Monday, 20 June 2016

Advice for Writing Competition Entrants

I was recently interviewed by Helen Walters for her competition column in Writers’ Forum, and the piece has just been published in the July 2016 issue, out now. I thought I’d repeat some of the tips here, but if you can, do go out and buy the magazine for the full interview, and also because it’s packed full of other useful articles for writers too.

What do you look for, when judging a short story competition?

I’m looking for an engaging tale: one that draws me into the story quickly. I find the stories that successfully achieve this are those that have a clear main character, so I know whose story it is, and also what the story is about. Usually there’s a problem, or a dilemma, the main character has to resolve, so it’s important that this challenge is highlighted early on. 

But it’s not just this. The stories that make it onto my shortlist are the ones where the main character resolves their own difficulties. They might need help in overcoming their challenge, but they should still be the ones who instigate that help. Main characters need to be active. They need to be the masters of heir destiny.

What about when judging a non-fiction competition?

Perhaps, ironically, it’s the storytelling! Think scenes. With fiction, writing in scenes helps us show the reader the action taking place, rather than telling them what’s happening. The same goes for non-fiction too. Beginning a piece of non-fiction with a scene, or a little anecdote, is a fantastic way to capture the judge’s attention. Dialogue can help immensely, especially if you drop the judge half way through a conversation. Immediately, I’m trying to work out what’s going on, and so I read on.

What other advice do you have for entrants?

Don’t pre-judge your entry! It’s the judge’s job to judge and the writer’s job to write. At conferences and workshops I often hear budding writers say, “I don’t enter competitions because I’m not good enough.” How do you know? You don’t know who else is entering, so how can you compare? One writer once said to me they didn’t enter competitions because their writing was not of the quality of Stephen King’s. Well, that’s only a problem if Stephen King happens to enter the same competition, and what are the chances of that happening? 

Have confidence in your work. Enter competitions. Somebody has to win, so why shouldn’t it be you?

Good luck!

(There’s still time to enter the Doris Gooderson Short Story competition - organised by one of the writers’ groups I go to. For more information visit: and, please, please, please, READ THE BLOOMING RULES!)

Monday, 6 June 2016

Painted Toenails

Last Monday I was running some writing workshops at the Leominster Festival. This year’s theme was Nature and Landscapes, and one of my workshops looked at how writers can draw inspiration from the landscape around us.

It’s an area of writing that interests me greatly at present, and so I purposely take time to stop and note the smaller things around me. As a photographer I love landscapes: huge vistas of mountains dominating a skyline. But our landscape comprises smaller details too. Every mountain has its own geology, flora and fauna. Every field has its own flowers, grasses and insects. Every leaf has its own skeletal structure, texture and colour.

During the workshop one of the delegates mentioned that she marvelled at the way nature writers describe everything they see and witness. How do they come up with such fascinating adjectives, similes and metaphors?  The answer is simple: describe what you see … but zoom in on the detail. Then you see more.

During the workshop we went off for a short walk and came across a field of buttercups. 

“Describe what you see,” I suggested.

“Sunshine reflectors,” said one. 

“Yellow-petalled saucers,” said someone else.

And these were valid descriptions from our standing viewpoints. But then I suggested everyone should get down on their hands and knees and take a closer look. (Which, admittedly, was easier said than done, for some.)

“I never knew that before,” someone exclaimed. “Five petals on each flower.”

“Look how shiny they are,” came another observation. “The sheen is just like nail varnish.”

There was a giggle. “It would be a lovely colour for your toenails! Such a joyful colour. It reminds me of summer sunrises.”

And then there was gasp. “That’s it! Five petals. Each flower represents a foot: each petal, a toenail. Here we have a field of yellow-painted toenails reflecting the joyous summer sunrise.”

I smiled. They’d found the detail, which had inspired a more interesting description. Never again will they see a field of yellow buttercups. They’ll always be painted toenails from now on.

We don’t need to overload our descriptions with such minuscule observations. But one or two, that cause the reader to stop and think, can really lift the interest in your writing. And it can work in fiction as well as non-fiction too.

So next time you feel your description feels a little lacklustre and distant, why not get closer and really scrutinise what it is you’re looking at. Perhaps it’ll open up a whole new world of description to you.

Good luck.