by John Peragine
In the last year, short story competitions have helped focus my writing. I read many short stories in elementary school and always enjoyed them, but I believed they were some condensed form of a larger work. I never thought of short-form writing as something special on its own.
Fast forward to adulthood and the beginning of my own writing journey.
Over the years, I have written short stories, but mostly as a writing exercise. To me it was practice for long-form. I believe I was half right.
When I wrote the stories, I never really thought about word counts, genre, or anything else- I just wrote, and when I was done, I might tinker with it a bit, but then I would set it aside. It was not until the past year that I began to realize how wrong this was and how much I was missing.
I am a big Neil Gaiman fan and began reading his short stories, along with his book, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. In it he explains his process of writing the stories.
I was intrigued. Each story was the perfect length. They weren’t shortened versions of books at all, they were perfect miniature works of brilliance.
In my hubris, I thought I could try my hand at it.
In my typical (unfortunately too typical) fashion, I decided to try my hand at some serious short story writing. I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. It was one of the most frustrating and awesome experiences in my life, and I believe it is has helped improve my writing.
The lessons I learned from my experience:
1. You must enter to learn the lessons.
I had never entered a writing competition. I'd heard many people say they were scams and not worth the time and effort. They were mostly an exercise of ego inflation, and that everyone got some prize. Now while I am sure there is a fair share of those types of competitions, the NYC Midnight Competition was none of those things. It was legitimate and hard.
2. It’s harder when someone gives you the guidelines.
To break it down simply: you are given a genre, an object, and a character description. My first one was spy story, mountain, journalist. The rule was that you had to include those elements prominently. . If you didn’t, you were disqualified. To up the stress factor, I had to do the story in 3 days with 2500 words. Piece of cake, right? Not even close.
3. I suck at writing under guidelines.
I had to focus my creativity using the materials given to me. I felt like what contestants in the show Iron Chef must feel like when they are told to make a complete meal using an electric eel.
4. The gamification of writing is both fun and motivating.
A competition that I could get excited about, against other really good writers from all over the world. As a professional writer, I don’t get too many opportunities to pit my writing skills against others. I was hooked!
5. Ticking clocks trigger neuroses.
I felt the clock ticking. My inner fraud police were screaming loud in my head, “Are you nuts. You aren’t a real writer. What were you thinking? You will lose the first round- give up now.”
6. You must ignore self-doubt.
I ignored the little devil me on my shoulder and pressed on. I typed and typed. I could do this. When I was done- it was 5,000 words. Crap.
7. Editing is a blessing and a curse.
I began cutting and consolidating, and I quickly realized something. Something horrible. My story was not going to work in the 2500 confines. I had to start over- Over 24 hours were done.
8. Write concisely and strategically.
I had to learn the efficiency of words. Working as a journalist meant I could write a column a certain length, but a fiction story was a totally different creature. I had to write more concise and strategically. Instead of spending 3 pages with a scene, I had to write the same information cleverly in two sentences. Every word counts. Some sentences took 30 minutes to work out. But I did it. I wrote the 2500 perfectly crafted words.
9. Appreciate editors and beta readers.
I had some insight into my soul over the next few hours. I learned that I really appreciate editors and beta readers, but I don’t always like them. Mostly because their suggestions are dead-on, which meant I had work to do.
Why couldn’t they just ignore my instructions and tell me my prose was Pulitzer worthy?
Instead, they eviscerated my draft. I could not add any more words, so I had to consider their suggestions (quickly) and tear my manuscript apart and rewrite. I barely made my deadline, and then I just waited.
10. Waiting is HARD.
Because there were thousands of competitors all over the world, the feedback took a couple of months for the judges to complete. It was torture. If I did not rank in the top five in my group, I would not move onto the next round.
Confession: I was so unsure of my ability to do well in the competition, that I used a nom de plume. That way if I failed miserably, nobody would know.
11. Critiques help you grow as a writer.
I have always encouraged feedback and criticism in all my writing. I like the praise, but I appreciate the critique even more. In those red pen reviews, I have the opportunity to learn and grow as a writer.
I felt that the three judges were spot on with their comments. I found out I was not as horrible as I imagined, while at the same time, there was a lot I needed to learn and practice in my short-form writing. I came in 2nd in my group, so I moved on to the next round.
12. The smaller the wordcount, the harder the writing.
I did not do as well in the second round (I came in 7th). The word count dropped to 1500 words and I had only 48 hours to complete it. Again the comments were spot on, and I loved to have been a part of the competition. I have entered two other writing competitions since, and I have had the same great experiences.
Writing short form has made me much more aware of the conservation of words in my long-form fiction. This in turn helps me in the editing and rewriting of my manuscripts. I’m also much more disciplined and willing to scrap an idea to make room for better ideas.
I would love to win one of the competitions but losing hasn’t deterred me or made me feel like I am a bad writer. On the contrary, I feel it is making me better at writing and editing. Also, it has taught me how to write with strict deadlines. I had no time for distractions, and it forced me to focus on just writing.
If you have never tried your hand in a short writing competition, try one. You will be surprised about how your perception and your writing skills will change.
Have you tried writing short stories? Have you entered writing competitions? What are your thoughts on switching up your writing every so often? Let's talk about it down in the comments!
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John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, The No Frills Guide to Book Marketing, will be released in Summer 2020.