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How to cock up a Short Story Competition… Nearly!

“Let’s run a short story competition,” I said. “Go for it,” said the fearless Editor, voice as clear as crystal, and as warm as balsamic nectar. And with that I spent the crucial time in such a contest, the endpoint, skating from barely mitigated disaster to edgy, calamitous precipice.

It was, even if I say so myself, a brilliant idea. If we create a short story competition with a decent enough prize, we should get enough good-quality entries to make it all worthwhile. We’d support the arts, publish the best ones, maybe get a book out of it. In my dreams I heard, “And the Nobel prize for publishing goes to…”

But the devil, I fear, is in the details.


Well actually they are more than neurotic; they are the sum of all the worries under the listing for Freud, Sigmund S, disorders favoured by.

Fidgety, pensive, nervous, moody and did I mention neurotic? – They have chosen as a career or hobby something that has little or no chance of success. Forgetting this was my biggest mistake.

Here are the odds. For every hundred people who say, “I think I’ll write a story”, maybe one does. For every hundred who write a story, maybe one is good enough to be published. For every hundred good enough to be published, maybe one is, and for every hundred people who get published, maybe one writer does well enough to make a living.

Small wonder they’re, what was that word again?

I fed into this neurosis by setting up an e-mail address for the entries, and then not monitoring it. Actually this may have been my biggest mistake. What I should have done was check it every day and, as and when an entry was received, send back a message along the lines of “The YMM Short Story Competition is delighted to have received your entry into our super prestigious competition. Please know that your manuscript that you have bestowed so lovingly upon us will be treated with all the care an opus of this magnitude deserves.”

As you can guess by now, I didn’t. So my e-mail volume doubled. Nearly every single writer then sent another email asking if we had received the first e-mail; which I also didn’t answer for the same reason. Come the end of the competition entry time, and I opened the address to find myself in what can only be an “Oh bugger me” situation. Allied to this error, I hadn’t set the payment method up properly so they weren’t getting reassuring messages saying that the money, and therefore their entry had been received. So what did they do? They sent another e-mail. 2. Never accept mail-in entries.

There is no need in this day and age to do so. Truly, this perhaps was my biggest mistake. Nowadays, everybody who considers themselves a writer has access to a computer and an e-mailable point of transfer. I insisted though, because I had read somewhere that Margaret Atwood only sends stuff by mail and I wanted her to feel free to grace us with her work (she didn’t, by the way, but I live in hope).

What this did mean, because I was so sordidly slack in answering entrants, was that I had created for myself a lot of duplicate work. The first job I did, idiotically so, was I scanned all the write-ins only to find that many of them were duplicated electronically anyway. Do you know how vexing it is to wish to scream at someone, anyone in frustration, and know you only have yourself to blame?

3. Make sure the rules are clear.

This was a blind judging competition, where the names are removed so the judges can appraise on the merits alone and not be swayed either by notability or notoriety. Experienced writers know to append their details as a separate sheet so as to make the collator’s life easier. Less experienced writers do not, and I did not instruct sufficiently so in the rules. During this agglomeration process – which now that I think of it may really have been my biggest mistake – I took all the entries from the e-mails and gathered them into a folder. Every story had the names removed and a secret code attached, which correlated to a spreadsheet with the writer’s real name; CB6789 could therefore have been listed on Excel as CB6789, Atwood, Margaret, (except it wasn’t because she didn’t enter. Did I mention that already?).

This worked fine until I got to the more sagacious scribes who had put all their details separately, and I hadn’t copied them across. So I went back to the e-mails to try and match attachments to titles to writers, where I finally un-undid what I had previously done and then undone. 4. Never refuse help.

But my biggest mistake of all, maybe, was hubris. At various stages along the way I was offered help by people who were kind and knowledgeable and I turned them all down. “After all, how difficult can it be? Writing’s the hard part; dotting metaphorical ‘i’s, crossing analogous ‘t’s, taking care of the comparisons and trying to not split the infinitive. Organizing a competition will be easy.” Ha!

So I won’t do it again. Next year – because yes we are returning – I will have the best run competition in the whole of Fort McMurray. I’m going to get someone else to do it. Any volunteers?

What? You say I’ve labelled everything as my biggest mistake and that the superlative descriptor can only be used once in a column of this sort? Well, in a tale of errors, I shall err one final time by leaving my errata uncorrected. Somehow, in ending with a final cockup, I shall opt to be ineptly apt.

Twitter: KevinPThornton


Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.