How can you judge 13 rounds of a short story contest across six years and read more than 5000 stories - around 15 million words - yet retain a fresh eye? An alert mind for the story that’s great and not just good? How can you still gasp ‘It works!’ with a sense of grateful wonder when you lay that story down?
Answer: only by keeping the faith. By knowing from experience that, if you read enough stories patiently - and every word entered in the Writers’ Village contest does get read - you’ll finally hit on one that sends a tingle up your spine. It works.
How can you improve your chances in a contest, or with a literary agent or publisher? And win a four-figure cash award? Or even better?
By avoiding these mistakes:
Error #1. Your story looks boring.
That’s not what you expected, was it? You expected me to drone on about wondrous opening lines, sympathetic characters, clever plot ideas... Yes, I’ll get to all that. But the first thing a judge or expert reader takes in, consciously or not, is the story’s visual appearance. Does page one appear as a boring slab of text, unvaried by dialogue or paragraphs of different length?
If so, it suggests the story will be dull as well.
Either the writer has not been professional enough to insert carriage returns at key places or everything in the story will have the same cadence. A snore of tedium.
True, that rule can be broken. You can write long unbroken paragraphs, at times, and get away with it. But you’d better have a darned good reason.
Error #2. Your first paragraph is a bad advertisement for the story.
What genre do you write in? A story that aspires to literary fiction - and explores the nuances of moods, perceptions or relationships? Then it should engage us at once with the power and sensitivity of its language. Its command of form. The originality of its ideas.
A crime-suspense story may be written in a more mundane style but it must open with a mystery, hanging question or intriguing incident that compels the reader to read on.
And so forth.
In your first fifty words let the reader know the genre of the story you’re writing in, and give them a fast sample of your skills. Not sure of your story’s genre? You’re writing literary fiction.
Error #3. Your last paragraph fades away.
A lazy judge or agent (yes, they do exist, although not here) will read paragraph one then flip straight to your last scene to see how the story ends. If there’s a hint of unity, finesse or satisfying structure - never mind what your story has to say - they’ll read the whole work. If there’s not, they won’t.
BTW: A sneaky way to draft a winning story is to write your last paragraph first, then go back and write the story. At least, you’ll know where you’re heading. And your first and last paragraphs can now convey some teasing echo of the other - in their mood, symbol, incident or phrase.
That ‘book end’ structure is sneaky, it’s formulaic, and it’s certainly not apt for every tale. But it’s amazing how often you’ll find it in a winning story.
Error #4. Your structure is all over the place.
In a short story, you typically have just 5000 words. Or less. There’s no room for digression, padding or protracted scene setting. (Nor should there be in a novel.) Cut those scenes. ‘Impossible,’ you’ll cry. ‘I spent a month writing them!’
Our limit in the Writers’ Village contest is 3000 words. Strictly. In every round I have to reject around 10% of the stories entered because they were just too long. That hurts me. They were often good stories and could have been cut back to the word limit, by 10% or even 30%, so easily.
Every story or novel can be cut and it will grow stronger.
(Could I have cut this post as well? Yes. But I was up against a deadline. What could I have cut? This paragraph.)
Another tip: keep the scenes or lines you cut in an Outtakes file. If they’re (truly) good, don’t waste them. Use them somewhere else.
Error #5. Your plot is a cliché.
According to Christopher Booker there are only Seven Basic Plots. (It’s the title of his book.) He might have described those plots in one short page. Instead, he wrote 400,000 words to prove that just seven plots can be dressed up a thousand different ways. And so they can.
Don’t worry if your plot is essentially Romeo & Juliet, or Huck Finn, or Cinderella. Don’t fret that it’s a cliché. (And it will be.) Give it a twist.
A homicidal clown? A visit to a dying parent where some Terrible Truth is finally revealed? A gentle coming-of-age story where the narrator discovers Love, the Universe and the wickedness of her Best Friend? It’s all been done.
Just bring to it a fresh eye, or clever language, and it can be done again.
Error #6. Your characters don’t excite us.
‘My people are drawn from life!’ So one contestant reminded me. So what? The reader has to want to know them, if only to enjoy a shudder.
A Tip: give the reader a comfortable ‘seat’ in your story, a single point-of-view character whose mind they can happily live in throughout the journey. Yes, you can head-hop through several different points of view, even in 3000 words, and your gamble might even work - if your plot is strong and your transitions skilful. But why take the risk?
Error #7. Your presentation screams ‘amateur’.
A few typos can be forgiven. Spelling errors, aberrant commas, hyphens used instead of em dashes, single quotes around dialogue rather than double quotes (as The Chicago Manual of Style demands), and so forth. All convention is just opinion fossilized into dogma. But we’d better heed it.
And all authors nod. I proofread my story anthology The Cunning Man several dozen times. Yet my Amazon reviewers still found howlers. (Bless their pointy little eyes…)
But what a judge or agent won’t forgive is the story set in tiny 9-point Helvetica type. (Use Times Roman 12 point.) Or entirely in italics. Or that’s laid out in a single unbroken paragraph. Or that has negligible margins. Or that includes second colours. Or graphics. (If you’re keen on graphics, reserve them for your non-fiction.)
They all spell ‘amateur’.
Should you use double line or 1½ spacing? Check the rules of submission. Agents usually insist on one or the other although both are ridiculous in this digital age. Sigh and do what the rules say. You’d be amazed at how many writers don’t.
Avoid those seven errors and your story should sail into the judge’s ‘maybe’ pile. But will s/he clutch their throat, draw a ragged breath and gasp ‘It works!’? As I do, at least a dozen times in every contest round?
Hm, maybe not. So what’s to be done? I feel yet another ‘how-to’ blog post coming along…
[Note: The winners of the winter 2014 contest at Writers’ Village, and news about the summer 2015 contest, will be announced in March 2015.]
What mistakes have killed a story for you? What are your favourite turn-offs? What gross writing errors have you committed yourself? (Don't be shy. We've all made them.) Share your thoughts in a comment below. Every comment is guaranteed a fast, helpful reply!
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft