Keeping it short

I hope you all survived the Christmas madness and are having some downtime in the hiatus before the new year. I’m not a big fan of new years resolutions but have been pondering what I hope to get out of 2019 (other than a magical retirement fund) as I enter the final quarter of my year long sabbatical. In the three months leave I have left I hope to near completion of my mystery novel and sign off on a few of those unfinished landscape projects on my list.

Warrandyte Food Store

Last week I weeded the patch and can now actually find the vegetables (had some delicious zucchini fitters last night) and submitted entries for a couple of short story competitions. I’ve also started to schedule into my calendar the short story competitions I’m interested in entering in 2019. I tend to write short stories as a bit of light relief from, and motivation for, my longer form project and thought I would focus on short stories for this blog post.

What is a short story?

Whilst a novel is a complex journey, a short story is more of an intensely focused experience and usually between 1,000 and 20,000 words in length. Anything less than 1,000 words is considered flash fiction, over 20,000 words is a novella.

Orange, National Gallery, Melbourne

Flash fiction writer Sherrie Flick analogises flash fiction to shoving an angry black bear into a lunch bag, without ripping the bag.

T.C. Boyle compares a short story to a toothache that you drill and fill in one sitting and it’s done. He says a novel is more like bridge work, it takes time – and you know what you will be doing when you get up tomorrow. A short story is a sprint, a novel a marathon.

A novel has a series of climaxes that lead a reader down a path with twists and turns that build tension and accumulate to a final payoff. A short story has a tight plot that moves forward from the opening line and usually leads to a single climax. A novel explores a range of emotions whilst a short story usually hones in on one emotion or theme. The opening paragraph must create a vivid image of the setting, capture the readers attention, introduce a conflict, create tension and start as close to the conclusion as possible. All using show, not tell. Phew! That’s a lot, and it means that every single word has to count.

What’s the point of writing short stories?

  1. Unlike a novel you can write a whole short story in one sitting. There’s a sense of almost immediate completion and achievement in the writing and short stories can help to develop your writing craft.
  2. Writing a novel is a long game. Short stories provide some relief and can give your long form fiction writing a jolt when you are frustrated by it.
  3. Writing short stories is a way to expel those ideas that are unrelated to your main project but keep bugging you.
  4. They are an economical way to explore writing outside the genre of your main project or to experiment in your writing.
  5. It’s an art form that takes time to develop, but is a great way to explore new writing ideas and approaches.

What’s the point of entering short story competitions?

MoMA, New York
  1. Short story competitions can help you learn to work to rules and deadlines. This is great practice if you struggle with word counts and finishing projects.
  2. Success in short story competitions can provide an excellent boost to your motivation to keep writing.
  3. Not receiving a prize is good for writing resilience – we all need to learn to graciously accept feedback and appreciate that not everyone will like our writing – and to keep writing anyway.
  4. Being placed in a competition can help you get noticed by publishers and spruik your long form novel. I happened to be sitting next to a publisher at a prize event last year who suggested I get in touch when I finish my novel.
  5. Some competitions (like NYC Midnight) give feedback to all entrants.

Tips for writing and entering short story competitions

The Journey, sculpture exhibition, Werribee
  1. Plan ahead and schedule the years writing competitions in your diary.
  2. Always read the guidelines and stick to them. Read previous years winning stories if available to get a sense of the types of stories that succeed in the competition. The guidelines can help you decide if it’s the right competition for you and might inspire ideas (many have prompts or themes).
  3. Make every word count. Use a strong opening that includes the crucial incident that drives the story in the first paragraph. Drop the reader straight in and engage them and end the first section with a note of suspense to incite them to keep reading.
  4. Limit the number of characters – there’s not a lot of room in a short story for character development, so stick to a small number and make them plausible.
  5. A short story, like a novel, is a journey with an ending. This does not exclude ambiguity but it must be clear that you have taken your reader on a voyage and the tale has ended – there needs to be a clear arc.
  6. Short stories benefit from some time to breathe and edit, just like long form fiction.
  7. Don’t always wait till the final deadline to enter if possible. Most competitions get the bulk of their entries at the last minute. Getting in early can sometimes get your story noticed in the crowd.
  8. Writing fresh stories is important but you can also dig out old stuff and re-enter in new competitions or enter stories in more than one competition simultaneously (if the rules allow). The process takes a long time and if you wait to hear back from a competition before you re-use your story you could be very old before you have success. The more competitions you enter, the more likely your story will get picked up.
  9. Have fun. Approach short story competitions as a game – try different techniques, obscure or unusual ideas. It might be the one that wakes up the judges and captures their attention.
  10. Don’t be put off if you can’t afford to enter competitions, not all of them have entry fees

Websites that list short story competitions in Australia and overseas

Can you suggest other websites that are good for finding writing competitions?

Main image: Scooter Trash, Jerome, Arizona, USA

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