Friday, 14 May 2010

Writing For Short Story Contests

The Task Before Me:

Hello every writer in the world. I am a nameless representative from an underfunded arts council somewhere in an English-speaking country. We are currently accepting entries for our short story contest, themed around the invention of the pie crust.

If you have a short story between 2 and 2365 words about how bakers first kept pastry in an oven at the correct temperature to produce a crispy rim around a delicious pie, we want to read it.

We prefer sci-fi slasher stories set in Chiswick revolving around shoe assistants named Phil McSmiddy who live with their mothers and worship alt-rockers The Breeders, though we are open to other ideas (within reason). Send submissions by Morse or carrier pigeon to where we are. All submissions sent by mail or email will be napalmed.

This contest costs £28,030,928 to enter, payable only by a cheque written in blood paid into the Thurso branch of Dodgy Dick’s Private Bank. The contest is sponsored by Ad’ah Hukan Bahbad, deputy leader of Al-Qaeda. All proceeds go to suffocating children

The Task Begins:

So. I have my instructions. I sit down to begin this story, the writing of which will cost me fat white bucks. I am paying the nameless representative for the pleasure of writing this story and submitting to his illustrious contest. Well, it must be illustrious, what with Richard Hammond on the judging panel and everything. OK. I take tablets to quell my raging spleen and start again.

I decide the subject matter is atrocious. I can’t possibly write a story with this tedious prompt, and doing so will be pointless, my story unreadable drivel, deleted instantly. I cry and take my self-confidence pills.

I start again. I pen 2000 words of pedestrian prose about Phil McSmiddy, inventor of the pie crust. It isn’t startling. It isn’t staggering. It isn’t the sort of dazzling new voice that wins Granta awards. It doesn’t burst from the page with vibrant originality, knocking the current crop of Granta bitches from their pedestal with its wow-this-is-the-best-story-in-the-fucking-universe brilliance.

It is good, readable, entertaining prose. No more. I cry again and take more medication.

I decide it needs more of an emotional angle. Stories that win contests have to be about human suffering cranked up to the max and characters surviving these bleak times. I rewrite the story from the perspective of Phil’s Lebanese torturer, replacing each fourth word with a staggering metaphor about the blackness of humanity. I proofread, weep, proofread some more, then send it out.

Four years pass. I am living in a small croft in Norfolk bogtrottrer country, surviving off mud and grass pasties. There is a knock at the door. A dwarf dressed in a poop-covered toga speaks: “I AM SORRY STORY BEEN UNCEESFUL, GOOBYE.”

That’s that, then. On to the next contest!


  1. Oh Mark,

    you made the same mistake as all the other contestants..err..authors.
    You believed that the rules were binding and the judging objective.

    The winning entry was about a cat that first raped and then murdered it's divorcee mistress.
    This coincided with two of the judging panel going through divorce and custody wrangles.

    Second prize went to a marvelously captured tale about a seventy year old man's changed perspective on life. "To have so accurately opened our eyes to the issue of age is still pure genius" quoted one judge when he later found out the author was really only 11.

    Third prize went to a story entitled "I know where you live", consisting of the two words "I do!"

  2. *snort* Ah, you always make me smile. You know, all this doom and gloom malarkey that seems to be the required thing for competitions had better be true, cause if it is, I'm going to enter everything, especially the one about the pie crust. I can just see it now.... "The Tale of the Paranoid Pastry".

    Has a nice ring, yes?

  3. Mike: I remember that war-story scandal. Oh, how we laughed.

    Yes, short story contests are a scandal. I agree with you that the publishing world largely involves robbing authors blind for almost no reward. But we have no choice. No one is going to pay us for our work, we don't live in the 1950s when authors could earn proper spondulicks for their work. And we're not brilliant enough that publishing houses want to throw bags of money at us. All we can do is toss our stories out to anyone who will take our work and be grateful as they squirt four gallons of human shit in our face. And that's all I have to say on the matter. Thank you and good night.

    Tara: Absolutely. The market for Welsh gloom (pie-based or otherwise) is enormous! :)

  4. And my reply:

    nite nite