How To Win Short Story Competitions by Dave Haslett and Geoff Nelder

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How To Win Short Story Competitions by Dave Haslett and Geoff Nelder

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Category: Reference
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Haslett and Nelder's offering doesn't live up to its billing – it won't tell you how to win short story comps. It will however give you a good grounding in how to give yourself the best chance of at least being in with a shout. A lot of the ground covered will be familiar to seasoned veterans of the genre, but a useful addition to the library for those only just beginning to venture into this territory.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? No
Pages: 78 Date: May 2012
Publisher: ideas4writers
External links: Author's website

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This guide to what is for many writers the first step on their path to glory (or not) is only available as a Kindle download or as a PDF direct from the publisher's website. It is not issued in print format. Given the low price on Amazon, it feels like a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in taking this route to enhance their writing profile.

The 'book' comprises an extended interview between Dave Haslett, founder of ideas4writers, who has himself both set and judged writing competitions and Geoff Nelder – former teacher, British editor for Adventure Books, publisher and writer, who has twice been the short fiction judge for the Helen Whittaker Prize.

By my reckoning, it's about 103 questions put to a short story judge and his considered response to them. I'm not sure that this actually tells you very much about how to win competitions, but it does give a good insight into how at least one judge thinks and some very clear reminders of the things to avoid if you want to have a half-way decent chance of that winning slot.

Nelder doesn't shy away from the fact that there will always be an element of luck involved.

So what kind of things does it cover?

As you might expect the authors start off by looking at why competitions are run in the first place (PR or fund-raising seem to be the two main themes) and why writers enter them. A clear message here is that you need to think about what it is you, as a writer, are trying to achieve by entering competitions and then filter the ones you enter accordingly. They look at the pros and cons of charging entry fees, whether or not feedback should be part of the deal and what happens to copyright. None of which helps you win competitions, but might assist you choosing which ones to enter.

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me were Nelder's insights on how he personally judges short fiction. He has a system designed to add a degree of consistency to the approach. Specifically he adopts a weighted scoring against Introduction, Characters, Inventiveness, Voice, Ending and technical aspects. He explains the weightings he uses in the Whittaker prize and presumably if brought in to judge elsewhere he'd use something similar. I like this a lot. I just wonder how common-place (or not) it might be. Taking us through each of the elements in turn, the authors give examples of faux pas that would result in low scores, explaining in each case what is wrong with them.

They talk about pleonasms and twists in the tail – when they work and when not.

Through it all they repeatedly suggest that you don't have to be brilliant at all aspects, strength in one area will compensate for a weakness in others…but working on your weaker aspects does appear to be an unspoken recommendation.

There's a significant section on dialogue. How much, how little, can you rely on it totally or dispense with it altogether – not to mention the pesky discourse on dialogue tags. Is the received wisdom that said is the only tag you need, all it's cracked up to be? I'm pleased to see that they find (as I do) that even with some very well respected writers this tricky area can be poorly executed leaving the poor reader having to scan back to figure out who they're listening to.

As a pedant, I'm delighted to see SPAG marking hasn't totally gone away (Spelling, Punctuation And Grammar for the uninitiated). Ok, it's not crucial, and shouldn't be applied pedantically – witness this scribbled fragment – but writers are advised to take note of submission guidelines. The occasional typo will be allowed through, no doubt, but consistent errors will irritate the reader (a.k.a. the judge) so if you can avoid them, why wouldn't you do everything you can to do so?

Is it all about the writing, or should you be checking out who will be doing the judging? Some interesting views, which left me thinking, no – don't bother, just focus on what you can control, the quality of the writing. That is ultimately the point of this short publication: to set out from the organisers' and judges' perspectives that there really is no secret to winning short story competitions. It is just about good writing.

There are hints about what good or great writing actually is, but the language used to describe it still leaves me thinking that there is still something ineffable about it, that you know it when you come across it, but it cannot be coded. Examples are given to steer you in the right direction – but these will not work unless they align with your own 'voice'. 'Voice' is highly valued, as is Factor X. Not very helpful, you might think.

Perhaps that's the point…you can't necessarily be taught how to do it, only how not to. In that arena there is solid help at hand in the shape of a significant list of things you must not do – over fourteen general areas, with weblinks to even more detail on the don't do this front.

As it wouldn't do to end on such a down-beat note, we're brought back around to why enter such competitions in the first place; how, tactically, should you approach them – how many, how often, which ones; and whether they should be viewed as end in their own right or as a stepping stone to something else. Clearly there are no definitive answers to these questions but the authors do at least offer up some context to enable writers to analyse whether their own approach is the right one for them.

For further advice we can also recommend How to Write and Sell Great Short Stories by Linda M James.

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