20. Costa Short Story Award

It’s Costa Short Story Award time. The competition opened at the beginning of July and closes at the beginning of August. First prize is £3,500 and a massive boost to reputation. I’ve been dithering about which story to enter. If you’ve read previous posts you’ll know that my strategy for achieving fame and fortune is to rack up some literary credits, with which to impress agents and publishers. Perhaps the thoughts I’ve had about the Costa will help others whose strategies are similar.

Forget the question, why enter the competition. I can’t tell you. Yes, I know the chances of winning are smaller than those of dying in a meteor smash (which are 1 in 250,000 if you care to know). Call it the triumph of hope over experience.

Deciding to enter was easy. Deciding which story to send, that was a whole other problem. I looked at the shortlisted stories for 2014 and for 2013. I also looked at the profiles of the judges, though that’s less importance, since you have to get through the panel of readers to the shortlist before the judges ever set eyes on the story. For what it’s worth, the judges are three novelists (two of whom write women’s fiction, and one rather more experimental stuff), an academic who specialises in publishing, and a literary agent.

The profile of shortlisted entries wasn’t hugely comforting. Five of the six 2014 shortlist were women, and so were five of the six 2013 and 2012 shortlists. Two of the 2012 shortlist also made it in 2013. The judging is blind, so this has nothing to do with reputation. The stories all had three things in common – they were about the inner life of the main characters, the writing was elaborate and literary, and they dealt with the oddity of everyday life. I’m not a woman, and this really isn’t the way I write.

For about a month, I was sure the story to enter was one about a man who has memories that are not his. This is one of the stories that almost got published, and that I have been invited by the magazine editor to rewrite and resubmit. I read it to my writers’ group this week, and they made helpful suggestions for improvement. But one of the comments stuck in my mind. One group member said ‘Don’t put it into Costa. It’s a proper story. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end.’

I went back and looked again at the shortlisted stories, and sure enough they’re more dreamlike, with less identifiable structures. So I added ‘anti-narrative’ to my list of characteristics. Then I assessed what I think are my four best-fit stories against all four criteria. My intended story scored highly on the psychological dimensions but more poorly on others.

So, I’ve changed my mind. According to the competition rules, I had better not say anything about the story in case this reveals the identity of the author during the judging process. But I can say it’s much more anti-narrative, literary in style, and playful. I’m hoping that the playfulness will scrape it through the reading panels by virtue of intrigue, on the same basis that a tutor at University once said of an essay I’d written ‘I can’t tell whether this is very clever or very stupid.’

As I gave the story a final polish, just for fun I ran it and the winning 2014 entry through the copy editing tool I described in the last post, Pro Writing Aid. The comparison didn’t really tell me much, but was amusing. My story scored better for over-used words, for clichés and redundancies, and for ‘sticky sentences’ (sentences with low impact words). The winning entry scored better for avoiding adverbs, passive verbs, and slow-paced sentences. These comparisons say nothing about the quality of the story, but do maybe say something about the writing.

I still haven’t submitted the story, but I’m getting there.

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