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Top Short Story Writing Tips from Competition Judge!

May 31st, 2013

Iain Pattison, judge of our annual short story competition, offers some timely tips on boosting your chances this year.

The clock is ticking – it’s only a few short weeks until the magical June 30th closing date and I know hundreds of people will be busy penning an entry or excitedly working out a plot, so I thought this would be an ideal time to offer a few pointers on what to try – and most importantly, what to avoid!

As an adjudicator I love reading the wonderfully imaginative, entertaining and emotionally gripping stories that pour in, but I also feel disappointed and a little sad when I see writers who’ve submitted tales that deal in predictable ways with the same old, weary chestnut plot lines.

Many of us already know that in magazine fiction writing the big no-nos are conmen who are themselves conned, murderers who are killed by their potential victims and just about any story with a twist involving weddings – it’s Jenny’s big day, but she’s the 8-year-old bridesmaid, not the bride! What many don’t realize is that in competition fiction the cliché list covers so much more.

And every year we see piles of the usual suspects – stories dealing with middle aged angst and characters asking themselves: “How did it all come to this?”, domestic violence – from either the viewpoint of abuser or abused, people agonizing over putting an elderly relative into a home or worrying how to deal with a loved one who is showing signs of dementia, characters contemplating suicide – either through depression, escaping the consequences of a crime or overwhelming remorse and of course, the most overused theme of all – cancer. Characters learning they have it, battling through the condition or grieving over loved ones who’ve passed on.

Don’t get me wrong – all these are serious issues, and more than worthy topics to explore in your creative writing, just not, I suggest, in competitions. The problem is that so many plump for these over-familiar dramatic set-ups that the similar narratives cancel each other out. For that reason alone, these subjects are best avoided.

Crazy as it sounds, I also caution against going for topicality. Yes, papers and television are full of reports of celebrities being accused of sexual assaults, bankers being chastised for being greedy and reckless, and the raging debates around immigration. And it all sounds fertile territory, but if you go for these, chances are so will countless of your rivals.

My advice to stand out is aim for a plot that is fresh, unpredictable and timeless. Tackle a subject you’ve never seen anywhere else. But if you must choose one of the old favourites, give me an unorthodox take, an unexpected angle – and make sure your story is so good it blows my socks off!

Next time Iain talks about why he wants to see entries with an intriguing setting.

Iain’s humorous eBook ‘ Is That A Pun In Your Pocket? 21 Short Stories To Tickle Your Fancy’ is available now, published by Middle England Media.


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