Monday, 25 February 2013

Seven Essential Tips for Writing Prize-winning Short Stories

1. Get a Secretary. To win a prize, you have to enter, right?

Given that few writers can afford a secretary we creative people must learn how to hop out of our slack saggy-bottomed writer's trackies and become business-like. On a slow creative afternoon, or with rigour in a regular slot, we must change hats and sit down with resolve. We must investigate.

Draw up a calendar with deadlines for the significant short story competitions on your planet. Familiarise yourself with word counts for each. Read past winners and it doesn't hurt to read up about the judges either. Be informed, be efficient.

2. Read the instructions.

One of the favourite pastimes in my family (my Dad is an engineer so he can afford to, my bros are brainy and practical) is to open up the box and throw away the instructions. To wing it. Go blindfolded. Well, when you enter your potential prize-winner into a big competition, it will be like the first day of school. So many children, so many shining faces. DON'T TRY AND BE DIFFERENT. If they say before 12.00 on 25th August, they don't mean on the twenty-sixth with a sob story. If they say no names on the document, that means no names AT ALL. If they say 12 point Times Roman double-spaced, DO IT. Spellcheck, triple edit. Sleep with your printout under your pillow.

3. Be humble, but be great-minded.

Junot Diaz
If you read a piece by Katherine Mansfield or Grace Paley or Ernest Hemingway or Sarah Hall or Kevin Barry or Junot Diaz and you throw the book to the other side of the room and shout, It's no use, I'LL NEVER BE ABLE TO WRITE LIKE THAT, well you may be right. These authors are established, original and brilliant. BUT REMEMBER THAT THEY HAD TO START SOMEWHERE. They too started with doubts, with rejections, with silence, probably with depression or alcohol or both. But what I am certain all of these writers possess/possessed is perseverance. Not of the type, Bastards - my story shoulda won! Rather, Okay, it didn't go well, what could be imbalanced or weak or in excess?; let's revise, where else can I send it?

4. Find an idea. Ha! I hear you cackle. An idea? Why they're going 3x2 at the supermarket! What an earth is original any more? Is this some sort of joke?

Recently I read an interview between authors Alison MacLeod and Hanif Kureishi where I was thrilled to read that Mr. Kureishi and I are in agreement. Mr. Kureishi says something rather revolutionary, he says that some days HE DOESN'T WRITE AT ALL. He says that he won't sit down to write unless he has an idea. A light bulb. Illumination. Don't you agree? I DO. I don't buy the idea that you have to write in notebooks, on walls and table napkins; that every day has to yield a word count of up to a thousand words. What about honing? What about being exact? What about storing up impulses, images? What about the rush of putting the fuzzy idea in your head into sure-footed, savoured words?


Sarah Hall
 A short story is a powerhouse, a strictly designed puzzle, a beautiful oil  painting. It is a work where you cannot ramble, explore, delve; it's wham bam thank you man. Before you even start, you have to have an itch, a burning, a trigger. And this has to convulse into words.

 5. Mindspace. To write a prize-winner your brain has to be clean,    wiped clean. You can't go to your work space with kids to collect in half an hour, a dog barking, a jack hammer in the next block; worries. What if you are on the cusp of freefall, your idea has grown wings, and your phone rings?? Nah, you can't climb back up there again. It won't come back. So turn on the red light, put out the Do Not Disturb Sign. Take yourself seriously and others will.

And Know Thyself. Find what enhances your performance at the screen or with your fancy notebook and pen. Have sex. Have coffee. Eat buns. Acquire serotonin the way only you know how. Get ready for this ride. Give this story your bestest.


Your title while succinct, not pretentious, and soaked with the essence of your story, might do well to take into consideration the tone of the current crop of prize-winning stories. This may well sound like a cheap sell-out but you are also trying to enter a commercial market, and vying with able competitors.

And your ending must be powerful, succinct, bearing the whole purpose of the story. Don't even venture into short story territory if you can't hustle up a strong ending with a beating heart.

Super important: Edit while you go. Breathe each tick of your story, each throb of blood, each stitched word. The first draft is crucial. It must as brilliant as you can get it. If you get stuck, leave. Go running, chase the dog, buy a handbag, clean the windows. Sleep with your story at the front of your mind.

7. Read a gazillion prize-winners.

Read The New Yorker. Read Kevin Barry's story 'Fjord of Killary'. Read Granta, The White Review, Tears in the Fence. Be ashamed if you have never subscribed to a magazine and supported the people who adore this beautiful art form. Read, discern, learn and be pure about it.

Catherine McNamara has twice been long-listed in the Fish Short Story Competition, (but once had to withdraw her entry because it had been accepted somewhere else). Her collection 'Pelt' was a semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize in 2011 (she found out by chance when googling her blog!). She has been totally ignored in the EFG Private Bank Trust Short Story Award short list, and usually sees competition deadlines skate by because she is a crap secretary.

But this is going to change...


  1. Yes, yes, yessss!

    Have to admit, I am gutted that my goal to get published in a UK print mag last year didn't work out and as a result, yet again, I am missing out on the BBC comp! Next year, dammit!

    Good luck to you in all you enter, ladybird x

    1. Thanks darl! I think if I calculated my acceptance/rejection rate it would be pretty awful, but totally normal. Ride on and don't ever stop those submissions.

      Yes to the BBC comp next year - I can't even enter as I'm not British or a resident. And last year when it was international I, er, forgot! Xcat

  2. Hey Cat, nice post - the bio at the end made me email ;) Lane

    1. Thanks for dropping by Lane and hope SaltWater is doing well. Still haven't opened my copy but it's on my desk showing off her lovely cover. Hope all is cool with you xcat

  3. I would also add: "Write the stories without thinking of potential prizes." Surprise, surprise, but making my grand plans for my future greatness has never once helped during the writing process itself. :)

    1. You're right, you know, but I guess this was just a secretarial kick in the pants for me. I have the book of short stories coming out this summer and I'm thinking of ways to raise the profile of a collection. So hard to get reviews in bigger places! I seem to be able to have work accepted in literary reviews but I've never really tried very hard with competitions. We'll see what happens.