Are you thinking of entering a short story competition? Do you currently have a favourite story that you’re sending into different writing competitions? The Dalkey Creates Short Story Competition is one of many now open, and with a winning prize of 1000 euros it’s well worth it. But carefully does it, advises the Festival Director, Anna Fox. Follow these Top 12 Tips to make your story the best it can be to maximise your chances of success every time.
1. Think about your Medium
This is really important. Is your story going to be read on screen/paper, or is it intended for radio? Write specifically for the medium that is going to be used.
2. Don’t leave it ‘til the Eleventh Hour
You can’t believe the number of stories we receive on the evening of the day of the deadline. The actual evening! You’re not doing yourself any favours by rushing off your work like that. If you’re writing a new story, draft it well in advance, which will give you time for editing. If you have a story you like and you’re submitting it to a number of competitions at the same time, that’s ok, but make sure you’re meeting the criteria properly: if you’re cutting chunks out of a 2500 word story for a 2000 word competition, it’s going to feel incomplete or incoherent. Or you didn’t edit it properly in the first place. And that’s not good. See the tip on editing.
3. Write to the Word Count
Sometimes at Dalkey Creates we get stories that are just a few hundred words, and while they might be good, I don’t think they cut it because they’re too short. If someone has made the effort to write 2000 words, then the judges are more likely to reward that effort. Don’t worry if you go slightly over the word-count, but definitely by no more than 75 words.
4. Write in your Authentic Voice
Just because a crime writer is the judge of a particular competition - last year we had the lovely Liz Nugent - don’t think you have to write crime, or that the judge will like your story better if you do. We got loads of crime entries last year, but the winning story, The Long Goodbye by Martin McSweeney, was a very moving story about Alzheimer’s. What every judge wants to hear is your voice. Your unique, authentic writing voice. Everyone’s got one, and if you’re not sure what yours is, here’s an exercise you can do: practise writing exactly the way you speak. And speak out loud as you’re writing. If you listen carefully, you’ll know if it sounds like you. You can also try reading a piece of your work out loud. My advice would always be to learn to trust yourself where your voice is concerned, and let your intuition guide you. If you’ve got something you’re burning to say - and most writers do - it’ll find its way onto paper.
If you’re looking for support, what about joining a local writing group or attending a course? There’s the Big Smoke Writing Factory, The Irish Writers’ Centre, and the courses I organise at Storytellers. Finding your Voice facilitated by Christine Ryan is a lovely one to try, and there’s a part-time option if you’re time-pressed. Here’s the site if you want to have a look: www.storytellers.ie
5. Your Main Character
Your main character is usually the key to a great short story. Why? Because people relate to people, not facts. Also, please show us how your character feels, warts an’ all. We don’t have to like them, in fact the more flawed they are, the more we feel for them, but we do need to know them so that we want to follow them, right to the bitter-sweet/triumphant/tragic end.
6. Develop your Character
The most satisfying short stories are those in which we see the main character change or evolve in some way. It could be an event, or a change in awareness or feeling. This ‘epiphany’ moment can be subtle, but it needs to be there. Chekhov did it brilliantly in his short stories, and you can get them free on Kindle. Go check ‘em out.
7. Keep it Simple
When you’re not sure how to say something, say the simple thing. Don’t over-complicate it. If you have a very long sentence, see if breaking it up into shorter sentences makes your meaning clearer.
8. Edit, Edit and Edit again...
...and when you think you’re done editing, put your story down for a few days, then edit it again. This is a biggie. I know editing can be painful, but the difference it makes to the quality of your work is HUGE. When you have really finished editing, give your story to someone you trust with your writing and ask them to read it before you send it in.
Don’t know how to self edit? There’s a great piece on it by Julian Gough (rhymes with cough) on the Stinging Fly website. It’s funny and helpful and you should read it. Here’s the link.
9. Word Elimination
When you have done your final edit, take out a highlighter and highlight all the adjectives on the page. Then line them up against the wall and shoot them. Well, at least half of them. Adverbs too, if you’re being really rigorous (er...that’s more editing, sorry). If you want to read a master of adjective-less prose, read Hemingway.
And eliminate words like ‘even’, ‘really’ and ‘very’. Unless they are coming from your character’s mouth, you probably don’t need them.
Remember that your reader cannot see inside your head. If there is a main setting in your story, describe it. Carefully. Remember the previous tip. The devil is in the detail so don’t worry about this bit being boring. If your story is set in a nursing home, and your character visits the home, or lives there, the details of the room they visit or live in can tell us a lot about them before they’ve opened their mouths. Which brings us to...
You can really cut to the chase with good dialogue. How do you know if it’s good, though? It needs to sound realistic. Try reading it out loud first - and again you can ask a person you trust with your writing to read the other character - and discuss whether it sounds realistic. If not, practise listening to people talking to each other, and then writing down bits of dialogue that you hear. Please note, this is not about being nosy or infringing people’s privacy, it’s about becoming a better writer. Remember that people usually speak in shortened forms: ‘I’m going’ rather than ‘I am going,’ for example. This may sound obvious, but it’s often overlooked.
12. Good Grammar and Punctuation
Inaccurate grammar and punctuation puts obstacles between your story and your reader and reduces clarity (along with your chances of success). Take the time to make sure your tenses are consistent and sentences are properly structured and punctuated so that your meaning is clear. There are apps to help you, so no excuses. And remember, every computer has a spellcheck button...
That’s it for now! Time to get drafting. And if you have any Short Story Tips you’d like to share, let us know and we can feature them in a follow-up post.
Anna Fox is a writer, actress and producer. She founded Dalkey Creates Writing Festival in 2014. Last year she wrote for, edited and published an anthology called Storytellers, available in The Gutter Bookshop, Alan Hanna’s, local libraries, and on Amazon. She organises custom-made writing workshops in Dalkey to help writers find their voice and develop their confidence and craft. This year, two of the Storytellers writers reached the final twelve at the Irish Novel Fair. See www.storytellers.ie for more information.