So, you’ve found a short story competition you want to enter. From the theme or blurb on what they’re looking for, it sounds like one of your stories would be perfect, or perhaps it’s rather vague but you’re hopeful. How do you really know that you’re story has a decent chance? It’s simple – check out the previous winners. Does your story fit with them? What made them winners – does your story have that quality?
You might be doing this already, but what about a competition you’re not thinking about entering? What about those competitions that are a bit out of your reach, at the moment. You know what I’m talking about – the big ones, like Bridport, for example. Maybe some of you are able to go for it, despite the apparent impossibility of winning, but I don’t – I stick to the smaller, less known competitions – the ones with £50 as the first prize. Just seems more realistic, to me. That doesn’t mean you should ignore them completely. If you can learn how to improve your story to give it more of a chance in a smaller competition by looking at their previous winners, surely you can learn how to write an amazing, Bridport-winning short story from looking at its previous winners. I’m not saying it will transform your work overnight, but will give you something to work towards. The point is, by reading and studying winning stories, you can learn from them and improve your own.
So how do you go about this? I always think it’s best to do things in the way that works for you – everyone is different – but here’s an example (based on what I do, or think I should do, at least).
Look for what they have in common. Themes, styles, moods, etc. Chances are, though, what they have in common will be harder to put your finger on. For example, I’m working my way through old copies of Mslexia (I have a subscription but don’t set aside time to read them, so they’ve kind of built up) and have got to a copy with results from their 2009 short stories competition. They print the winning stories in the magazine in full, so I’ve been reading them and thinking about why they won – what makes them so special.
What I’ve found they have in common, other than being ‘good’ or ‘well written’, is they’re all very human – they capture essential aspects of being human that we all share. This is something I’d already been aiming for, but it’s still useful to be reminded of the importance of this.
They also all evoke an emotional response – each one left me feeling something, and most of them made me stop to contemplate and, well, feel, on finishing. I couldn’t read most of them and then plough on to the next or some other activity. That, as a quality of a ‘good story’ seems so obvious to me, now, but I’d never really thought about it before, and certainly hadn’t been aiming for that. I will now, though.
The other thing that stands out about them is I can imagine all of the main characters as existing outside of the story – they have a life before and after the captured moments. Often past experiences are mentioned and future experiences hinted at, which helps. I think another way the authors achieved this, other than creating believable characters with unique voices, was by leaving stuff out – you don’t know everything about them, just like you wouldn’t know everything about anyone real.
When you’ve found what they have in common, look for what makes the third prize winner better than the honourable mentions, then what makes the second better than the third and then what makes the first the best of all. If you don’t agree with the judges decision, then look for what makes them different. For example, the winner of this competition was different in that it used an unusual voice – the first person voice of a 14 year old girl in an almost stream-of-consciousness way – using details that capture this and her as a person. Here’s the opening:
‘I get the bus to school so does my thick brother, we disown each other once we step out of the house, I go upstairs, he goes down, we keep it that way.’
The plot also has something of a shock factor – which I do think helps. It’s also something that could happen, and probably does fairly often.
It’s definitely worth taking the time to study winners – even if you don’t learn something new, to be reminded of something you already knew, or to have the importance of that confirmed is always helpful. I’ve learned stuff from this. I hope you have to.