How to Win Writing Competition - 2020 new tricks Posted on:February 18, 2020. 11:02 pm
Standing out is hard. Sometimes you just want to blend in and stick with whatever everybody else is doing. Creative writing competitions are not those times.
1. Don’t start with the weather
It’s an easy way to start, isn’t it? A lovely warm-up for the mind and typing fingers to ease yourself into the story, like spewing out “once upon a time” yet again.
Nobody cares. I don’t even pay attention to weather reports in my real life, let alone take an interest in what’s happening in the sky above fictional characters I haven’t met yet. Start with one of two things, and preferably both: People and conflict. Those two things are the essence of any story. People and conflict. That’s all the reader (your judge) cares about. People and conflict will drive your story forward, will be the essence of everything you write. So start with people and conflict.
2. Cut your first paragraph
It’s amazing how many stories are instantly improved by simply covering up the first paragraph. Try it. Your first paragraph is probably about the weather, anyway.
Or your brain found some other way of warming up. Or you were so excited you just had to tell me some crucial information in the first few lines. Well, that information is not as crucial as you thought it was. It can wait. The right moment will come up later in your story for you to SHOW me that information about your world. Or, even better, I’ll have worked it out for myself from the way you’ve written everything else.
Readers are two things: bright but impatient. It’s OK to plunge us straight into your story without explaining – straight into the conflict (see point one). So once you think you’ve finished your story, go back and see what happens if you cover up your first paragraph. Or cover up your first two paragraphs. Or three. Or scan your first page looking for the most arresting opening line. It’s there somewhere. You might not have realised it was the perfect opening line when you wrote it, but you can find it now and cut everything that comes before it.
3. Don’t write a “spooky story”
Spooky stories are wonderful. But for a writing competition they give you a lot of problems. First, everybody thinks they can write them. But you should want to stand out. Second, it’s very hard to come up with anything spooky that hasn’t already been done a million times. So how can you make your story unpredictable?
But the biggest problem is going to be your ending. Spooky things are usually spooky because they can’t be explained – the supernatural curse, the face at the window, the ghosts and ghouls from beyond our world… So once you reveal what’s behind the spooky stuff it feels like an anticlimax. And if you don’t reveal what’s behind your spooky stuff, what do you end with? You end with dot, dot, dot of course.
Almost two in three stories by young writers that I read for competitions are spooky stories that ‘end’ with a thrilling moment of danger and then… that’s it. No resolution, no explanation, no fun of seeing how the character fights back (or fails to) just the dreaded dot, dot, dot… I can usually guess from the first line whether a story is going to “end” with a dot, dot, dot.
Dot, dot dot is not an ending. It’s a beginning. If you really love the spooky situation you’ve come up with, start your story where you’ve written your dot, dot, dot. Develop it from there, then give me a wonderful, satisfying ending that I wasn’t expecting but which makes sense of everything that’s come before.
Setting up a spooky mystery is easy. I, your judge, will give you no credit for it. Setting up a spooky mystery unlike anything I’ve read before is a bit harder. I’ll still give you very little credit for it. I’m mean. Unravelling a mystery in a satisfying, surprising way… that’s hard. You’re going to need a brilliant twist. Try it if you dare…
4. Avoid celebrities or characters that already exist
Recently I was running a writing workshop for a group of students who had all written stories in preparation for the day with me. The first thing I did was to ask them to put up a hand if they’d written a story about a footballer. About a quarter of the room put their hands up. Then I asked them to keep their hands up if their stories were about either Ronaldo or Messi. All the hands stayed up.
This is pretty typical. And it’s understandable too: it’s easy to plug in a celebrity or existing character to your story. Of course it is. You don’t have to do any of the work of creating a character from scratch. You know a bit about the person so you can imagine them in a story. The same applies to characters from fairy tales or from popular stories that already exist.
I was recently judging a creative writing competition for a big network of hundreds of international schools. Thousands of students from all over the world write stories for this competition every year, and every year the organisation compiles a list of the characters or character names that crop up over and over. Most popular this year: Cinderella. Closely followed by, guess who, Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. There were superheroes on the list too, including Superman, Batman, The Hulk and One Direction (yes, of course they count as superheroes). James Bond was there, alongside, for some reason, the Tooth Fairy.
So think twice before grabbing an existing character or personality for your story. Fan fiction is great, and a wonderful way to start out as a writer. It can help you hone your skills and be a launchpad for your own imaginative journeys. But it’s not going to win a creative writing competition.
If you want to write about Harry Potter, or a footballer or superhero or celebrity, it doesn’t take that much extra time and imagination to use someone you’ve heard of as a starting point but then tweak it. Make it your own. Change the name. Change the situation. What are you really trying to say about that character? Try exaggerating an aspect of the personality to make your point bolder. Or, for a quick fix, mash two things together: a footballer superhero. A boy band that goes round after dark collecting people’s teeth. Suddenly, you’re in fresh territory and you won’t see your characters crop up on a list of what everybody else is writing.
5. Calm down. Keep it simple. Your words are giving me a headache.
When writing competitions are split into age categories, I see a really odd trend in the stories. Writers in the older age groups try to show me how well they can use fancy words. The younger writers are better at telling a story. Which do you think is more important? If you’re in the older age-group category, you might find that a tricky question. It isn’t. The story is ALWAYS more important.
Writing a good story is not the same thing as writing to get ticks from an English teacher. All those fancy words, the complicated constructions, the flowery images… cut them. Pretend you’re still a young kid who just wants to hear a story. Focus on that.
Want an easy way to work out whether you’re overwriting? Count your adjectives. Try to limit yourself to a couple per page. More than one per sentence is definitely not a good idea. Count your adverbs too. Then cut all of them.
There’s always a better way of SHOWING me your story than just TELLING me what to imagine by using an adjective or adverb. And the more syllables there are in your adjectives, the more they’re getting in the way of your story.
So calm down with your thesaurus. Nobody’s trying to break the English language into a new dimension. We just want to hear a story.
6. Write an ending
Remember why I warned you not to write a spooky story? Remember the dreaded dot, dot, dot…? Well, it turns out endings are difficult no matter what kind of story you’re writing. But remember this: if your story doesn’t have an ending, you haven’t written a story. At best, you’ve written a set-up. If you’re entering a story-writing competition, you’re going to need to write a story, and that means you need an ending.
Have you any idea how frustrating it is to read entry after entry, all of them setting up story situations, some of them excellent, but hardly any of them leading anywhere or giving me the satisfaction of a pay-off? Please, I’m begging you: give me that sense of completion that every story should promise – and deliver. Write an ending.
If you’re finding it tough to work out an ending to your story: that’s the way it should feel. Endings are hard. But they’re worth it.
Here are a couple of hints to help you. The great film director Alexander Mackendrick said, “If you’ve got a beginning, but you don’t yet have an end, then you’re wrong. You don’t have the right beginning.” He also said, “There are no wrong endings, only wrong beginnings.”
I suggest you come up with your ending first. Plan that out, then plan how you’re going to get there.
How about writing just an ending? Remember up in point two, when I said you could cut your first few paragraphs? What if you cut the whole of the start of the story and just threw me, your reader, straight into a brilliant ending?
The writer Kurt Vonegut suggested something like that. One of his 8 tips on how to write a good short story is simply: “Start as close to the end as possible”
7. Get out of school
A quick one. A simple one. Most people hear about writing competitions in school. So they look around and they start writing a story set in a school. Break the mould. Think beyond the walls of the space you’re in.
8. Write from an adult’s point of view
Remember I suggested you think beyond the walls around you and write something that isn’t set in a school? How about getting beyond the body you’re in too? Try writing something with an adult as the main character, or from an adult’s point of view. Why not? It might seem difficult at first, but if I can write books starring a genetically-engineered assassin who’s only 12, you can make the leap into an adult’s existence.
Try it. Trust me: nobody else in the competition is doing it.
9. Challenge every word
The best stories are the most re-written stories. It’s that simple. And the more you re-write, the more you’ll stand out from every other entry in a creative writing competition. Find the best bits of your story and hone them to make them better. Change what’s around them to show them off. Find the weaker parts – cut them. Cut and rewrite furiously. Are there sections where you’re rushing? Slapping down too much information at once? Are you explaining when you could be showing?
I could write a whole new piece on how to rewrite. I love rewriting. I don’t write a message in a birthday card without a rough draft I can tear apart and reconstruct into something better.
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