Christopher Fielden: top tips from a short story guru

As short story writers, where do you find the best places to send your work? Social media platforms, the magazines and journals you read and competition listing sites of which there are many. Listing sites do seem to come and go and, when I was posting our award this year, I noticed that many we’ve used over the decade have folded. One that seems here to stay is Christopher Fielden’s website where you’ll find the BSSA listed under ‘Prestigious &/or Big Prize Competitions’
In addition to running the site, Chris is an award-winning and Amazon best-selling author, editor and blogger and runs his own short humorous story competition ‘To Hull and Back’ (more about that later). His short story collection, Book of the Bloodless Volume 1: Alternative Afterlives was published by Victorina Press and was a finalist in the ‘Fiction: Short Story’ category of the International Book Awards, sponsored by American Book Fest. It also won Author Shout’s Cover Wars. He also publishes thousands of writers’ stories in support of literary charities via his flash fiction writing challenges. Via the writing challenges, Chris compiled and edited a world record-breaking book. The 81 Words Flash Fiction Anthology  that contains 1,000 stories written by 1,000 authors. It won Best Anthology in the 2022 Saboteur Awards. He also manages to find time to run an email newsletter  that goes out once or twice a month. It’s currently free to sign up and gives regular details of writing competitions, guest posts by experienced writers / editors, details of new books that have been published by subscribers, and lots of other writing-related content.
I met Chris at an anthology launch in the days before Covid, when we held in-person events at Mr B’s Emporium in Bath and am pleased he was happy to share with us, in the following interview, his thoughts on short stories and those parts of the writing industry he knows so well.

Q. You set up your website over 13 years ago in 2011. What was your motivation for doing this and has its purpose shifted over the years?
A. Originally, my motivation was to create a simple author website, which is why I used my name in the branding. I planned to use it to promote my writing and try to find an audience for my stories. Initially, it didn’t gain any traction because very few readers had heard of me – therefore, hardly anyone was searching for me or finding the website. So, after about a year, I decided to try a different approach. My background working in digital marketing helped. I learned the value of useful, targeted content, and the benefits it can bring to a website. I had a large spreadsheet of writing competitions and other publishing opportunities that I used to plan my story submissions. I thought other writers might find it useful, so I published it on the site. Over the following six months, I added more resources to the site and saw the traffic grow. I also wrote about my experiences for other websites, like Moz (a popular website for digital marketers).
My site now attracts around 300,000 visits a year. I continue to add more resources to it and it’s fairly well known in the writing community. Because a lot of writers like to read, this is a fabulous audience to have and it means that people can find my books. I don’t use hard sales tactics, as I dislike them. The books are simply there for readers to discover should they wish to. This isn’t what I originally planned for the site – it’s just what it’s evolved into, organically.
I find running the website very rewarding. It generates income for me via adverts, working as an affiliate with other businesses, selling books, providing writing courses etc. I still undertake part-time freelance work to make ends meet, but I’m hoping to be able to grow the site enough to make it my full-time job at some point in the not-too-distant future. It’s an ongoing project.
I’m currently redesigning the site and shifting it onto WordPress to fix a lot of technical issues. I initially planned to finish that project in a year. So far, it’s taken 18 months and I reckon I have another 6 months or so to go… these things always take longer than you think, especially when the site is as humongous as mine 🙂
Q. What services do you offer on your website and how much support do you get?
A. I offer short story courses (both free and paid) and a variety of writing services including critiques, editing, presentations, workshops etc. I have a team of freelancers who help with the critiques and editing work because I receive too much to do it all myself. They’re all brilliant – you can learn about them on my Meet the Team page. I’m also involved with running an active flash fiction Facebook group called ‘Authors of the Flash Fiction Writing Challenges’ (AotFFWC) and receive a lot of help from other writers running that. That’s open to anyone, so if any of your readers are interested, they can join the group here
Q. You seem to focus primarily on short stories. What is it about the genre that appeals to you so much?
A. I enjoy the brevity. When I first started writing fiction, I wrote a novel, as many writers do. It took me three years to complete and the book was rejected by every agent and publisher I approached. In the end, I self-published the book. It’s done well and I’m proud of it, but it took such a long time to write and publish… I didn’t know if I had the energy or motivation to write another at that point in time. I decided to try concentrating on short stories because I’ve always enjoyed reading them, and because they are a lot quicker to complete.
I enjoyed a lot more success with short stories. My first competition win came from the second short story I wrote. I think short fiction suits my writing style better – a lot of my ideas suit stories between 1,000 and 5,000 words in length – and there are far more opportunities to see them published. Since then, I have concentrated on the short form. It works for me around all the other projects and work I’m involved with.
Q. Have you seen a change in trends over the years, with some genres becoming more or less popular over the years?
A. I’ve seen short stories and flash fiction grow in popularity. I think the internet is partly responsible for that – it’s led to a lot of online publishing opportunities for shorter works, and more competitions that celebrate the short form, which is fabulous. This has led to entire writing communities being formed that concentrate on shorter works.
The short story is underrated, in my opinion. As are certain genres, like fantasy, sci-fi and horror – most speculative fiction, to be honest – and humour. Admittedly, I’m biased, but I do what I can to change opinions in that regard :). Genres come and go depending on what is popular at the time. Books, films, TV, celebrities, influencers, the news – all of these things (and many more) impact what is popular. You never know what the next big thing will be, so I tend to ignore trends for the most part, and simply concentrate on what I do and what I like to write.

Q. Does entering competitions help writers develop their craft?
A. I think it does. It certainly did for me. My first short story competition entry was rejected. I learnt about the disappointment of rejection, and how to handle it – you have to get used to that to be a writer. When I submitted that first story, I paid for a terse critique because I figured I still had a lot to learn. I was glad that I did. The critique was constructive – kindly worded, but honest. It pointed out the fundamental problems with the story. I learnt a lot from that, and it spurred me to join a writing group that gave and received critiques. Once I got used to that way of working, I found my stories were published far more often. Having readers point out the faults in a story and correcting them before submitting helped me enjoy a lot more publishing success.
Q. What genre of short story do you especially enjoy reading and writing?
A. Humorous fantasy is my sweet spot, but I appreciate all styles and genres. I’m often pleasantly surprised when I read and write outside of my comfort zone. I’m a competition judge and I undertake all the slush reading myself, so I’m exposed to a wide variety of styles and genres. I guess I’m lucky in that respect.
Q. Tell us about the short story competition you personally run.
A. Ah, the wonderful To Hull And Back. I originally started the competition for two reasons:
1. Because my website received a lot of visitors from writers looking for short story competitions, so it seemed like a logical move to start running my own.
2. Because there are very few publishing opportunities that focus on humorous writing, and I wanted to create a platform to celebrate the genre.
When I launched the competition, back in 2013, I wanted to offer a prize that stood out from all the other short story contests out there. I didn’t have pots of cash to play with, so I decided to offer a modest cash prize and try something original and a tad crazy. I would produce an anthology of the shortlisted stories, publish it on Hulloween (AKA Halloween) and feature the winner’s head on the book cover. They would be depicted riding a flaming motorcycle, clutching a quill of wrath. I think my imagination got the better of me at that point because I decided it would be a nice idea to strap the book to my motorcycle and film it being ridden to Hull and back. That just came from a play on words – the cliché ‘to hell and back’. I felt the quirky prize suited a humorous writing competition, and it was certainly unique. No one else offered a prize quite like it. So, I went with it.
The first time the competition ran, I didn’t know if anyone would enter because the prize was so odd, but 94 people submitted. I guess this proves that I’m not that crazy, or there are plenty of other crazy people out there in the writing community. Then I realised I’d actually have to ride to Hull – a city I’d never visited before – with a book strapped to my Harley. Over the years, the competition has grown and attracts around 500-600 entries each time it runs. I’ve undertaken the ride to Hull seven times now (soon to be eight) and have grown very fond of that part of the country. The winner is always invited to make the trip with me and they often feature in the videos I make. The last video was shot in 2022 and features the 2021 winner, Emma Brankin.
The video for the 2023 competition will be shot this year. I’m just waiting for the weather to get a bit warmer and then I’ll get a date in the diary. Hull, here I come…
Q. Is it possible to make a decent living out of writing?
A. Yes. It just takes a lot of hard work and motivation. I think you have to realise that the writing part of the job is about 10% of the work. The other 90% is marketing what you write and trying to sell it. That’s if you want to make money from books, or stories. Marketing doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I quite enjoy it. I find it interesting – to see what works and what doesn’t.
You also have to be prepared to focus on the writing that makes you money. This isn’t always the novel you know is inside you. For example, I make more money from the non-fiction content I produce on my website than I do from the fiction I write. But I’m still writing – doing something I love – and feel like I’m on the right path for me, and my family. I’m concentrating on what has the most chance of generating a decent income and writing the fiction I love alongside it. I think you just have to find what is right for you and your situation. Everyone is different and there is no right or wrong way of approaching it. Just be prepared to work very hard. Very hard indeed.
Q. Do you have any tips for aspiring writers entering a short story competition to make their stories stand out?
A. Try and find a unique voice, that is compelling to read. And understand the craft. What makes a good short story? There are no rules in creative writing – if something works it works, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. But there are a lot of useful guidelines that exist for good reason – because they work and help you stand out. One of the essential bits of guidance, in my humble opinion, is understanding why a story should contain a goal, conflict and stakes. Janice Hardy says, “No matter what type of story you’re writing, the goal-conflict-stakes trio is there. A character will want something (goal), there will be something preventing them from getting it (conflict), and a consequence if they fail (stakes).” You can apply this to most successful stories and find them present, even if they are subtle.
Let’s take Lord of the Rings as an example. Warning – I am going to tell you the ending, so this does contain spoilers… Frodo’s goal is to take the ring of power and cast it into the fires of Mount Doom. The conflict is everything that happens to him from the time he leaves the Shire to the time he succeeds in his mission. The stakes are that the Shire and Hobbiton – the place he loves – and all the people in it will cease to exist if he fails. So the trio are present.
I’ve seen many arguments against using the trio. The most popular one seems to be citing Chekov’s ‘Misery’ and saying nothing happens and that stakes aren’t present. ‘Misery’ is actually a great story to analyse. What’s at stake is Iona the cab driver’s mental health and wellbeing. He is trying to alleviate his grief but his efforts are thwarted because no one will listen. In the end, he finds comfort close to home, which is ironic because that’s where all his heartache stems from. Stakes can be emotional or physical, internal or external. They don’t have to be overly dramatic – they can be subtle – but if there is something a character wants and a reason they need it, a story is more likely to feel complete. I think that is important to understand.
Q. Which writers have influenced and inspired you the most? And which books would you take to BBC Radio 4’s desert island?
A. There are so many to choose from… but let’s go with Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Ursula K. Le Guin, David Gemmell, Sue Townsend and Douglas Adams. Oh, and Roald Dahl. Can’t leave him out. All these writers have vivid imaginations and strong voices. I love them all.

Thank you Chris and a reminder to everyone that the 2024 BSSA closes on April 15th. Further information can be found on the entry page.

Jane Riekemann