National Competition 2013 - Comments and Feedback

Comments for our final Judge – Simon Brett

I was very impressed by the quality and range of the stories that I read. Locations in the stories went from Paris via Lusaka to some very dystopian futures.

It’s always fascinating to judge a competition when you have no information about the writers, just their anonymous stories from which to form an opinion. And I enjoyed reading all of the shortlist.

But after some close marking, I didn’t have too much difficulty in arriving at my top three.

In third place was a story called The Aesop Audition. The setting in the world of American show business appealed to me, and I liked the assurance of the writing. The concept of a movie agent fixing auditions for two of his clients in a film based on Chekhov was an intriguing one. And the story had an appealingly sour whiff of cynicism about it.

The runner-up was a story called Something To Say. This was set in the heightened reality of a Soviet – or perhaps post-Soviet – world, in which a minor apparatchik went through the motions of his daily work with the main purpose of finding something in his repetitive days about which he could talk to his wife in the evening. He then received the gift of a story of murder. The writing of the piece was very well controlled and added to the pleasure of a very original narrative.

But I had no doubts about the winning story. Called Taking Care of Business, it was about a supply teacher who had a second career as a hitman. This central idea was a very strong one, but what distinguished the work was the wonderfully detached narration. The writer understands how telling an apparently banal detail can be in crime writing, and richly deserves the first prize.

Thanks to everyone who entered the competition, and to those who organised it. If the quality in these stories is anything to go by, then West Sussex Writers is in a very healthy state, and I remain very honoured to be its Patron.

General Feedback on the Competition Entries

We read the entries to our first national short story competition with great interest, and were thrilled to receive such a healthy number of entries.

However, at our longlisting meeting several points were raised regarding our overall reaction to the stories we’d read, and we thought that the following few points might prove useful for writers entering future competitions.

1.Keep to the brief

Don’t enter poems, novel extracts, anecdotes or pieces of journalism to short story competitions. If they don’t meet the basic brief they won’t progress past the first thirty seconds of judging, however engaging they might be.

2.Word count

It was surprising how many writers didn’t utilise the full word count offered. A longer word count allows plot and character development. If you’re given a word count of 3000 words, don’t send in a story that struggles to reach 800. It’s very unlikely that you’ll deliver a piece of sufficient depth to make it to the shortlist.

3.Narrative arc

Ensure every character in your story has a complete arc. Please don’t tell us about a character on the second page and then abandon them standing on a metaphorical street corner. In the metaphorical rain. A satisfying story gives every single character, even that horrible yapping dog, a complete arc. You don’t have to start at the beginning, but you need one. Likewise a middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order.


It’s quite infuriating to read four and a half pages of a five page story, get into a viewpoint, care about the character, and then have A. N. Other leap in with 200 words to go and finish off the story. Think about the viewpoint you want to use right at the start, and if you can’t take the character on their journey from start to finish (see above) introduce the second viewpoint to the story earlier if you must. Or write the whole thing from an alternative point of view. Or change the ending. Anything. Please.

5.Make us laugh

Throughout history fiction writers have focused on the Big Ideas. The meaning of life, war, fate, death, the utter hoplessness of human existence etc etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. Mrs Gaskell’s North and South is just one shining example. However… The comic entries we received were fallen upon with rabid glee. They put us in a good mood. And there’s nothing better than a competition judge in a good mood…

6.Be different

A lot of entries were quite similar, and we had many variations on several – often domestic -themes including girl meets boy, life after bereavement, standing up to schoolyard bullies and neighbourly disputes. Several stories on these universal themes did make it to the longlist (and even the shortlist), but these were the ones that took a different tack. Girl meets alien or alien eats neighbour, for example. Do think about how you can take a well-worn story and turn it on its head. This is just as relevant for geographical settings and historical periods. Experimental is good, as is crime fiction, science fiction, magic realism…

7.Taste and decency

Everyone has a different view of what is and isn’t acceptable in fiction. A Clockwork Orange, American Psycho and Fifty Shades of Grey have their fans and their detractors. We’re all adults and aren’t afraid of adult themes, but think about who might be your competition judges, and just how well your story about sexual violence towards women and children might be received.

8.The Ending

We were all disappointed with the endings of many of the stories.  A number of you managed to give us entertaining, sharply written characters and the start of an intriguing plot to either just let it fizzle out, or tack on a very unconvincing conclusion that didn’t complete the story arc (see the above point), or provide a sense of satisfaction.

9.Write. Write. Write.

This wouldn’t be an article about improving your chances in writing competitions if it didn’t contain at least one sentence extolling the virtues of trying to write at least every day, for as long as you can, about anything that comes to mind. And there it was. 

We’re looking forward to reading your entries next year!

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