GUIDELINES ON WRITING FOR A SHORT STORY COMPETITION
by Jim Williams
Entries should exploit the unique form of the short story as a literary vehicle. Marks will be given for ambition and inventiveness and you should not be afraid to risk failure. The following points are for general guidance on the approach of the adjudicator.
1. The scene of action should be sharply drawn.
So we’re in a café, me and Jeffrey. It’s a dump, but I like the smell of burned grease and sausages made from fat, rusk and the bits of pig we don’t talk about. Also I can keep up to date on the latest tattoos. It’s an academic interest.
2. The theme should be clear though the outcome is unknown.
“You want us both to enter a short story competition,” says Jeffrey.
“You’re a short story writer,” I say. Actually he’s a lawyer, but what the hell, a girl can dream, and he does.
He says, “But you don’t like short stories – especially competitions.”
He’s right. I don’t like short story competitions. Talentless wannabes enter them.
“You think talentless wannabes enter them.”
“I deny it. I never said that.”
3. Characters should be individualised, and their motivation should be understandable.
Jeffrey is a prick. I am a despicable excuse for a human being. My ex-wife will supply references. She says I have bi-polar disorder. On the other hand, over the years she’s accused me of every mental illness under the sun.
Except fucking Tourettes! Hah!
“Are you taking your meds?” Jeffrey asks.
“I’m not on meds. It’s just a story Frances puts about.”
“Why should she do that?”
“To explain her injuries.”
“She has injuries?”
“Blaming me is easier than confessing she’s a drunk. Look, can we talk about the short story competition?”
“Frances doesn’t drink.”
“Whatever. The short story competition?”
4. The voice should be of a piece with the character of any Narrator. Dialogue should be consistent with what we know of the speaker or intentionally cause us to question what we think we know.
“I don’t get it,” Jeffrey says with that note of whinging bewilderment I hate. “You write novels. Not the same thing.”
“Novels, blogs, scripts, advertising copy – name your genre. I’m a better writer than you.”
“Says who? Your novels are all self-published.”
My fists clench. This is a sore point. I belong to the school that says self-publishing of certain books – mine for example – is a mark of artistic integrity. On the other hand most of this stuff is written by obsessive losers with a cloth ear for language and plots constructed out of Lego and staffed with puppets.
I act polite and reasonable. I say, “Not because of lack of merit. All the good firms have been gobbled up by international media conglomerates. Where are the old style publishers? When did you last see a middle-aged man in a corduroy suit with his flies undone and stains down his pants? These days publishing is run by twelve-year old Mormons with Harvard business degrees.”
Jeffrey isn’t to be distracted. “Didn’t one of your friends on Facebook ask Amazon whether there was any way of posting negative stars on their review page? Not exactly a fan, eh? The last reader’s report from a publisher described your book as ‘self referential, implausible, heavy-handedly knowing, full of its own conceit and too clever by half’.
” The reader in question should complain of Jeffrey’s cavalier abbreviation of her comments. She also said I was misogynistic, vainglorious, petty-minded, spiteful, self-pitying, dangerous, thoroughly evil, and yet ultimately trivial. Trivial ? Frankly that kind of sloppy reviewing is unforgiveable. I was going to have it out with her face to face, but her home security was beyond my technical skills and the tools I’d brought along. I stuck to writing a withering riposte, which sadly remains unpublished except on my website.
Jeffrey asks, “Sausages OK?” He looks around at the other customers. Nods a few times.
“They’re fine. And so is my writing. Some people just aren’t into post modernist jeux d’esprit.”
“The text talking about itself.”
Jeffrey sighs. Puts his fork down. Larry, who owns the place, looks worried and asks if the beans and black pudding are all right? Jeffrey says they’re fine and – would you believe it? – winks at Larry.
He says to me, “And then what? Post-post-modernism?”
“The text talking about the text talking about itself? It could happen.”
“If you say so. But what the criticisms amount to is that your writing is too artificial. Wasn’t that the reaction when you published your stuff online?”
He means when I cast my artificial pearls before authentic swine. I speak of my Facebook chums. I don’t know which I hate most: the ignorant criticism or the insincere praise. And don’t get me going about writers’ groups. Suffice it that the words “genius” and “gratitude” don’t figure in their vocabulary.
“The problem is you have no feeling for relationships – not just in the writing, but in Life. You’re not grounded. If you and Frances were as happy as me and Janice and the kids, you’d understand. You lack family focus.”
I want to murder his wife and kids and burn down his house. How “family-focussed” is that?
5. Marks will be awarded for originality.
Jeffrey grins. “Now I remember, you entered a short story competition once before.”
Obviously he has a certain sad incident in mind, that a decent human being would forget, but all I can think of is that he’s the only person in the café with perfect teeth. In fact, apart from me, he may be the only person with teeth.
I wince. “That’s a low blow. I was in hospital at the time.”
“I recall you were very enthusiastic about your ‘original’ idea. You thought you could write a two and a half thousand word story without using all the letters in the alphabet.”
“Don’t say it’s impossible. Someone once wrote an entire novel without using the letter E.”
“You wrote your story without consonants.”
“The readers were supposed to supply them from their imagination.”
“oo – ee – o – o – oo – ee ?”
“The start of Hamlet’s Soliloquy. See? It can be done.”
Jeffrey puts both hands flat on the table, palms up. It’s a lawyer’s gesture meant to show frankness and a willingness to listen. “All right, what’s the theme of this competition?”
Ho ho! So the Jeffster is not as calm and aloof as he would like to convey! I think I may have pressed his vanity button.
“It’s open themed,” I tell him. “You can submit your usual stuff. You ought to win. After all, you write ’professionally’.” I sign the quotation marks around “professionally” with my index fingers, though irony is usually lost on Jeff.
To digress from the subject of the present writing competition and risk introducing a note of implausibility into a tale marked until now by its intense, even painful realism: believe it or not, our boy’s writing career (which has earned him literally hundreds of pounds in only twenty years) has been one of penning romantic pieces for the sort of magazine old ladies in lisle stockings used to read. You know the stuff? Doctors and nurses? Governesses and Regency bucks? You do? I’m astonished. Truthfully you don’t look so old. From your picture I’d assumed they were recruiting younger people to judge these competitions and your youthful complexion misled me. (Hah! Who says I have no feel for relationships? Take that for an adroit piece of flattery! NOTE: delete these comments from final text. I don’t want the slanty-eyed old bird to sniff my game. Have you seen her photograph? I make no comment. I’m a gent. Woof! Woof!)
As for Jeffrey’s notions of literature:
“Oh, Jeffrey, after my childhood spent starving in the orphanage and being whipped by the overseer, I never thought to find true love!”
“Oh Janice, my darling, it’s a miracle and we should thank God that I’ve been able to cure you from your incurable but strangely curable fatal illness which until now (and for the future, I trust) has made you so ethereally beautiful.”
That kind of thing. It makes you want to reconsider post-modernism and maybe give it a try.
“Have they published any guidelines as to how the contest will be judged?” Jeffrey asks.
I hand them over.
6. Be sparing in the use of figurative language. Avoid hackneyed similes and metaphors.
Jeffrey takes the printed sheet of competition guidelines and spots that it’s a Word document typed by Yours Truly. No flies on Jeff. “Why didn’t you just print off the web page?” he asks.
“It‘s one of those sites where the designer has let it go to his head. Gothic font in orange on a black ground and stuff going on like the Big Bang. I couldn’t get a legible copy.”
Jeffrey has absolutely no idea of the effort it has cost me to translate the competition guidelines into a form he can understand. But he’s going to find out – yes, sirree ! He scans the page and nods sagely. He is Wise in the Ways of Writing, oh my children, and these tips are easy-peasy as far as he’s concerned.
He says, “You’ll never comply with Rule 6. That’s the one about figurative language. Your writing is full of overwrought similes.”
“Fie! I avoid similes like… something that would be avoided if one were in the business of avoiding something that is avoidable.”
“That’s a simile.”
“No shit, Sherlock? But an original one, n’est-ce-pas?”
“Calm down,” he says. He looks at me pityingly (NOTE: sometimes there’s no help for it: you just have to be reckless and chuck in an adverb and to hell with the literary style Gestapo.). “You’re getting worked up about this competition. Have you told me the truth about your meds?”
“Piss off,” I tell him. “Thank you for that.”
“Which happens to be a metaphorical use of the verb ‘to piss’. Not many people would spot that.” Actually he has a point: I do seem to be getting excited. Which is incomprehensible. Not like me in the least. Even when holding a knife, my hand doesn’t shake – Frances will confirm that. The essence of writing is the exercise of calm and perfect control over one’s use of language and the creation of artistic effects – even if the overpaid ignoramuses who pass themselves off as “real authors” … no! Don’t go there. I must remain above mine enemies. My control over the English language and artistic effects is perfettissimo.
Ergo I am not barmy. Hah!
7. To emphasise that your piece is a story and not another short prose form, the narrative should exhibit tension and a developing drama.
Our fellow diner in the sausage-chomping business, Beast, comes over to the table. He gives me the Evil Eye and speaks to Jeffrey. “You all right, Jeff? He’s not getting out of order is he?”
Beast is built like a multiple car crash (except he isn’t because that would be to give in to an impermissible simile). OK, I’ll settle for “huge”, while noting that if he beats the shit out of me, I must remember to write a shorter opponent in the next draft.
Jeffrey smiles. “It’s OK, Beast. He’s just a little overexcited.”
“Off his meds, huh?”
“I am not on fucking meds!” I shout. I’ve had enough of this. I affirm to anyone who cares to listen, that I am not mad. I can prove it. I have certificates.
Jeff says, “He’s OK.” He squeezes Beast’s hand and Beast lumbers off to fight Grendel or something. Next time I am definitely going to write him down to a hundred and ten pound weakling and kick his arse.
Jeff gives me a saintly smirk and a long “So-oh… Where were we? Short stories – how many words?”
“Ten thousand.” An exhalation. “ Wow, that’s a lot.”
“It’s a serious competition.”
“I’m a perfectionist.” He shakes his head. “Ten thousand is a hard three month slog.”
“For me, too,” I remind him. “But at the end, we’ll know who’s the better writer.” As if it’s in doubt. Even without consonants I can ea – i – o – ea – a.
“Yes, we shall,” Jeff agrees warily. “So, let’s do it.” Then, “Three months’ work… Jesus!”
8. Without being predictable the elements of the story should lead naturally to a satisfying conclusion. It should be provocative, insightful, shocking, unexpected, moving, funny or all of these things.
Jeff taps his watch. “Gotta go,” he chirps. “Same time, same place next week? You’re calm now?”
I nod. What is it with me? First I’m excited and now I want to cry.
“Silly me,” says Jeff. “Almost forgot.” Big toothy lawyer’s smile. He hands me some papers. “It’s a restraining order. You’re not to go near Frances until your doctor convinces the court you’re back on your medication.”
He hands me a tissue. Are these tears on my cheek? Jeffrey gets up and heads for the door. His leather jacket hangs from his shoulder and he swings his cycle helmet jauntily.
“Nice new tattoo,” I say. “What is it? Frodo Baggins?”
He checks his arm. “Satan,” he says.
Beast blows Jeff a kiss and Jeff blows one back. His buns are packed tightly into his leathers so the curvaceous line of his arse crack shows.
Does Janice know? Should I tell her – as a friend?
Maybe but not now. Tears are streaming down my face, yet it’s not because Frances thinks I’m crazy. After all, relationships are transient. Only writing is eternal. What makes me cry is the thought of the rejection slips past, present and future – the work unpublished, the competitions not won. So much… so many.
Lo, I have granted a Revelation unto the People and they have crucified me with indifference! Yeah, I have wept for them with the tears of my Passion!
I AM A TOWERING GENIUS !!!!
I AM A THING OF SPLENDOUR IN THE REALM OF LITERATURE !!!
I AM NOT A TALENTLESS WANNABE !!!
I – A – O – A – A – E – E – A – A – E !!!!
I dry my tears. Maybe I should return to my meds after all. Without them I truly see things as they are, but it is so tiring.
Whoops! Is all this all a trifle OTT ? Self knowledge is so difficult to achieve.
Still, let’s look on the bright side, shall we? On reflection I don’t think I’ll bother with the writing competition. So much work and so little chance of winning. I’ll let Jeffrey get on with it. I know he’ll give it absolutely his best shot. That’s the Jeffster for you.
Even so, I probably should have given him the last item on the guideline list. Jeffrey is good, but – I dunno – it may be a problem.
9. Entrants should bear in mind that the object of the competition is to further the cause of Japanese literature.