THE 2020 COMMONWEALTH SHORT STORY PRIZE—HOW TO MAKE THE SHORTLIST

Saturday, September 28, 2019

2020 commonwealth short story prize
For the obscure aspiring writer without traditional publication, the commonwealth short story prize competition is a good place to start the journey of gaining international visibility, literary credibility and the much-desired validation every young writer seeks—having people affirm that your voice, your story matter.

 The 2020 commonwealth short story prize competition opened for submissions on September 1, 2019, and will close on November 1, 2019. This competition is FREE to enter and is open to members of the commonwealth nations.

The prize is awarded according to regions: Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, the Caribbean and the Pacific. An overall winning short story is selected from the regional winning short stories. A prize of 2,500 pounds is awarded to each winning regional short story while the overall winning story takes a prize of 5,000 pounds.

An important point to note is that this competition only acknowledges unpublished short stories with words counts between 2000-5000 words. If your story has been previously published on other literary platforms, then do not enter it into the competition. However, you can enter your story if it was only published on your personal blog.

How do you craft a short story that makes the shortlist?

Because this prize is awarded per region, my opinion will tilt towards crafting a short story that makes the shortlist for the Africa region.

Some writers who have won the Commonwealth short story prize for the Africa region and whose stories I enjoyed are Mbozi Haimbe (2019 regional winner), Efua Traore (2018 regional winner), Akwaeke Emezi (2017 regional winner), and my absolute favourite, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi whose 2014 short story Let’s tell this story properly won the overall prize.

I took some time to go over some of the winning stories to understand the factors that contributed to their winning. Truth is, fiction is entirely subjective. Whether a story is enjoyed or not is dependent on a reader’s preference. However, there are a couple of things I found common in the winning stories. It would be logical to incorporate these common streaks when crafting a short story that’ll land in the Commonwealth short story shortlist. Below are some things you should probably consider when crafting your short story.

Choose your point of view:

Your point of view is simply the who, the person narrating your short story to the reader. The winning stories by Efua Traore, Mbozi Haimbe and Akwaeke Emezi are told in the first-person narrative. However, Jennifer Nansubuga’s overall winning story was told in a very convincing third-person narrative. It is not so much about the person telling the story but more about how well the person (your narrator) seems to be telling the story. Your narrator should be in charge of the story. Your narrator should be able to expertly wield the reins of the story in a manner that the reader is transported and sees the events of the story through the eyes of the narrator.

Innocence in a protagonist:

I may be wrong but I do think there is something attractive to a reader about the innocence of a leading fiction character. Innocence here has to do with a character’s youth and the naivety that comes with being young. Efua Traore’s short story True happiness is focused on a young boy. Akwaeke Emezi’s short story Who is like God is focused on a young boy. Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (also a commonwealth prize winner) is narrated by a young girl. Of course, their stories are not merely about the youth of their characters. They are more than that. But I do think it is an element worth taking note of.

Your story should tell the story of your region:

The prize is awarded per region for a reason. People read stories to learn about the world, to learn about places they’ve never been, people they’ve never met, cultures they’ve never encountered. If you’re writing from Africa, let your reader catch a glimpse of Africa, let them meet Africans in your story. Let them get to see how life is lived in Africa. Simply weave in representation in your story.
You should also know that the panel of judges is representative of the different regions. From winner to judge, Jennifer Nansubuga was part of the 2019 panel of judges for the Commonwealth short story prize.

Tell a human story:

Tell a story about people, about the human condition, about how life is lived. Tell a story you truly know. Take this advice from the Nigerian writer Yemisi Aribisala: Write from somewhere truly individual, from a place that only you know about because then you will have no competition.

Finally, write with a word count in mind:

A short story is SHORT. In a short story, everything is fast and precise and strong leading up to the conflict and resolution. There is no time for fluffing around words that do not power the story. Don’t let your story go off on a tangent. When writing, keep the word count in mind. I prefer not to over 4,500 words in a short story. This serves as a guide, making sure there are no redundancies in your story.

You can read some of the shortlisted stories for the Africa region here and here. Going over them can be helpful to understand what the judges look out for when selecting stories for the shortlist. 

Remember making the shortlist is the first step in clinching the prize. Click here to head on now to the Commonwealth short story prize website to submit your story. Be sure to carefully and patiently read through the submission rules. You only send an entry once, so try to get it right. After sending in your entry, you’ll receive a reference number for future correspondence with the Commonwealth prize officials. Then the long months of waiting begin...

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