Thursday, 21 September 2017

How to win a short story competition by Imogen Robertson

Designed by H Wigstead 1795
© The Trustees of the British Museum

There is not, I think, an easy or reliable answer to that question, but it’s something I’m thinking a lot about this month. I’m judging the Historical Writers’ Association / Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and it’s a humbling business. 

First of all the sheer number of entries we’ve received has been remarkable. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, we’ve been able to keep the entry fees reasonably low (I hope everyone is rushing out to by the re-issues of Lady Dunnett’s works), and that might be part of the reason. The second is, I think, the broad appeal to the imagination of historical fiction. Any place, any time, any size and shape of incident, great epoch shifting moments, or personal, intimate revelations - whatever you want to write and whatever sort of writer you are, you will find stage and characters and setting to fire your curiosity in history books and archives. I’m reading adventure, action, quest, romance, crime, war, alongside intricately worked, subtle portraits of individuals and communities. I'm delighted to say the standard is extremely high. Well, I'm delighted as a reader, but it makes the role of judge a lot more difficult. 

So how to choose? Well, obviously I feel very much as Antonia Senior did judging the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown. The best stories have passion and are succeeding according to the terms they set for themselves. The very best are also beautifully written, not just competently, professionally written, but written in prose which is crackling with character, surprising and transporting. What’s clear is that we have more stories of exceptional quality than we have prizes to give, so I feel both challenged and very privileged to have such a field to pick from.

L'orange ou le moderne jugement de Pâris
Philibert Louis Debucourt 1800
© The Trustees of the British Museum

There are a lot of stories which are perfectly good - the writers show promise and flair, there's imagination and sympathy - but for one reason or another the story doesn't quite fly off the page. I wondered why, if there is something particular about a competition story, or a historical story and what I might advise a writer to consider when they enter. The following is what I’ve come up with:

Here's one thing to bear in mind in the context of a competition - your judge isn’t choosing to pick up a magazine or a book, or click on a link and read just one short story. They are reading lots and lots of them. With the best will in the world, you are cooking for someone who’s already pretty full.

Le Ventiquattr'Hore dell'humana felicità
Guiseppe Maria Mitelli
© The Trustees of the British Museum

So a strong opening is key. A first line which presents me with a strong immediate image of a character and a situation makes me sit up quickly. An opening line about the weather is less likely to do that. Then there is originality of the setting. The Second World War still seems to exert a strong grip over our collective imaginations. That’s not a surprise, as I heard Elizabeth Buchan and Clare Mulley saying at a talk on Tuesday night, it is a period we are distant from but still connected to by family stories, and of course the drama of it, the huge moral choices faced by ordinary people makes it a compelling place to set one’s fiction. But if you are going to write about the Second World War, just be aware that you are part of a big crowd. You are going to have to fight harder to make your work stand out. Look at the sweep of history, is WWII the only place you can go imaginatively? If the answer to that question is yes, then fair enough, but just to give you an idea, I’d say nearly half of the stories I’ve read in competitions with a historical angle have been set between say 1935 and 1950. It doesn’t mean I dismiss those stories, but it makes me actively hungry to read your entry if it’s set outside that period.

Voice. Have one. There is a sort of neutral third person point of view which is almost ubiquitous these days. It may comment lyrically on scenery or action, it may contain within it strong lines of dialogue which convince as the voice of a living individual, but, by and large it floats above character like a slightly weary fog. Now, in novels prose which has a strong and particular flavour can get quite wearying, but that sort of prose certainly does punch through in short story competitions. It doesn’t need to be a monologue or the privileged viewpoint of an individual but an opening paragraph with its own particular crackle and bite has me cheering a story on rather than sitting back and hoping something happens soon. Think of it like stepping off a plane, that moment on the top of the steps as you emerge from the recycled atmosphere of the cabin. The air might be freezing, or heavy with humidity, you might be confronted with sounds and scents you’ve never met before, but it says loudly and immediately ‘we are somewhere different now’. And now your judge is leaning in, excited and eager to see where you are going to take him or her next.

Terracotta Campana relief showing a chariot-race
First Century Roman
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Remember this is fiction. A lot of stories try to rush through a lot of politics, a lot of years, individuals disappear and the words seem to shade into a non-fiction summary. They are telling rather than showing, trying to cram too many facts into a story until it becomes, in Josephine Tey’s phrase, ‘history with conversation’. I don’t think that’s makes for a great short story. A short story needs to be like a slashed sleeve, a sudden vivid stripe of life. A moment, or short series of moments which acts like a torch beam in the Aladdin’s cave of the period showing much, but suggesting much more.

And lastly, respect the form. Every story has its own length, and if an idea has grabbed you and wants a book out of you, it’s not going to be put off with fewer words. It will fight against the pleasures and constraints of the form. I don’t mean every story has to end with things neatly tied up, that can feel very heavy too, but they should have a sense of completeness to them. These are prose sonnets and shouldn’t feel cut off. They are an inhale and exhale, a whole thought which suggests a whole person, a whole time, a world, so that your reader or your judge reaches the end, sits back with a gasp or a sigh and needs a moment to return to themselves and the present.

That’s the way to win a short story competition. 

Phyllis Gardener 1924
© The Trustees of the British Museum


Anne Booth said...

This is so interesting and inspiring.Thank you. I love your comments about voice and the analogy of standing on the steps of an aircraft. And also your points about there being different periods of historical fiction to consider.

Joan Lennon said...

Eloquent, illuminating, and very useful - thank you!

Imogen said...

Pleasure! And thank you both for reading!

Catherine Hokin said...

Fascinating - I'm always interested how what works for one competition doesn't for another and have had the same story win in one and disappear without trace in another, with no changes. Perhaps it does come down to judges' own likes and dislikes once the basic criteria have been met. Ah the lottery of writing!

Imogen said...

Very true, Catherine! All wildly subjective...

Beejay said...

Thank you so much for such a great article. As a writer you must be so aware of how offering up a story is like offering up a newborn for inspection and admiration. The waiting for the results is a far harder task than actually penning the entry piece. Your article really helps to clarify what is important for a judge in such competitions, and so it's something I will try to keep in mind for future entries. At the moment, though, I'm still waiting for the results to be published on the HWC webpage. It did mention the 1st of October as the date for announcements, but I can't see anything popping up as yet.