The Hoops You Must Jump Through: an insider's view of writing competitions, part 1
Opening the doors

The Hoops You Must Jump Through: an insider's view of writing competitions, part 2

This is Part Two of a guest post by short story writer and winner of the Scott Prize, Susannah Rickards. In Part One she explored the role of the First Filter Reader, who will be the one deciding whether your work should be seen by the named judge, and here in Part Two she discusses just what it is that separates the 94% of stories which don't make it onto the longlist, from the 2% which do. And just to make it even more fun, one reader can win a signed copy of Hot Kitchen Snow. Leave a comment by the end of Sunday 14th November on this post, or on Part One, and I'll pick one out of the virtual hat.

So, over to Susannah:

HOOP TWO: What the 2% have, and how to make sure yours is in that pile.

So, your competition entry is probably sandwiched between a bank statement and a lost return slip for football training fees, somewhere in the first filter reader’s living room. How do you make it stand out?

A strong title and first sentence are good places to start. I’d never drop a story because it had a dull or pretentious title, but will pull one from the pile because its title appeals, to start the reading session. So, a good title might mean your reader comes to your work fresh. What’s a good title? I’m not among those who think one-worders are cop-outs. I’m likely to pull out a story called Oranges or Catcher because those words are potent when they stand alone, but would be even more likely to pull out stories called Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit or Catcher in the Rye (had they not already been coined) because they take the potent noun and activate it. Stock titles, such as Knock Em Dead or A Real Trooper are less likely to appeal immediately because the language isn’t new. They don’t demonstrate the author is capable of manipulating language in an original way. A trite title may be a brilliant parody or counterpoint the material bulk of the story, and that would appeal once I’m immersed, but in a competition, why make a bland first impression?

Is it churlish to judge a piece of work on its first line?  Not entirely. Why not make that opening a measure of your best skills? Strong caveat here:  a great opening line doesn’t SHOUT, ‘LOOK AT ME!!!’ to the reader. An understated but confident opener will be better received than a throat-grabber.  A great opening line demonstrates in miniature what the whole story must convey – a distinctive and engaging tone of voice.

Because the common qualities of winning fiction, regardless of style and genre, are:
1.    That the writer loves and knows the English language better by far than non-writers do.
2.    That the writer has taken the trouble to find out how fiction works, and is overtly enthusiastic about its possibilities.

These two elements cover all areas. They allow for a traditional well-made tale or the fractured, plotless experimental piece, provided the author is excelling within that frame. And yes, enthusiasm really does make a difference. The lacklustre majority of stories could be raised up if only their writers had enough enthusiasm for their art to take out the platitudes, lazy phrasing, hackneyed plotlines and stock characters and refuel them with the originality that is born of true enthusiasm for the possibilities within a form.

The thing is, while only 2% of entries are very good indeed, only 2% are risible drivel. It’s the remaining 96%  that has us tearing our hair out. Not the 2% handwritten-in-green-biro and Random Capitals declaring that The End is Nige (sic) but the tidy tale, after tale, after tale, of women putting their lives back together after divorce; the warm and wholesome escapades of post-war families on church outings. These stories can be witty and well-constructed but nothing lifts them out of the ordinary and I wonder what makes their authors think these pieces will shine among the masses. I suspect they are written by people who don’t read that much and don’t analyse the little they do read, critically, hungrily, to see how an author has brought that catch to their throat, that ripple along their spine. They don’t put that work in and so possess insufficient knowledge to apply to their own writing and lift it.

The stories that rise are by authors who know what they’re doing better than most, because they’ve put the hours in. They’ve read widely and can see how their work fits within the canon and within current trends. I don’t mean it’s immodest but that it’s informed.

Next up: Empathy. The authors who come through have an emotional maturity which is shockingly lacking in that nicely turned 96%. I am often bewildered by the naivety of tone in the majority of pieces. Characters are bad’uns or dears with no complexity or contradiction. Themes of self harm, drugs and suicide are popped in to add edge to placid writing in a manner akin to tossing hot chilli sauce into rice pudding to pep it up. You don’t.

So, the stories that rise easily to the shortlist are those with an overt artfulness with language. They guide the exhausted FFR towards a quick decision. They are the easy-to-be-around colleague, with their striking storylines, settings and characters. After 34 openings of two women reminiscing in a kitchen, one in which a child has its head against a cow’s flank will make a reader sit up. Which is why, perhaps, the stories that come through may seem at times a little flash, crammed with well-turned but superfluous metaphors or bizarre scenarios. But they still stand out from the 96%. They demonstrate vitality and promise.

A final word on behalf of the quiet story. These ones get missed at times, perhaps. I know I’ve put stories on the reject pile on many occasions because they’re the thirteenth in a row about cancer, or because someone dies at the end, and I’m so fed up of authors trotting out a death to round something off because they can’t be bothered to tackle the subtle, trickier task of exploring life. But these stories do their magic. I’ll wake at three in the morning and think: Story 984 – that language wasn’t bland, it was unobtrusive. Read it again! Or a line or a gesture persists in the memory and resurfaces as I’m buttering packed lunch sarnies. Sometimes I look back over the pile and a story will scowl up at me. Something, some animation which these quiet but strong stories possess, usually demands a second reading.

So, in answer to my friend’s original question – Is there a style of writing that succeeds in awards? Does it differ from other good writing? I’d say yes. Perhaps it is a touch more what-it-is than it need be – more ornate or bonkers, edgy or driven. But this immediate energy feeds the jaded first filter reader.  It is writing that rewards the reader immediately. It reassures immediately that its author cares enough about voice, story and the contrary, complex, vigorous world (whether by beginner’s luck and intuition, or years of well-placed graft) that at very least they had the courtesy to engage both our hearts and our brains.

Comments

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Catkin

Very interesting, Susannah; especially Part 2. In future, I won't worry so much about my more bonkers stories - they might be just the thing!

Thank you for taking the time to do this.

(Now I want to write a story with the title "The End is Nige".)

Catdownunder

Thankyou. Here's to the 2%!

Alison Wells

Excellent analysis. I've entered a lot of competitions in the last year or so and what's difficult often is choosing what to send in. Sometimes a story you were in love with at one point because it meant so much to YOU at the time may pale after a while. The strong stories are the ones that even the writer can read over and over again and still feel something even a year later. I do like to read and to write a story that is quirky and while not winning I've been shortlisted for quite a few comps this year incl the Bridport at which I shed a tear. For the writer to realise that their work does stand out and is appreciated by a complete independent is fantastic. Thanks for sharing your experiences here.

Sheenagh Pugh

I can massively empathise with the "thirteenth story about cancer" scenario. Also the thirteenth story told in the present tense for no apparent reason... there really are fashions, in both theme and technique, and it pays to steer clear of them sometimes - or to make sure that YOUR story about cancer somehow stands out from the rest. For what it's worth, the currently overworked theme in poems, and I'd guess it happens in prose too, is caring for elderly relatives with Alzheimers. Crops up half a dozen times in every comp. But I've very seldom seen it done with humour, which might both lift it and make it stand out.

Trilby

Great post - I've forwarded it to all my writing students.
Many thanks, Susannah (and Emma!)

Kirsty

Thanks, Susannah & Emma. Extremely useful advice - perhaps you should mail it out in bulk as feedback to the bottom 96%? :-)

Harvey

What a great post - should be required reading for competition hopefuls everywhere! Thanks both,

Harvey

Marisa Birns

I am only just beginning to send stories to competitions and so glad I stopped to read your posts. Thank you so much for your important advice.

Sam

Useful info there, thanks Susannah. Hopefully it can help me raise my game.

Sam

Susannah Rickards

Glad it's been useful.

Trilby, thanks for passing it on to your students.

Sheenagh, it's interesting how the themes come in waves. It's difficult to anticipate what others will be submitting - hard to second-guess this. But as you say, a story or poem which handles the same theme as the 13 that preceded it can still win through if it is written with real flair.

Emma Darwin

Glad everyone's enjoying it. I'm just thrilled to have got Susannah here...

SallyZ

First of all, just to say that I am currently reading 'Hot Kitchen Snow' and loving it!

Some time ago I was an avid short-story-competition writer and had some success and even read, judged and critiqued both submissions and comp entries for QWF and other comps. Your comments chimed in exactly with my own experiences.

Even more so, reading your stories and the above has given me a timely kick up the backside. I have let my writing float in the doldrums for far too long. Time to get up and at it and aim for that 2% again. Thanks Susannah and Emma.

Susannah Rickards

Sally, that is possibly the nicest comment I've ever had. Thank you so much. And I well remember your work - you're being modest about your achievements. I'm surprised your writing is in the doldrums. Last I heard you had novels coming out all over the place and funnily enough, hearing this gave me the boot I needed to send more work out. I remember thinking: Sally Zig has done it, why haven't I? Submit, submit. I'm judging New Writer this year. Submit, Mrs Top 2%, I beg you!

writeherewritenow

Yes, a really helpful post. Think Frontrow is doing something on the short story tonight (11th November) if anyone is interested and, if I've got my info right, (I'm always multi-tasking when listening to the radio) there'll be a reading of a shortlisted story every day next week at 3.30pm. Reading (and hearing) the ones which rise to the top is also really helpful in working out what makes that top 2% and why.
There are also some great New Yorker podcasts available with writers choosing their favourite stories from the New Yorker with both the full story and comments as to why they love them. Also a really helpful resource.

Susannah Rickards

WHWN - was out doing a public reading last, so missed Front Row but will see if it's podcast. The long discussed short story revival seems to finally be turning mainstream.

Thank you for all those resource recommendations. nothing beats, as you say, reading the best and aiming to write that well, rather than assuming there is something Other, something unattainable about excellence. My writing doesn't come close to the writing of my favourite short fic authors, but it's them I always have my eye on, not the people whose work is on a par with mine.

writeherewritenow

Hi Susannah,
Yes Front Row is available on listenagain now and apparently the five shortlisted stories will also be available as podcasts next week. Have always said that one of the potentially disheartening things about writing - especially when you first start - is comparing yourself with the best and knowing it's unattainable. When I learned to play the piano I went through the Grades and was aiming for Grade 1 to start with. Comparing my plinking and plonking with the greats would have made me shut the piano lid and give up for good.
So I try to bring that philosophy with me to writing. I read the best for inspiration and the sheer pleasure of it and at the same time work hard to improve where I am now - a delicate balance between heady ambition and daily graft.

Sherri

A really useful and interesting post, Susannah.
Thank you (and Emma for hosting.)

Rachel

Thabks for the great advice.
I'm smiling, having made the two percent in two out of the three comps I entered this year mostly by reading and re-reading my chosen stories to see if they kept me hooked on the squillienth read. Great to have an on the page reminder of the key elements that give stories a little lift.

Rachel

And thanks!

Whisks

Thanks to Susannah and Emma for this insightful pair of blogs. Inordinately interesting, and a good reminder that the main hurdle in many comps is impressing the FFRs - if you get a story up before the beak then you're already short-listed.
We all think we're in the top 2% but we can't be, can we? What a ticklish task to skim them off. Then sorting out the wheat from the, er, wheat is no easy task. Hats off to the FFRs for their dedication.

lara

I would read a book called The End is Nige, sounds funny

Sandra Davies

Years late to this, but thank you indeed. Superb examples of what not to do - especially the kitchen v. cow's flank.

Emma Darwin

Fab, isn't it! That Susannah Rickards, she really can write.

Emma Darwin

I know people who get cross that their work may not be read by the name judge, but as well as the fact that it's logistically impossible, it also in a funny way lets you off the hook. You don't know who you're trying to impress, beyond the general flavour of the comp if you can research it. So you might as well just try to write a blimmin' good story!

Diana B

this writing is informative and knowledgeable.

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