From the Mslexia Workshops Collection
How to Win a Short Story Competition
by Debbie Taylor
Mslexia’s Women’s Short Story Competition 2014 is now open for entries, with a first prize of £2,000. To help you craft a winning story, here’s some guidance from some of our previous judges.
1 - Choose intriguing subject matterOne of the easiest way to make your story unique is to set it somewhere exotic, or write about a topic (ornithology, millinery, billiards) that has its own wonderful language.
‘I longed to read about something extraordinary.’ Tracy Chevalier
‘Consider writing about science, history, philosophy, politics, travel… Subject matter that will set your story apart.’ Sara Maitland
2 - Make something happenA short story should chronicle a transformation or change; so steer clear of static scenarios and internal monologues. And make the change concrete if possible.
‘I like a story with movement rather than a snapshot in time.’ Val McDermid
‘I prefer a tale driven by events, by conflict between characters.’ Kate Mosse
3 - Don’t use an extract from your novelNovel extracts make unsatisfying short stories. The pace of a novel is different; because the characters are on a longer journey. The novel walks, where the story needs to run.
‘A short story must go somewhere, and actually arrive in the span of its short life.’ Maggie Gee
‘Some stories ruled themselves out by dint of their sheer formlessless.’ Helen Simpson
4 - Purge those clichésRaise your description to another level by spending some quality time with every adjective and adverb. Could you find better ones? Could you leave any out? Could you replace that simile with a metaphor?
‘I think metaphor is far stronger than simile.’ Stella Duffy
‘I always prefer writing that is brilliant but flawed to something less ambitious that’s almost perfect.’ Patience Agbabi
5 - Focus on an unusual characterIf you decide to write about something you have experienced, try transposing it into the life of someone wilder, uglier, madder, badder than you are – and see what happens.
‘You don’t need to have great thoughts, just great characters.’ Deborah Moggach
‘Step away from yourself and look out into the world. You’re not as interesting as you think!' Tracy Chevalier
6 - Write in first personA surefire way to hook a reader and get them involved is to slip inside your main character’s skin and look at the world through their eyes.
‘It’s no coincidence that the top prizewinning stories were all written in the first person.’ Jill Dawson
‘Try rewriting your story in first person; it will come alive.’ Deborah Moggach
This feature has been devised especially for the Mslexia Women's Short Story Competition, judged by Jackie Kay.