Short story competition: Theme: clean vs green. Deadline July 22

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Overview

Deadline 21st July 2022. £500 prize (or local currency equivalent)

Often when promoting waste reduction and reduction of high-energy activities, such as running hot water, we come up against health and safety issues. Some of these are valid, but many are misinformed.

This is a targeted competition aimed at using an engaging fictional story to help readers understand how over-cleaning and misinformation about bacteria can mean that we can end up killing our bodies ‘good’ bacteria through over-use of harsh cleaning products.

Your challenge is to write a short story (between 1000 and 3000 words) that helps to raise awareness and shift attitudes, especially for those people who assume that the more detergent the better.

We provide story briefs and ideas further down to inspire you.

We will update this page with details of runner up prizes and links to more information related to cleaning and workshop up until June. Sign up to our mailing list to be informed when more details are available.

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We need to know how to keep our environment and bodies free from harmful bacteria, but many beliefs relating to bacteria and cleaning products are misinformed, which has harmful effects on our environment and on our health.

Much waste and unnecessary carbon emissions are generated by people’s concerns about hygiene. For example, attempts to get condiments such as tomato ketchup provided in bottles rather than individual plastic sachets are hindered by hygiene concerns. Washing laundry at higher than necessary temperatures increases energy bills and carbon emissions. Over-use of cleaning products in the home and on our bodies leads to chemical waste and health hazards due to toxicity of chemicals etc.

Attitudes to hygiene are also a barrier to many sustainable practices. For example buying second hand, borrowing rather than buying etc. These can be affected by people’s level of comfort with pre-used goods. Re-use, sharing, second hand and borrowing can be ways for everyone to access what they need without using any more of the earth’s resources – see here.

We aim to use stories to develop more informed, eco-friendly and healthy practices related to cleaning. The challenge is to do this within an engaging story, with characters that readers can engage with and are not simply vehicles for the message you want to get across.

To help you do this well, below is a list of common myths about cleaning, hygiene and bacteria. Also please scroll down to find suggested story ideas.

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Free virtual workshop in early June for aspiring entrants to get early feedback on entries

We will arrange a virtual green story writing workshop (free to attend) for aspiring entrants in early June (6th/7th or 16th/17th June). Please click here to indicate your preferred dates/times before 25th May. We encourage you to bring along draft stories and get early feedback from experienced writers, green story judges and an expert on bacteria and cleaning. Writers are encouraged to attend, but it is not a requirement for entry.

Sign up for our mailing list, or follow us on TwitterInstagram or Facebook to find out when sign-ups open for the workshop.

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We could get 20 stories on the same topic/title, but only one or two of them will pull off the art of sharing the message without readers realising as they are so caught up in the characters’ stories and drama. If you want to increase your chances of being one of them, do attend the Green Stories workshop. The first part will be about making sure you know the facts about hygiene and bacteria. You don’t have to use all this information in your story – it won’t be very readable if you do – but it will increase your confidence that you are promoting healthy practices. We will also share our research about typical attitudes toward cleanliness and most common misperceptions and what the key barriers are to adopting more eco-friendly cleaning practices. This will help you to identify characters for your stories who may represent the attitudes and behaviours you want to challenge and give you an understanding of what approaches may be effective. The second half of the workshop will be on the art of writing without being preachy. The key tip – is to avoid info dumps!

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Entry Fee and Submission Criteria

Entry Fee: Free

Eligibility: Open to all – we encourage international writers. All submissions must be in English and unpublished.

Length: We ask for a short story of between 1000 and 3000 words.

Please submit your short story plus around 200 words on your thinking behind your approach and how your story meets the criteria. The title of the document should be the title of your story. No need to have your name/contact details on the document as we take these separately.

We are keen to encourage quality submissions, so suggest writers to check their stories before submitting using Prowritingaid. They have free and paid versions and are the best writing software we know to help improve grammar, readability and check for repetition, ‘sticky’ sentences and suggest alternatives.

Submit Here (submission link will be available in mid June after the workshop mentioned above)

Judging Criteria

Entries will be judged on the following criteria:

  1. Well written, engaging story between 1000 and 3000 words
  2. Promotes eco-friendly cleaning practices (directly or indirectly) or addresses misinformation about bacteria and cleaning.

It does NOT have to have an explicitly green theme, or promote eco-friendly cleaning practices directly – it is okay to be more subtle. Not every story needs to address every issue. It’s fine to have a love story, family drama or crime story as the main plot and the cleaning/bacterial aspect as a sub-plot, so it is engaging to mainstream readers but undermines some misinformed beliefs as well.

Judging Process: Our team of green stories judges will select those entries that are well written and meet the criteria. From these we will choose up to four stories and share them with approx. 50 readers who will report back on which they most enjoyed and how these stories affected their attitudes and behaviours*. We will then use their feedback to help us decide upon our final winner. The winner will be announced in October 2022. 

*As this will form part of pilot study into the effectiveness of fiction in affecting behaviour and attitudes, we will check with selected authors if they are happy for their stories to be used in this way. Copyright remains with the author.

Length: if you feel you need to go over 3000 words to tell the story, consider entering the Orna Ross Green Stories Novel Prize (deadline December) instead. Perhaps you can write this as a standalone chapter and develop ideas and characters into a novel. We won’t be too strict on word length (absolute max 5000 words), but we want to keep stories concise as our judging process asks readers to help us choose, and the longer the story, the longer it will take them.

We encourage you to develop one of the story ideas below or adapt it to suit your own ideas and preferred genre/style. For example, you can write in a light and funny style, or dark and tragic. But you are free to come up with a different idea of your own. The book ‘Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less’ by James Hamblin MD, MPH is a great resource. See also https://body.bulletin.com and https://youtu.be/vb2vAyC9Aa8

Story Ideas

1.    Lockdown story

Draw on the recent lockdown to present a houseful of people all forced to live in closer quarters than usual. You can play out family dramas, for example, one person could be hogging the bathroom, standing under the shower for 20 minutes at a time washing with shampoos and shampoo gel (both of which contain harsh ingredients). Or have a character who constantly cleans. You can have a cast of characters who all represent a different response.

  • The over-washer (e.g. hogs bathroom) and/or over-cleaner who is so freaked out by Covid he/she is constantly cleaning.
  • The one complaining about how this pushes up the bills – if you check out what costs the most money in your house you will find heating water e.g. via laundry, showering etc. costs way more than electrical appliances or lights.
  • The character who is into health and beauty who highlights how over-washing is bad for skin and hair, and/or how detergents release volatile organic compounds that are carcinogenic.
  • The green character who talks about the high carbon footprint of hot water and the environmental impacts of detergent.
  • The conspiracy theorist who says companies cash in our fear of germs to sell us harsh cleaning products (true) and/or who believes some of the misinformation about Covid measures.
  • A character who is choking on the chemical fumes created by the over-cleaner, and keen to promote probiotic cleaners or simple baking powder and white vinegar/lemon juice.
  • The one who just wants to go to the toilet without waiting hours!

You can extend to include issues with chemicals in other areas too such as avoidance of pesticides in the garden. One can be growing their own vegetables to avoid pesticides. Perhaps the character who wants to go to the toilet can be given a composting toilet for his birthday to use in the garden, which is an eco-friendly alternative. You can call it ‘a Houseful’ or ‘Just washing my hair’. Perhaps they argue so much that they decide upon a formal procedure such as an internal court case presenting evidence for and against cleaning. Perhaps they realise that they have got all their information from adverts from companies cashing in on fear of bacteria to sell products. They may realise that facts are irrelevant and it is an emotional response that isn’t swayed by evidence – in which case you may want to dig deeper into the psychological basis for over-cleaning – e.g. see story 2 ideas.

More information on all these perspectives is covered here.

2.    Couple’s therapy

Do a deep dive into mental health issues that revolve around excessive cleanliness to get to the heart of what is going on emotionally for people who engage in excessive cleaning. It can start with a couple arguing about who does the cleaning, and it can seem initially like the one doing all the cleaning is in the right, but as you reveal more, the reader can appreciate the other person’s perspective and see that the cleaning is too much. They go to therapy and the back story and root causes are gradually revealed. This can be a deeply emotional and gripping story that in the process can help correct misinformation about cleanliness and bacteria.

3.    War tale

You could write a story from the perspective of a micro-organism (bacteria) who is trying to save his/her host from germs ‘bad bacteria’. You can do this in a fun way, maybe aimed at a younger audience. Alternatively, you can do a serious war story full of bravery, tragedy and high stakes and the twist, in the end, is that the ‘soldiers’ the reader has become invested in are actually bacteria. The chemical warfare can turn out to be detergents used by the host with good intentions but acting as a kind of ‘friendly fire’ killing many good soldiers in battle.

4.    Capitalism vs waste

Our researchers have found numerous instances of businesses making money out of public misunderstandings of hygiene. For example beauty companies cashing in on Covid fears are selling anti-microbial and anti-bacterial skin and beauty products. There is little evidence these work and in fact current research indicates that targeting bacteria can kill ‘friendly’ bacteria designed to protect our skin. Medical products, such as urinary catheters used to be reusable, then companies switched to single use only despite little evidence that it is medically necessary. Many people hate throwing away the five catheters typically used per day and just rinse and re-use anyway. These same products are sold as re-usable in other countries but not here. Why? Because it’s a nice money earner! Numerous other products such as single-use tampon applicators are also used leading to tons of plastic waste, despite them being unnecessary. If you are outraged and would like this to be a focus of a short story (remember to have engaging character and plot), then watch this space. Feel free to write the story and we can double check any science claims if you come our our writing workshop in June.

5. The man who gave up showering

James Hamblin MD MPH is a doctor who explored the latest science of cleaning and ‘friendly’ bacteria and decided to give up showering as a result. His research led him to the belief that allowing the body to clean itself more naturally with fewer harsh cleaning products is cheaper, simpler and better for our skin, our immunity and the environment. You could write a short story about someone who does similar based on his experiences. Check out his interviews, blogs and his book ‘Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less’

Information and context for the clean vs green competition

Scientists are increasingly realising that our body and skin is protected by our own healthy bacteria which fights off germs and viruses. Therefore if we wash too long with too many chemicals, not only are we washing off unwanted bacteria, we are washing off our skin’s natural protective bacteria. Similarly, many household cleaning products kill the very bacteria that fight ‘bad’ bacteria.

Many people are switching to probiotic cleaning products which have been proven in tests to work for much longer than conventional anti-bacterial cleaning products for just that reason – a recent study showed that probiotic cleaners and soap were more effective at dealing with harmful bacteria than detergent.

READ academic article on probiotic cleaners vs detergents

Just as overuse of antibiotics can destroy your body’s ‘good’ gut bacteria, many cleaning products, shampoos, shower gels, detergents etc. that include ammonia and/or bleach are toxic and release volatile organic compounds that can be bad for our health. In tests, simple baking powder and white vinegar are almost always at least as effective as the harsh detergents, and much cheaper and less toxic to our health and the environment.

READ Times article on adverse effects of shampoo and cleaning products

Prize: £500 for the winner (or local currency equivalent)

The main prize for the winner is £500 or the local currency equivalent! We hope to offer additional runner up prizes for the finalists (tbc by end April).

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