In 2014, Mark Newman had a hugely successful writing year in the Retreat West short story and flash fiction competitions. He either won, came runner-up or was shortlisted in almost every single one he entered so I thought I’d pick his brains about how he writes stories that win competitions so often.
Hello Mark, thanks for coming on the blog to reveal your winning secrets! You had a fantastic year in 2014 with eight stories included in the Retreat West anthology and a place on the Costa Short Story Award shortlist. What advice can you give to other short story writers to break into the market and start winning competitions and getting published?
It’s important to research competitions and magazines – check that the stories being selected fit with your style of writing. Always enter the free competitions! Look at your work objectively – if you have successes try and see what marks those stories out from your other work. Keep going and keep trying is the best advice. I had a great success with my very first short story, but it was a long time before another did well. I had more success with flash fiction initially and began to wonder if I could actually write a decent length short story, but the more you write the more you improve. I’m writing much better than I was two years ago. Read your stories back with a critical eye some months later, you’ll see what works and what doesn’t much easier from that distance.
I also want to say a huge big thank you to you, Amanda, for hosting the Retreat West competitions. With their monthly deadlines, prompts and top quality judges they were the perfect competitions to enter and I’m thrilled to have done so well in them. I will always think of them as the springboard that has led to everything else.
Many of your stories feature characters that seem to be searching – either for something they’ve lost or something they perceive they didn’t have – is this a conscious theme that you write to?
I seem to write a lot from a child’s perspective, there are several distant fathers and absent mothers. It can pull you up short when you spot a theme running through your work but it’s often something that’s pointed out by other people. I just write the stories that pop into my head, but I guess it’s inevitable that themes will emerge the more you write. It’s probably a good idea when you spot a recurring theme to try and move away from it!
On average, how many stories do you send out in a month/year?
Ah, here’s the question we all want to know. When you see a name crop up regularly in competitions you wonder if they ever fail. There’s certainly two or three names I wonder that about. I rate a success as anything from a longlist upwards and I guess I’ve a 40-50% success rate over the last year or so. I’m happy with that. I try to have at least five stories out with competitions at any one time, but it depends how well the writing is going.
Do you have a process that you follow for drafting each one?
A story usually starts for me with a couple of sentences that suggest something bigger. I jot them down and let them stew for a while, thinking about the story as a whole, then I write erratically, anything that comes to mind from any part of the story. When I’ve got about 1,500 words I’ll rearrange everything into the right order, and start joining the pieces together. This is the part where I doubt myself most. The joins often shout out on the first few readings because you’re more familiar with the other parts. When the story is done from start to finish then I read and re-read, tightening the language, cutting anything that doesn’t work or sounds clunky, taking out the word ‘that’ which, like most people, I overuse. This is the best bit, when it all seems to come together. However finished you think it is, take a look a month later and you’ll see glaring, hopefully minor, changes you’ll want to make.
Have you got a particular magazine or journal that you’d really like to get into but haven’t managed yet?
I’ve been thrilled this year to be published in Firewords Quarterly and Fiction Desk, both beautifully produced. The Lonely Crowd is an impressive new journal I have my eye on and Nightjar Press publish great chapbooks of individual stories. I’ve not submitted to either yet, but they’re goals of mine.
Which short story writers have inspired you and why?
Alison Moore is a big favourite of mine. She writes crisp, clear, concise prose and makes everyday actions sing. Jon McGregor and Lucy Wood’s short story collections are both fabulous. Zoe Gilbert and Kit de Waal are regular winners on the competition circuit, and it’s not hard to see why. Everything always leads back to Susan Hill for me though – she writes with such precision and elegance and is as much a master of the short story and novella as she is of the novel. They all inspire me to try and write as beautifully as I can.
If you’d like to read Mark’s winning stories, and the other 16 from the 2014 competitions, then you can buy the anthology here.
And tell us in the comments below what your tips are for writing winning short stories and the writers that inspire you.