As it happens, I’ve been reading a lot of short story submissions recently – some of them as a judge for the wonderful Hysteria short story competition and others for a number of courses and publication opportunities.
So what’s leapt out at me from all this? A lot of mental notes for the number of ways “housekeeping” issues can result in wonderful writing failing to make it onto a longlist or shortlist. There are hundreds of “How to win short story competition” blogs out there and I’m not convinced of the utility of these. The real answer – write a good short story – is not, perhaps terribly helpful…
So, most of these tips have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. I’m not sure that it’s possible to teach people how to write a good story, and I’m certain that I shouldn’t be the teacher. But here are the other tips – the ones that’ll stop even your best story from winning, being accepted or being shortlisted. Most of them will seem like common sense, but I find that sometimes my common sense needs an explicit reminder.
- Check your spelling, formatting and word count on your final copy. I know this sounds silly, but seriously – do it. It’s particularly important if you’ve been asked to convert your manuscript into a format that it wasn’t originally (e.g. pdf). I’ve sadly seen at least two very good stories that got mangled in the conversion with only half the story actually arriving for submission. I’ve also seen problems with fonts and tracked changes being visible on the final copy, and with stories having to be rejected as they weren’t anonymised. Don’t trust your computer to take as good care of your story as you do 🙂
- Keep a submission tracker. A lot of competitions, magazines etc. have strict submission guidelines. They may not accept simultaneous submissions, or may want a period of exclusive consideration, or might have different opinions about what constitutes “previously published”. For each place I’m considering submitting, I like to note
- When the deadline is
- What the restrictions are on submitting this story elsewhere
- When I might expect them to tell me if it’s been accepted or rejected
- The theme (if any)
- Whether I’ve submitted before, and whether I’ve withdrawn anything from submission (you don’t want to get into a habit of withdrawing submissions after the deadline – people will notice!)
- Bring the deadline forward. If a story’s due on Monday 30th, mark it in your submission tracker as Sunday 29th. Submission websites can get very full and very slow just before a deadline.
- Put your story away for a month! This might not apply to everybody, but I need a “time-out” from a story after it’s been written and edited. A month is about the perfect time for me to spot the little issues here and there that need a final going-over edit.
- If your story isn’t ready, don’t submit. The number of drafts that a story goes through varies from person to person (I’m usually at about 6-7 drafts before something’s ready, but on occasion it’s been a lot more). Still, if you know your story’s not ready yet, don’t submit. There’ll always be another competition or submission opportunity – and you want to be able to feel proud of every story that’s accepted.
- Think carefully about where you submit. Will you be happy if your story’s accepted there? Is it the best venue for it? I know that it isn’t possible to subscribe to all the literary magazines out there, but many of them make back issues available for free, or have digital versions you can get more cheaply. Knowing what sort of stories tend to be published in each place means that you can tailor your submissions more accurately and not be too dispirited by rejections.
- And speaking of rejections… these don’t mean your story was bad! If you’re submitting to join a writing group, chances are that they only have one slot and are looking for a “good fit” in more ways than the stories alone. If you’re submitting to a magazine or anthology, then they may have just accepted another story along the same theme. If you’re submitting to a competition, you may get the pre-reading judge who just doesn’t click with your story.
- Get a version tracking system! When you go through multiple edits, you’ll end up taking out whole passages, putting them back in, editing, rearranging and generally doing the hokey-cokey. If you don’t save multiple versions of your stories, then when you want to go back to that perfect phrase that you’ve just remembered you used before, you won’t be able to find it. I save different versions using the date, but there are lots of programs out there that’ll do the same thing for you. (And if you find a good one, please do recommend it!)
- If this story is part of a linked set or a previous collection, do make sure it can stand by itself unless the whole collection is being submitted. Send it to a friend who hasn’t read the others and ask if they understand it. A little bit of mystery is good, but do make sure the judges or readers can work it out from what you give them!
- Excerpts from novels are hard to turn into short stories. It’s often very obvious when something’s part of a wider whole – and see the above point. This might not matter if it’s the quality of your writing that’s being assessed, for example if you’re joining a writers’ group. However, not all chapters have a sufficient narrative arc to make a short story – which doesn’t matter if they’re not intended to be! But if you’re submitting something as a short story, make sure it really is one…