3 Tips to Help you WIN a Short Story Competition

Short stories can dig deep in you and twist, but what is it that turns them into things of beauty?

You might write something stuffed full of framable phrases, but it just feels as flat as a burst balloon.

Sometimes I’ll finish writing a story, re-read and feel moved by it. I know then that I might have nailed it, because if you’re unaffected you can put money on it that your reader will be unaffected too. So how does a story reach into the guts of the reader?

Well, here’s my three short story must-haves:

1) Get Emotional

One of my so-far unsubmitted stories started off life as one of those flat, empty things. Sure, it had an unusual setting, a starjump of an ending and a sassy young character, but something about it didn’t feel right. I buried it somewhere on my computer. Months later, I didn’t open it again, but simply thought back to it and rewrote it anew. This time it was stuffed full of emotion. Because that’s what I’m hankering after when I write a short; I want emotional pull, a magic that makes the reader care.

As Danielle McLaughlin, author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets, puts it, ‘As I write I am chasing a certain core feeling or hunch that builds around an image or series of images, and it is this elusive thing that I follow through various shape-shifting characters and scenarios.’

2. Take Risks

What I love about short stories is that they don’t have to bow down to being commercial. You can be as literary as you like. They don’t need a happy ending. They don’t need to belong to a genre. You can break all boundaries. Why conform? In last year’s Bristol Short Story Prize, the winning A Week on the Water is such a patient unfolding that it took me two reads to really get it. And boy when I did, I just about tipped off my deckchair. It was a risk, but Brent van Staalduinen took it and it paid off.

As author Tania Hershman says:

‘The nice, neat stories where everything is explained and it all ties up at the end might be all very well, but how do they resonate with someone who lives in this world, this uncertain, complicated world?’

For Tania, it’s stories that grapple with chaos and ambiguity that are truly great.

Resist safety at all costs. Instead invite your reader to get stuck in, to question, to consider.

3. Polish the Ending

Don’t let your story peter out. No one’s looking for And they lived happily ever after. But a story does need a sense of an ending.

Chair of last year’s Bristol Prize judging panel, Sara Davies sums it up:

‘There were a number of stories that kept us reading, only to let us down with weak or inconclusive endings. A good ending isn’t necessarily a complete wrapping up of the story or a top-note finale, but a story needs an emotional resolution of some kind, so that as readers we feel we have reached an insight or understanding we didn’t have when we began reading, that our investment in the story has paid off.’

For more tips on risk-taking, read this.

Should you base your characters on real-life people?

‘If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction,’ said author Toni Morrison in a recent interview with The Paris Review.

Which got me thinking, do I ever copy from life?

I use aspects of things – situations, people’s personality quirks, the way they look. I apply a heavy dose of imagination then write.

To put it the Maggie O’Farrell way: ‘I think all fiction is a patchwork of things you borrow, things you lift from real life and others you simply make up.’

To copy directly would be plagiarism, right? And a tad risky. I mean look what happened to novelist Gregoire Delacourt when a court ordered him to pay actress Scarlett Johansson 2,500 euros for his ‘demeaning’ depiction of a female lookalike in his book The First Thing We Look At.

And although few of these cases get as far as court, writing is a risk. Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper for the family of the brother of The Help author Kathryn Stockett filed a suit. Cooper claimed that her image and likeness had been used without permission for one of the main characters, Abileen Clark. The case was dismissed because the one-year statute of limitations had elapsed.

If my book ever makes it into print, I wonder who’ll be looking for themselves in the margins. My mum is convinced I’ve used her personality for my central character. ‘I haven’t,’ I said. ‘Ya wee devil,’ she replied. I might add that not once does my main woman say ya wee devil. Hailing as she does from the Philippines, it’d be completely out of character. She does however give everyone nicknames (like my mum). A work colleague of my mum’s whose wayward hair failed to stay in a daily chignon became Bird’s Nest. A neighbour became Margaret with the Dug, to distinguish her from the five other Margarets living on the street. Probably best not to mention The Space Cadet or Whhhhhhhy Me????? at this juncture, but the point is, my mum can see herself in my main character.

Some of the people who’ve read earlier versions of the book, reckon my other main character, Juliet, is me. But a couple of months ago, a literary agent, who was admittedly giving me positive feedback at the time, confessed, ‘Juliet’s too wet for me to really care about her.’ Ouch. Out came the drying-up cloth, and in went optimism and some classic lines delivered by one of my best friends. (She’s bound to recognise them). For the record though, Juliet isn’t my friend, neither is she me. I haven’t ever given anyone mouth to mouth resuscitation like Juliet although I did practise on a plastic model when St John Ambulance came to our school once. There was dribble involved.

The few times I’ve tried to write a character based entirely on a person I’ve known, it simply hasn’t worked. Writing like this is a dead end (for me). Copying people is like trying to copy another writer’s style – it just leads to bad writing – oh, and lawsuits.

So best stick to the tried and tested method. Let real events and people send your imagination into a spin, then invention will do the rest of work.

How NOT to write a synopsis

Writing a synopsis is variously described as ‘synopsis hell’ and ‘the most difficult 500 words you’ll ever write’ – in my case, the most difficult 800.

I’ve just written a new synopsis for my first novel, so thought I’d share my pain, ahem, I mean pointers.

Is a synopsis going to land you an literary agent?

Most submissions require a covering letter, the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis. An agent will read your covering letter, take a look at the first few pages of your novel and if they like what they see, they’ll want to know where the story is going; does it have enough meat on it; will it sell? Move over chapters; make way for the synopsis.

What is a synopsis?

It’s not the blurb on the back of the book; it’s the nuts and bolts of your story. What happens; what’s at stake and how does the jeopardy rise? Is the ending a satisfying one?

Here are some other essential ingredients:

  • Hit the highlights – the bones of the story – beginning, middle and end.
  • Make sure the plot has a true arc – are the conflicts of the main characters clear, and the resolutions to those conflicts?
  • Mention the genre of your book – commercial, YA, book group fiction etc.
  • Include setting – what country, what year?
  • Highlight the main characters. Put their names in capital letters or embolden them when you first introduce them.
  • Include the unique selling point of your book.
  • Make the synopsis 500 to 800 words, and when you get an agent who wants a synopsis of 300 words instead, put your head into your hands and blub loudly. Then dab yourself down. You can do this! Chop, chop – take out another subplot or two and get rid of superfluous spiel.
  • Spoilers – Do include the final plot twist.

What shouldn’t you include?

  • A detailed account of the characters’ personalities. A quick character sketch is enough. Disillusioned science teacher Walter White. The unmarried Frances with an interesting past etc.
  • A blow-by-blow account of every single subplot. Be lean; you don’t have the space for this.

Finally, let other people read your synopsis because if Great Aunt Iris can’t make sense of it, you can bet your life a literary agent will chuck it into the bin faster than you can say Trash.