The 500 Word Santa Challenge... A readers viewpoint

The London Screenwriters’ Festival Team have been busy in the run up to Christmas, planning a fantastic opportunity for kids to get a Christmas call from Santa himself. Check out the Santa Calls website for more details of what is included and how the project will help support the continuation of the London Screenwriters’ Festival (LSF) into 2021 and beyond.

 

Linked to the Santa Calls opportunity was a call for 25 bedtime stories to be read by Santa and broadcast every night in December, right up until Christmas. The collected stories are also going to be published in one volume, available in early December. The submissions are now closed for this initiative, but you can read more about the Children’s Book on the Santa Calls website.

 

So, why am I writing about an initiative that is closed? Well, I was lucky (in a ‘what have I let myself in for, kind of way) enough to be asked by Chris Jones, former Stunt Santa and Director of the LSF, to be one of the readers judging the entries and selecting the final 25 stories. So, alongside Emma, Elinor, Savannah and Savannah’s Father, Lawrence we got ourselves ready for a few dozen entries in the short window of submissions.

 

Or at least that is what I thought.

 

By the close of play at Friday midnight, we had received 225 entries. Even at the short limit of 500 words per story, that was a lot of reading to get done in a couple of days. But we could do this, The Dream Team, as Chris jokingly referred to us as in a Facebook post… although I was not sure there was going to be much dreaming as we hurried to get reading!

 

It was quite daunting to be faced by the 200 odd entries (and some of them were very odd 😊) but it was actually great fun reading through the stories, which came in all shapes and sizes. The majority were in prose form, but we also had lots of poems and fun rhymes that would be perfect for picture books.

 

The final 25 have now been announced and you can check out the winning authors on the Santa Calls website. It wasn’t easy to get down to the final 25 and of course, in any competition like this, there are going to people who didn’t make the cut. With a 1 in 9 chance of getting in to the book, there was always going to be disappointment. But, as writers, you all know not to take rejection to heart. In this case, there were clearly more than 25 stories that were good enough, we just didn’t have space for them all. Of course, like any writing competition, the results are subjective and each of the judges will have been looking for different things in the submissions.

 

So what were we looking for?

 

Well, firstly we were looking for Christmas Stories and we got Christmas Stories, but the successful ones (and those in contention right to the end) were those that took some of the old, well known Christmas Tropes and twisted them or threw them out completely. The same, but different. There were a lot of animals and children saving Christmas and, while that is not necessarily a bad thing, it makes it harder to stand out from the crowd, if you are surrounded by similar stories.

 

Even if you are writing to a rushed deadline and only writing 500 words, it is still worth taking time to proofread your work. While we didn’t get hung up on the odd spelling mistake or grammar error, one or two stories had some tricky issues that made them difficult to read and understand, and that makes it difficult to recommend, especially when time is tight and publication is imminent. Make sure your work is the best it can be before submitting – you could have the greatest idea in the world, but if the judges can’t see it because the work needs considerable editing, then it will struggle to make the grade. Just like writing a screenplay, you need to grab the reader and draw them in quickly, otherwise they may lose interest, especially when faced with another 100 stories to read!

 

The takeaway?

 

Well, to get the cliché out of the way first, everyone who submitted is a winner. Getting your work out their for peer review can be hard and frightening, so just sharing your work is an important step.

But, when thinking about future submissions (and when Chris is involved you KNOW there will be future submissions) see if you can think outside of the box a bit more, think about what the judges might be expecting and then pull the rug from under their feet and give them something new and magical. Make yourself stand out from the crowd.

 

And think about the theme and target audience for the project you are submitting for. We had a few entries that were quite dark and might not have looked too out of place in a horror anthology, but they didn’t quite fit in a kid’s book for a Christmas release.

 

All in all, it was a lot of fun to be part of the judging panel and an absolute privilege to be able to read so many peoples’ submissions. It is a shame we couldn’t take more than 25 stories, but thank you to everyone who did submit – you have helped support the London Screenwriter’s Festival and entertained five judges.

 

To those that made it in, ‘congratulations’ and to those that didn’t, don’t get despondent, don’t give up – dust yourselves off and get ready for the next opportunity – KEEP WRITING.

 

And Merry Christmas.

 

Mark Walker
Screenwriter

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