather restless when looking backward.

Still my routine is flexible as is vital to keep up with the short story competition game. I try to submit to at least one competition per month but, other than that, I do whatever pleases. It’s a bit of a thankless shout into the void at times but, as previously said, I persevere. I have been published on a handful of occasions, even been paid for it. If you’re the kind who is looking to earn some income via competitions, it’ll be a struggle but you might stand a chance if you keep a well-stocked bank of stories and have the time to research individual judge’s taste well before submission. Even so it all remains subjective.

I write because I live for the excitement of having written something vivid and interesting. I submit that work in the hopes that some other mad soul may feel that way too.

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