I used to be obsessed with entering writing competitions. There’s nothing like a rapidly approaching deadline to give you the swift kick in the butt needed to start you writing. Many short story competitions specify a theme which means you can’t use that old excuse “I don’t know what to write about”, and they always have a word limit so writing for competitions gives you good editing practice too.
If this sounds like it might be your sort of thing, I suggest you go to Michael Shenton’s Prize Magic website which has a comprehensive list of writing competitions occurring in the UK and elsewhere. Pick out the competition that most appeals to you and write your entry. Enjoy your descent into madness as the deadline approaches. You will find yourself obsessively checking your word count, tearing out your hair as you realise you have shot past the word limit and are still nowhere near the end of your story. You will begin getting up at 5 am to to make the deadline, shaking from the caffeine overdose as you hack away at your keyboard, fourth mug of coffee in hand. You will even, to your humiliation, catch yourself talking out loud to your imaginary characters while on the train to work. All this is worth it for the moment when you are standing in front of the post box, clutching the polished, perfect manuscript in your hand. This is absolutely your last chance to get your story off and have it reach the competition by the deadline. Whatever you do, DON’T SEND IT.
The chances that you will win are very small; this is after all a competition and there will be hundreds or even thousands of entries for the judges to wade through. Judging is subjective. Even if your story is brilliant, a work of genius, there is no guarantee that the judge will recognise your talent. The most likely scenario is that you will pay upwards of £5 to enter your short story in a competition, go through months of agonised waiting, regularly checking the competition website for news, only to have your story rejected.
Even if your story is not rejected, you may still end up worse off for your efforts. Once I had a small bit of competition success when a piece of microfiction I wrote was selected to appear in an anthology. However, because it was neither 1st nor 2nd nor 3rd place but merely a runner up, I did not receive any prize money. As well as the entry fee, I shelled out £8.99 plus p&p for a copy of the anthology (yes, that’s right, not even a free copy of the anthology for the runners up). At the time, I thought having my name in print was a prize in itself. Now I have woken up to the sad truth that the only people who buy the anthologies are those whose stories are featured in them. No agents, no publishers, will have seen my little gem. I probably don’t even own the copyright for my story anymore, although I will have to check up on that. In the meantime, the competition runners are making a profit from the sale of the anthologies and I am not seeing any royalties for my story which is in it. Learn from my example and avoid this kind of scam.
So what are you going to do with the short story that you wrote for a competition which now suddenly doesn’t seem worth entering? Send it to a magazine or journal that publishes fiction. There are listings in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or online at Jacqui Bennett’s Writers’ Bureau. Once again, chances are high that your story will be rejected but this time you will not have to pay for the pleasure. Editors of reputable magazines will not charge anything for reading your submissions, although it is expected that you enclose an SAE for the reply.
Please don’t go away with a completely negative view of short story competitions after this rather pessimistic post: there are a few which are worth entering, but how do you know which ones? Check out the previous winners of a competition. If they are well known authors today, it may be that the attention they received after winning the competition helped them make a name for themselves. The Bridport and Fish Short Story Prizes are good examples of prestigious competitions which, if your story is placed in one of them, may help you attract the attention of an agent. (Note that even runners up in these competitions receive a cash prize). The inaugural Mslexia Women’s Short Story Competition also promises to be worthwhile. All winning stories in this women-only competition will be published in Mslexia and read by an agent so there’s the chance for some wide exposure. This competition is being judged by Helen Simpson, another clue that it is a good one. No famous writer would risk tarnishing their reputation by being associated with a dodgy competition. If the judge of a competition is an unknown, be wary.
I’m sure that there are many other great writing competitions out there that I don’t know about. If anyone has any recommendations, or warnings about which ones to avoid, I would love to hear them.