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Sunday, 13 March 2016

Competitions - not always for the competitive

Lovely fellow blogger and author, Rosemary Gemmell, has kindly featured When Planets Slip Their Tracks in her blog post on new short story collections here . Since sharing this post, the question was raised as to how to set about having a collection published, so I thought I would explain how it happened for me.

Ever since I began writing stories for the women's magazines, I was also very keen to enter short story competitions, which gave me a chance to write slightly offbeat stories with darker themes. However, I am not a competitive person by nature and, certainly at the start, was not expecting my stories to be placed or shortlisted. My priority was to discover how my writing compared with the winning stories and also to study the valuable feedback often offered by the competition judges. As I am self-taught, this became one of the methods I adopted to learn about the craft of creative writing.

I bought various literary magazines, such as Writers' Forum and Jo Derrick's The Yellow Room, which I once blogged about here, and it became my aim to see my stories published within those beautiful, glossy pages. I devoured the high-quality fiction in these publications and made all sorts of notes to help me understand how they were structured and paced, de-constructing them sentence by sentence to appreciate how the syntax worked.

One of the first stories I had published, 'One Horse Town', which is included in my collection.

And one of my stories in The Yellow Room, also included in the collection.
One of my much-treasured copies of The Yellow Room magazine

The most important aspect, however, was to find my own voice - to write from the heart - and for this it was helpful to take part in Write On Site, the weekly online competition which requires a complete story to be written in thirty minutes. The pressure of the clock ticking away really assisted in squeezing out my true style because there was no opportunity for thinking, mulling, head-scratching or changing my mind. It must have worked well for me because whenever my piece was fortunate enough to appear in the anonymous shortlist, fellow-writers said they could recognise which was mine.

This combination of writing for magazine competitions (sometimes working on a story for months before it was ready) together with the exciting strain of regularly writing 'on demand', not only taught me about structure/pace/theme and helped to establish my own writing voice, it also resulted in a large stock of stories. The Write On Site pieces were very short of course - I am a slow typist and thirty minutes does not produce a great quantity! - but they became foundations for longer work, or even - with tweaks - stood alone as flash-fiction pieces for competitions.

After having stories published in various competition anthologies, including two in The Bristol Short Story Prize, I realised eventually that some of these might work as a collection.

Throughout my fifty-five years, I have read lots of collections by authors as diverse as Penelope Lively, Helen Simpson, William Trevor, James Joyce, Guy de Maupassant, Franz Kafka, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and so many more I would need a separate blog post to list them all. I can even remember studying the short story form for O Levels at school, mostly Hemingway and Camus, and being in awe of authors who could achieve such a satisfying sense of 'completeness' in just a few pages. Now I had a stock of stories of my own, all of which paled into insignificance among the greats of literature, but which seemed also to have - hopefully - that same sense of completeness.

I entered the collection, then entitled 'Fed and Watered', into a competition, where it was given some wonderful feedback. However, it turned out that only American citizens were eligible to enter that particular contest - I didn't read the rules properly! It was a boost for my writing that, despite being ineligible, the judges still allowed 'Fed and Watered' to be included in the shortlist!

Not long after this, in 2012, I entered a single story, 'Open All Hours', into the Ink Tears competition and it was judged a runner-up. Ink Tears had just begun to establish a publishing arm, so that as well as championing the short story form with competitions, they were also on the verge of producing hardback collections written by some of their authors.

I was asked if I had enough stories for a collection and of course 'Fed and Watered' was ready and waiting! However, I worked on it a great deal more and changed some of the content, using mostly prize-winning stories from the four years of entering competitions, until it became 'When Planets Slip Their Tracks' and was published in hardback in January.

Competitions have certainly helped me enormously with my writing. For example, as a result of winning The London Short Story Prize, I was signed to a literary agent, Elise Dillsworth, who was one of the judging panel. And my novel, 'Tying Down the Lion', was shortlisted in a Cinnamon Press competition, which gave me enough confidence to seek publication for it.

So this was the journey I took and I hope it shows that even if you, like me, are not especially competitive by nature, entering these contests, studying the winning stories and taking careful note of the feedback, is a helpful way of honing the craft. And although there is no magic bullet, sometimes it can also lead to publication!


  1. What a wonderful blog post, Jo. Thank you for mentioning The Yellow Room. I still miss publishing short stories by wonderfully talented writers. Your stories were some of my favourites. I wonder whether Ink Tears would publish my collection? I never get anywhere in their competitions, so probably not. I agree Write On Site is brilliant for getting a story down quickly. I can't wait to read When Planets Slip Their Tracks. xx

    1. Many, many thanks, Jo! I really appreciate your lovely comments. The Yellow Room is much missed and did give me and so many others such a brilliant platform for our stories. Keep trying with the Ink Tears competitions as I don't think I got anywhere the first time I entered either. I'm so happy that you'll be reading Planets and hope you enjoy it - there is one of my Yellow Room stories in there. xxx

  2. What a really interesting and inspiring post, Joanna, and thanks for the mention! I've been reading your short stories for a long time and even remember that one in WF. I'm not surprised you've won so many competitions and were asked to produce a collection - one for aspiring short story writers to study.

    1. Thank you so much, Rosemary, for mentioning Planets in your fabulous blog, for always being such a great support and for your very lovely comments. I'm thrilled you remember that WF story! I'll never forget the Sunday evening when my daughter, more attuned to the sound of in-boxes pinging than I was at the time, said I'd got an email. I didn't receive very many in those days, so it felt like quite an event. And it was the editor of WF to tell me I had won the competition. I couldn't believe it. I had put the story out of my mind because I didn't think it stood much chance. What a moment it was!

      Thank you so much, Rosemary, for being such a fabulous friend. xxx