After 5 years of judging and editing anthologies of short stories for a variety of organisations and causes, I’d like to share a few home truths, in the hope that it makes the next competition an easier and more pleasant experience for both entrant and judge.
This is not an article intended to pump you full of hot air and preempt motivation, but rather a croaky plea from a weary editor and judge of short stories to competitors of all experiences to pick up your game and to be prepared once the judging has finished.
It aught to go without saying that the rules are there for reason. It astounds me how many times word count, genre and profanity rules are ignored. It doesn’t matter how good the story is, if its over the word count or not in the right genre required, it will get cut immediately.
Proofread your entry. Please. Have more than just your mum read it and give feedback on it.
When you enter a competition, your precious words are being judged. Every. Single. Word. Choose and edit them wisely.
Your title will either turn on or turn off the judges in a heartbeat. Put a great deal of thought into it, without being too clever or vague or (I’ve seen this so many times) giving away the twist in the end!
Unless the competition specifically calls for political, racial, sexual or religious extremist views, don’t use competitions as soap box for your passionate views. Passionate writing is wonderful, but no-one wants to feel they are being preached at while reading a story in a competition.
When you enter a competition, you aught to have a small hope your story will be chosen. If it is chosen 99.999999% of the time, you need to have a writers bio AND a publicity shot to send to the publisher. Be prepared for this and send it immediately back. Your publicity shot should be available in both black and white and in colour and be of high resolution. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have had to google a writers name and try and find a half decent photo of them from another site and write to ask permission to use it, because the writer sends low resolution photos, or forgets to do so. Your writers Bio should be 40 – 50 words, brief, not robotic and quirky enough to reflect your style. I have 5 main bios on hand, depending on the publication and audience of the piece of work I have submitted.
I could write a book on boring bios. Whilst I understand that not everyone has a pet giraffe and is currently researching medieval pigeon taming in a Polish castle, we each have something that sets us apart from others. You are a writer. Explore that.
Although It may sound simple, your publicity shot aught to be one that is flattering, yet up to date. You aught to update it every 2 years. Your publicity shot is possibly best one that doesn’t include you holding a drink ( unless you are a reviewer for wine or beer magazine, if so; well done you) You aught to be the only one in the shot, with the exception in rare cases of a dog or cat ( if this is the warm, homely feeling your writing reflects) Ensure the background is blank or neutral. Shots against a bookcase filled with books always sends a good message.
This may sound elementary, but make sure the photo is predominantly your face. These photos are used in a number of ways and the shot of you sitting in your garden, though lovely on a big screen, will be dwarfed if viewed on an iphone or printed on the back of a book. Authors love the wistful staring to one side shots or the head resting on the curled hand shots. Don’t knock them. They work. They make you look alot more intelligent or wise than you may feel. Another favourite (and cheeky) one is the author peeping over a book; which happens to be their own.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on professional shots as technology now allows a simple iphone to take excellent photographs. do a little research on others profile shots. Walk into a book store and turn over the books. Get a feel for the types of shots you feel will flatter you. Practice selfies. Ask your teenage relatives to teach you to do selfies. With digital photography you can take a thousand shots in an afternoon. They has got to be at least one there you can use.
No-one likes self promotion. Suck it up, it’s part of being a writer who wants their work to be read by people other than their mothers. Get your teenage relatives to make you a Facebook page at least, so that your (soon to be) adoring fans can feel connected to you. Promotion is all about relationships and connection. If you are going to ‘make it’ as a widely read writer, you need at least some exposure on the internet. Your information can either be managed and controlled by yourself, or someone else. Do you really want a stranger to write your bio or post photos or information about your writing? Learn about the other networking platforms out there and choose something that will suit your lifestyle and outlook. There is no need to have profiles on 50 platforms, just one or two solid ones which you check in on at least fortnightly.
When you answer interview questions about your story, no one really wants to hear that it took you ten minutes to write, or that the characters are ones you’ll never use again, or that you don’t even like your story. Emerging writers hang on the words and advice of those who have made it to the next step. Allow some mysticism, some magic within the process. Always have a project in the wings, always be excited about the prospects ahead. If you aren’t, no-one else will be. Promotion is about selling the sizzle and not the sausage.
It is common courtesy to respond to the editor and publisher in a timely fashion. Its a pretty small circle in some genres, and you’ve no idea who knows who at any one time. Remain professional and prompt with your replies.
Have a basic contract prepared for the release of your story. You can download copies from your state or national writers society or group. Ensure you read it and understand the clauses. Your publisher will most likely have their own and will send to you; however, it is completely within your rights to counter this with your own. It is fairly normal in most countries to agree to the rights of your story being exclusive (i.e. you can’t publish or enter it anywhere else) for 1 or 2 years and then to roll over to non-exclusivity.
There is so much emphasis on getting to the selection process, with little said about the “afterwards”. When you enter a competition, EXPECT to win! With that expectation, prepare yourself for the interviews, photos and biographies which are required for any normal media promotional distribution. If you see yourself as a winner, then so will others. (OK, maybe that was a bit of “fluffy motivation hype” speak!)
This is definitely some excellent advice. I think we always tend to plan for failure instead of success. It would definitely be better to plan for success instead.
My father use to tell me, “You’ll do what you’re prepared to do.” If you’re prepared to succeed, you will.
The thought of all that “afterwards” stuff terrifies me. I wonder if that’s why I’ve been editing my YA novel for three years — even though my editor keeps telling me it’s ready? In it’s unedited form, it was short listed (one of six out of 98 entrants) in an “unpublished manuscript” competition. My first thought on being told this? “Gee the others must have been pretty bad.” Anyone have some confidence tonic handy?