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A Writer On Writing: Short Story Competition Advice

Sally Jenkins brings sound advice from successful short story writer Ian Pattison.

Iain Pattison is a successful short story writer, frequent competition judge and a writing tutor.

He has kindly agreed to share some of his wisdom with us . He is pleading for more humour and less heartbreak in your competition entries:

You know, sometimes I think judging short story competitions should come with a health warning. Not that itís dangerous Ė well, not if you can run fast enough from those who havenít won Ė but more because of the awful things it can do to your state of mind.

Itís always the same. Each time a big envelope of entries drops through my letter box I grin insanely knowing Iím in for a reading feast. But then, moments later, I remember that 95% of them will be stories of angst, despair, betrayal, abuse, regret, anger and disappointment and I gulp and wonder if my poor ragged nerves will stand the trauma.

Itís not that Iím a delicate flower or have a soulful, artistic disposition (I make Frankie Boyle look like Pollyanna on a particularly upbeat day), itís just that no one can take hour after hour, page after page, tale after tale of gloom, doom, depravity and darkness without it leaving them so down in the dumps it would take a JCB to effect a rescue.

In some larger comps the pile of entries stand four feet high Ė thatís a tower of tears, a soaring spire of sorrow, a mountain with pique at the top! And the only thing that gets me through the relentless emotional pounding is the rare treasured tale that provides a chuckle.

For a few precious smile-filled minutes I escape the plight of characters being diagnosed with cancer, discovering their spouses are having affairs, fretting over putting elderly relatives into care homes or dealing with their drug/alcohol/Facebook addictions , and just have a good laugh. Bliss. Sheer bliss.

So it wonít come as a surprise that I always urge writers to go for humour if they want to stand out in comps. Funny stories donít have to be trite, lacking in compassion or silly. They can make the same telling points about how people behave, about the madness of modern life, and reveal real truths about the human condition Ė but do it with a few welcome giggles along the way.

Nor do they need to gag-packed or slapstick. Some of the funniest stories Iíve ever judged have been deadpan all the way through until springing an unexpected and ironic twist.
Other adjudicators feel the same Ė we all call for comedy. And if you take a look at my eBook Is That A Pun In Your Pocket? 21 Short Stories To Tickle Your Fancy youíll see that many of my satirical tales did indeed catch the eye of jaded judges.


So please Ė more funnies. Itíll boost your chances, make judges love you, and mean that The Samaritans can lift the bar theyíve put on my overwrought phone calls!

Many thanks to Iain for his advice! And if you want to see how Iain injects humour into his own stories do take a look at Is That A Pun In Your Pocket? 21 Short Stories To Tickle Your Fancy. I particularly liked Iainís modernised version of A Christmas Carol and his take on Willy Wonkaís Chocolate Factory.


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