Rachel McLean

– Thrillers That Make You Think

The Ups and Downs of Winning Writing Competitions

Six months ago, I was delighted to win my first writing competition.

It was for a short story, Prey, which I wrote based on the prompt ‘snowy wastes’.

Part of the ‘prize’ for winning this competition was the honour of judging the next competition. Something I knew would be hard work, but rewarding.

The winter competition (the one I won) had a 1,500 word limit. The summer competition (the one I was judging) had a 5,000 word limit, which meant a lot of reading!

This time round, instead of having a theme, I was asked to generate a choice of opening lines for the entries. The lines I came up with were:

  • “Mr Chekhov, that’s a very nice gun you have there.”
  • She was dead, and he was going to get the blame. (or any variant on ‘he’ or ‘she’.)
  • The clocks struck thirteen.

The first is a line I’ve always wanted to start a story with, based on the concept of Chekhov’s gun. There were some incredibly imaginative responses to this, including one featuring Chekhov from Star Trek.

The second is based on the opening line of A House Divided, ‘Hayley Price was dead, and Jennifer Sinclair was going to get the blame.’

And the third – well, I’m not going to tell you that. Head on down to the comments and tell me if you know which book it comes from.

So last weekend I settled in to read through all of the stories.

There were some wonderful stories. My favourites were a very varied bunch:

  • War is Hell, a story about the Victorians raising an army called the Holy Light Brigade, which invaded Hell.
  • Normal Behaviour, a story about a future world populated by Normals and Clocks.
  • Journey to the Mountain Witch, a powerful story about slavery and family.
  • A Mental Exchange, a fascinating tale of an astronaut who returns to Earth a long way into the future to find it very much changed.
  • The Blame Game, a darkly hilarious story about an Amazon Alexa gone mad.

The judging was pretty tough. Deciding between the stories was hard, and then I had to run a two-hour feedback session with all the entrants present. I worked through the stories in turn, building up to the top three, and identified what I liked about the stories and what I felt would have made them even better.

At the end of those two hours, I was shattered. I’m not used to having to talk for two hours solid, and my throat hurt! But most of the entrants agreed the winner was an excellent story, and deserved to win.

I did get one complaint from someone who wasn’t happy about the result, but luckily it wasn’t upheld – I wasn’t expecting that in a friendly local competition! The entries were all anonymised, with people using pen names. Their real names were sealed in envelopes which were only opened at the judging session. Which made it just as nerve-wracking for me as for the entrants, but also meant I didn’t know who the entrants were.

So which story won, you may be wondering?

The winner was The Blame Game, by Simon Fairbanks. It scored a perfect 25 out of 25 on my judging scale. It was funny, dark and sad in places, and had the perfect mix of dialogue, action and the lightest of exposition. It was also one of the most tightly written stories I have ever read, managing to cram multiple twists and subplots into just 5,000 words. Simon tells me he’ll be publishing it later in the year, which I look forward to.

Well done to Simon! I look forward to entering the winter competition and having him judge my own entry.

Posted in Writing
Tagged , |

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: