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How entering a short story competition changed my life


Finding the time to submit a story to a competition changed everything for Max Riddington of the Bridport Prize. She discusses how vital it is that you clear everything from your schedule and enter too...

I was a 30-something mum with only moments to eat a stale sandwich before dashing to collect my son from school. My unread copy of Cosmopolitan lay on the table, taunting me with the time before kids, when the thought of having to cut my own fringe because I didn’t have a moment to visit the hairdresser would have made me break out in a cold sweat. Time was the one thing I never seemed to have. My ambitions to be a writer were always being shelved in favour of the car’s service, son’s swimming lessons, parents’ visit, unclean bath, un-walked dog. The life list was endless. As I hurriedly flicked through the glossy mag with one eye on the clock, I almost missed the three words that would change my life: short story competition.

I ripped out the page and stuffed it in my bag, a good luck charm. The next day, I secretly wrote my short story’s opening sentence while my son did his homework on dinosaurs, figured out plot as I queued in the supermarket, hit on the ending as I walked the dog and used a piece of dialogue I overheard on the bus. All the while telling no-one because I never thought I would win.

And I didn’t. But I was top ten. That was enough to help me believe my words meant something. It was truly a rite of passage. I went on to carve a professional writing career with national newspapers and magazines and went on to write five books. I owe it all to that competition.

I now work with the Bridport Prize, an international creative writing competition whose alumni include Kate Atkinson and also Gerard McKeague, longlisted in the 2019 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award. His ‘Wet Bloody Country’ story has a deceptively simple premise: a father and son holidaying in a caravan over a rainy weekend in Ireland. Yet as the weekend progresses, the innocence of a child’s unconditional love for his complicated, flawed father is shown with heart-breaking consequences. Gerard grew up in Belfast, but is now a GP in Australia. If he can find the time to write, I reckon we all can.

How then to create a cracking short story? Keep it tight, it’s a short after all, every word should earn their place on the page. Overwriting kills pace and is like wading through mud. Short stories should be intense, a bite into a world bursting with flavour. Characters need to do something big in a micro drama, so build tension and don’t shy away from the larger themes. Use conflict, discovery, change, dilemma. Finally, the ending is crucial and it’s natural to rush because you’re so relieved you made it. A good ending should leave everyone wondering what happens long after the last word. It’s the key that unlocks the next stage of the story.

The all-important question when entering a competition is what are the judges looking for? Kirsty Logan, this year’s Bridport Prize short story judge should know, having come third in 2010 and uniquely placed to see things from both sides. “I pick the ones that stay with me because sometimes you read a story and maybe technically it’s great and you can’t really fault it, but it passes through you. I would rather a story that is unusual or has a unique voice and maybe isn’t quite as polished or as perfectly structured, but there’s something special about it.”

As the winner of this year’s competition, she chose the story Henry by Ross Foster. “It is smart, tender and brutal, with an ending that made me gasp out loud,” she wrote in the Judges’ Report.

Kirsty does not underestimate the difference a competition can make to any new writer. “My fifth book has just come out but I have been on the other side. The Bridport Prize was a huge step forward with agents and opportunities. It’s lovely to have that door opened up to you.”

The 2020 Bridport Prize will launch in January 2020. For more information, visit bridportprize.org.uk and @BridportPrize

The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award is now open and accepting submissions until 6pm GMT on Friday 13 December. You can read the rules and then submit here


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