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Christopher Fielden, author of Alternative Afterlives and all-round writing world hero, talks to Amanda Huggins about the To Hull and Back short story competition and his own writing (and life!) plans . . .

Christopher Fielden

Hello Chris, welcome the VP blog! You’re something of a hero in the writing world, not only for taking the time to compile and regularly update your fabulous website which lists every writing competition known to humankind and offers writing tips and publishing advice, but you also run the much-loved humorous short story competition, To Hull and Back. I understand that the shortlist has been revealed for this year’s prize, and the winners will be announced at the end of September. I know that you judge the competition yourself, and this year you had close to 600 entries. That’s some reading! How long does it take to read all those stories – and presumably to re-read the shortlist entries as well? Do you love every minute of it, or do you sometimes wonder why you do it?!

Hi Amanda, thanks for the warm welcome and kind words 😊 They’re greatly appreciated.

Yes, running To Hull And Back does mean undertaking a LOT of reading . . . and it takes a long time. It’s hard to say how many hours I sink into it because the work is spread over two years each time the competition runs. If I were to work 40 hours a week on it, I reckon it would take about three or four months in total.

A lot of that time is spent as the deadline approaches, and the month after the comp has closed. Writers do love to work to a deadline – something I’m guilty of myself. To put it into context, this year the contest was open for submissions from 1st July 2022 until 30th June 2023 – a whole year. I received 594 entries in total. 346 of those entries were received in the final month, 230 in the final week and 85 on the final day. So, almost 60% of the entries come in at the end. That is challenging to manage . . . I use a reduced early-bird fee, as a lot of comps do, to try and encourage writers to enter earlier. It does help, but as you can see, not that much.

After the competition closes, I lock myself away for two weeks and complete the first round of reading. During that time, I whittle it down to 100(ish) stories that need a re-read. I then do a second round of reading to get it down to 50, a third round to 40 and a fourth round to 20. Overall, that process takes about a month, working full-time.

I do sometimes wonder why I do it but for the most part, the experience is pleasurable. I love reading a wide variety of voices from around the world, and I receive a lot of excellent stories. The hardest bit is selecting the shortlist. The final 50 stories are often excellent for different reasons, so it’s really hard to choose.

In the end, it comes down to personal taste. I always try and put this into context on the results page. E.g., this year I said, “If you weren’t longlisted or shortlisted, please don’t be disheartened. I receive a lot of entries and there are only forty places on the longlist. This year, I had to select just 7% of the entries and reject 93%. Then I had to whittle that down to just 3.5% for the shortlist. I don’t reject stories because I don’t like them. I simply select the stories that are best suited to this competition.”

Overall, I love running the comp. It’s a great privilege to be able to publish the winning stories in the anthology.

Can you tell us about the crazy prize for this contest?! And about the competition anthology which you publish yourself via Amazon, and which appears at breakneck speed! I believe this year’s is being released on Hulloween – how many hours are entailed in editing, producing and proofreading the finished article?

The top cash prize for 2023 was £1,200. There were 40 prizes in total, with a total prize pot of £3,860. I’m having to reduce that for the 2025 comp and I’ve written about why here – https://www.christopherfielden.com/short-story-competition/results-2023.php#Notes

When I launched the competition, back in 2013, I wanted to be able to offer a prize that stood out from all the other short story contests and competed with some of the huge prizes on offer from the likes of the BBC. I didn’t have the budget to offer pots of cash, so I decided to feature the winner’s head on the book cover.

A social media image used for advertising the competition – the winner’s head will appear on the final version of the cover

Because I like a bit of crazy and don’t have an off switch, I then decided it would be a good idea to strap the book to my motorcycle and film it being ridden from Bristol to Hull. And back. That just came from a play on words – the cliché ‘to hell and back’.

The first time the competition ran, I didn’t know if anyone would enter because the prize was so bizarre. In the end, around 100 people entered that year proving that I’m not that crazy, or there are plenty of other crazy people out there in the writing community. Either way, this made me happy. I then realised that I’d actually have to ride to Hull – a city I’d never visited before. I’ve undertaken the ride seven times now and have grown very fond of Hull and the surrounding area. The winner is always invited to make the trip with me. They often feature in the videos I make. The last video was shot in 2022 and features the 2021 winner, Emma Brankin – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkXwog7-d9k

I’m currently working on the 2023 anthology, which features the 20 shortlisted stories and a story by each of the judges. Judges’ stories are included so future entrants can learn about them and the types of stories they write.

So, I’m busy editing and proofreading at the moment, and working with the artist on the book cover. This takes a lot of time . . . I edit the book, run the edits past the writers, have the book proofread, make further edits, order a printed proof, proofread that, make final edits and then start work on the eBook. It’s a tad frantic! Luckily, I’m surrounded by highly skilled and generous writers and editors who help me complete the project on time. Timewise, it’s very hard to say how many hours go into it because it’s not just me working on it. Do you include the hours the writers spent writing their stories in the first place? Who knows. Whatever the total, it’s a lot.

Like you say, the anthology will be released on Hulloween (the same date as Halloween, the similarity in names is purely coincidental 😊). This year’s anthology is crammed full of excellent stories, so I’m going to be very proud of it when it’s finished.

What with the To Hull and Back contest, the anthology, your website, your band – and life – when do you get time to write anything yourself? Is there a Chris Fielden work in progress we need to know about?

At the moment, I’m really struggling to find time to write. On top of everything else, I’m having my website redesigned and moving it onto WordPress. That means rebuilding every page from scratch. I’m hoping to finish it by the end of the year, but it’s so time-consuming and I have a lot of other things on the go, including getting married in November. (Ooh, congratulations! A.)

But I am writing when I can squeeze it in. I’m currently working on the sequel to my short story collection Alternative Afterlives. It’s provisionally titled Sinister Sequels. (Love this title! A.) Each story in the book is related to a story in the first volume. They’re sequels, but sometimes the connection is tenuous. The new story might feature a character from one of the previous stories, for example, rather than following on directly from the point the last story finished.

I have no idea when I might finish that . . . At the current rate, maybe around 2030. We shall see 😊

https://www.christopherfielden.com/

https://www.christopherfielden.com/short-story-competition/

 

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