Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Judging a Short Story Competition

It looks as if Spring has finally arrived and with it lots of short story competitions. This year I'm judging the short story competition for the Wells Literary Festival so I thought I'd write what I'm looking for. But first I must stress that all I'll see is the short list, the final 15 or 20 that make it through the preliminary rounds. That means there may be a story entered that I'd love which never makes the final round.

The short list turns up and I immediately read them all without making any notes. Then I put them away. A week or so later I get out the envelope but before I read, I make notes on the ones I can remember. Then I shuffle them up so I don't read in the same order. Then I read through again, this time making notes as I go. One final read through, and I've got a fair idea of which are my favourites. I look at the stories on different days to try and get a bit of objectivity into the process, but let's face it, a lot will depend on my mood on the time, and the stories I'm presented with. I entered a lot of short story competitions before I started writing novels and I know how many hopes go along with each entry. It's not a job I take lightly.

What am I looking for? I like story telling, so wispy little bits of lovely writing without much story attached aren't to my taste. I like stories that move me - tears or laughter, I don't mind. I like stories that stay with me. I like bravura writing, big bold ideas, I like to be amazed by the firework display but I also like the sort of story William Trevor excels in, a life summed up in one tiny incident.

I'm not keen on animal stories or sci fi, yet stories about a cat going to the vet and a futuristic traffic jam made the top 3 for the last competition I judged. The top spot went to a story about relationships, so (being contrary) I was prejudiced against it, but it was written with such style and wit I longed to have written it myself. So, I wouldn't say there are any particular genres to avoid: a good story is a good story.

And that's what it's about: writing a good story. Good luck!

In case any one is interested, I'm running a class in Bath on Friday afternoons for 8 weeks over the summer, a mix of exercises and workshopping. Contact me for more details on sarah@sarahduncan.co.uk

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