I’m in receipt of a brand new Moleskine notebook - my prize for having a letter published in the latest issue of Writers’ Forum magazine. I was writing in response to a letter in the previous issue, where a reader was moaning about the number of sad, melancholic stories that judges were selecting as the winners in competitions.
It was an interesting observation, but, as I pointed out in my letter, a judge can only select a winner from the entries submitted and if all of the entries are dour and melancholic, then the winners are going to be dour and melancholic!
As someone who has judged several short story competitions, I’ve seen myself how frequently judges are subjected to such sad stories! I’ve had to sit down and read through a pile of over 200 stories, all with sad and poignant endings, and it isn’t easy to remain upbeat and positive after that! I understand why writers want to tackle such subjects. Often, they are emotionally charged, tackling matters that many judges and readers can empathise with: the loss of a loved one, the passing of a family pet, or the coming to terms with a life-changing illness. Some writers may even feel that tackling such subjects lends itself to a more literary style of writing, and perhaps a better piece of writing, which they think may improve their chances of winning.
On occasions when I’ve judged competitions and found myself reading about death, after death, after death, after death, I’m desperate to read something funny and upbeat (to save myself contemplating my own mortality, if nothing else!). And if I come across such a story, it’s more likely to stand out in my memory. As a result, this increases its chances of being placed within the winning entries.
Which also raises a point I’ve mentioned before in this blog: the first idea you have isn’t always the best. Whatever you’re writing, spend some time developing your ideas. Churn them over in your head for a few days and see what develops. Often, the first three ideas should be rejected, because they’re the same three ideas all the other writers are going to come up with. It’s the different idea that stands out.
Back in 2005, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson was fatally wounded. Many of my students wrote competent anniversary articles commemorating the battle and Nelson’s life. But of the hundreds of articles on this subject that I read, the one I can remember today, eight years later, is the article that looked at the life of Nelson’s mistress, Lady Hamilton, after his death in 1805.
So, if you’re fed up of reading morbid, depressing stories as winners of competitions, then why don’t you write something different and enter it into a competition? If you dismiss your first three ideas, you may just come up with something different enough to make your writing stand out when the judge comes to read it.