by Dr John Yeoman, PhD, Founder of Writers' Village
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John Yeoman runs the Writers Village website and has many years of experience as a short story competition judge under his proverbial belt.
John has drawn on that experience in this post. He shares some of the common mistakes he sees and provides you with solutions that will improve your short story writing and give you a much better chance of penning an award winning story.
I'd like to say a humongous thank you to John for writing this incredibly useful post.
As always, comments are welcome - see the form at the bottom of the page.
How do you win a short story contest? What's the secret way to catch a judge's eye?
I think I know. How come? Since 2009, I've judged more than 6,000 entries in the Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award, one of the world's premier contests for new writers. I've given away at least $15,000 in prizes. Who gets the top awards?
No, it's not (entirely) a judgement call. I try to stay fair and minimize subjectivity by rating each story – initially – across seven strict criteria. Those ratings tell me which stories might, at least, make the shortlist. And which suffer from fatal errors that hold them back.
All professional judges – I can't answer for the other sort – use a similar process, whether consciously or not.
Here are the mistakes I look for. Most stories, even if well written, have at least one or two. But too many can damn an entry long before it reaches the short-list.
Avoid these errors and you could well win a prize.
We've all read stories that are brilliantly written. They're full of show-off words, astute descriptions or quirky plot devices. We put them down, thinking “how clever.” But then “so what?”
They're exercises, essays, a celebration of language. They don't engage us emotionally.
Solution: Present at least one character whom the reader can relate to.Then put that character in conflict with something. Anything.
The threat may be awesome or trivial. Your tone can be sombre or humorous, whatever you choose. But the reader must be able to bond with somebody in that story who faces a predicament that disturbs them emotionally.
You have to read a lot of stories to spot a repetition in plot patterns. It's not always obvious.
Entrants can't be blamed for re-inventing, accidentally, The Monkey's Paw, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or even Romeo and Juliet. Nor is there any harm in it, provided those long-whiskered plots are given an original twist. (We're often told that Shakespeare stole all his plots. And so he did.)
But how often have I read entries that featured such clichéd themes as...
And so on.
If that's all there is to the plot, the story will fail. It's déjà vu.
Solution: Begin with a clichéd idea. But develop it in unpredictable ways. Your story may become powerful indeed, because it's grounded in a theme that has proven – across the ages – to be emotionally engaging.
This mistake has killed many an otherwise fine entry. The story doesn't get going until page two. Paragraphs one to four are weighed down by scene or character descriptions, back story or inconsequential events. The reader yawns.
Solutions: Put your Indispensable Incident, the crucial event which drives the story, in paragraph one. Drop the reader straight into the plot. End the first section with a strong inducement for us to read on – an uncertainty, unresolved question, or note of suspense. ('Suspense' means literally 'hanging between two points'.)
If you're writing literary fiction – perhaps a nuanced exploration of human relationships where 'suspense' may not be appropriate – at least enchant us with the power of your style.
“This author can write!” we say. We're encouraged to read on. We're in good hands.
(Note: just be sure you have a great tale to tell us as well!)
There's a big difference between the story that ends deliberately on a note of ambiguity and the one that fades away. A short story, like a novel, may be considered as a metaphor for a human life. We like to feel it has a meaning, both throughout and at the close.
The gritty 'slice of life' story that goes nowhere will fail, howsoever well it's written.
Solution: Make it very clear that the tale has ended. It has travelled a journey and emphatically reached its destination.
To be sure, it can end with many questions still unresolved. That's life. Henry James's classic story The Turn Of The Screw has been acclaimed for its ambiguous ending. Is it a ghost story? Or a murder mystery? Or just the hallucinations of a mad governess? No matter. It works. The close says – unequivocally – 'this tale is done'.
Many entries are like a bag of potatoes. Each potato may be good in its own way but together they form a shapeless mass.
Scenes digress. Few are clearly linked. The plot thread is obscure. “What was that all about?” the reader thinks, throwing the story down.
Solution: Plot your story beforehand, scene by scene. Make sure there's a logical connection between each incident, even if you have to hide the links en route, all the better to intrigue us.
To be sure, some writers – also known as 'pantsers' – like to 'go with the flow'. Nothing wrong with that. Just tidy up your tale a few days later so it has a firm structure.
Here's an easy way to do that. Print your story out in very small type, say 8 point, with both margins justified – the way it might appear in a printed paperback. Then you can inspect its structure visually.
Strike a red pen through every scene that appears out of place or digressive or doesn't pull its weight. Either cut that scene or whip it back into the structure.
Your story should form a unity. A judge must be able to think “It's a perfect whole. Nothing could usefully be added to it or taken away.”
This is wholly a question of style. You don't need to be reminded to watch out for clichés, misused words, sloppy usages or long-winded phrases. You'll correct them in your revised draft. ('She gave every indication of concern' becomes 'She frowned', etc.)
But a judge will wince at sentences that ramble on forever or paragraphs that sustain the same rhythm, page after page... They will kill your chances of a prize.
Solution: Give the story pace. How? Balance the sentence lengths. Follow short ones with long ones, and vice versa. Do the same with paragraphs. And inject dialogue. It brings a story alive.
Don't be afraid to use sentence fragments at moments of tension. (On such occasions, verbs are optional.)
Imitate the rhythm of a heart beat. Systole/diastole. Urgency/tranquility. It keeps the reader – and the judge – awake.
Why should poor presentation be a story killer? After all, if J. K. Rowling submitted a story to her agent today, written in lipstick on the back of a Kleenex tissue, it would still get published. And sell a million copies. But we're not Rowling.
Present your story meticulously, according to the format demanded by the contest rules. If no particular format is indicated, pretend you're sending a story to an agent or publisher and follow those rules. (You'll find plenty of guidelines on the web.)
Does that go without saying? No.
In every round I've had to downgrade stories that were presented with no discernible margins. Or that included cute graphics in the cover page or headers. Or that were typed in an exotic 9 point font, in unreadable yellow. (True.) Or that merely consisted of a link to a Dropbox file I couldn't access...
All screamed “Amateur!” They did the story no good at all.
Solution: follow the contest rules. (Every contest is different.)
Some entrants don't. Sadly, I have to reject around one entry in ten because it exceeds our permitted word length. And more than one contestant has sent me a poem, playscript, essay or illustrated book although our web site states clearly that entries are restricted to short prose fiction of no more than 3,000 words.
Read the rules! And you'll be ahead of the game...
If you avoid those seven errors your story – all else being equal – stands an excellent chance of arriving in the contest short list. What happens then?
In an ideal competition, the top entries would be assessed by several independent expert judges who would infallibly choose one overall winner and rank the rest in identical orders of excellence.
It doesn't happen.
Give ten good stories to ten professional judges and you'll get ten different winners. With rankings all over the place. Plus fisticuffs among the judges.
So one judge has to play Solomon, sift the winners out of the short-list, and suffer a sleepless night.
Trust me, I've been there...
In a professionally run contest, the ultimate stage of judging – where the top three winners are ranked in order – is always subjective. (Disbelieve anyone who says it's not.) That's why, if your story has ranked highly in any reputable contest, you can be sure it's a great story. Given different judges, it might well have won first prize.
Submit the story at once to other contests, provided their rules allow it.
And keep entering contests. Because, if you avoid the seven mistakes above, one day you will win a top prize.
You'll also gain a lot of Short-listed and Highly Commended awards en route. Agents and publishers truly are impressed by evidence of wins in major contests. They show you're a professional – the kind of writer who gets published.
What other kind would they want to deal with?
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist. He judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers' Village.
If you found the information in this post useful, you might like my book. It's called ‘How to Write a Short Story, Get Published & Make Money’ and does what it says on the proverbial tin.
Dr John Yeoman contributed a section to the book, so you can read more of his wisened words and learn more from his years of expertise within its pages.
You can also read lots of my published short stories which are used as case studies to clearly illustrate how the advice in the book was used in real life to achieve publishing success.