Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What Writers can learn from a Writing Contest Judge

 
I recently became a judge for a flash fiction short story competition. It was an interesting experience. Note, I do not say "fun experience" because there were moments which were decidedly not "fun." Especially when I had to (gently) critique a story or reject it entirely. So, I thought it'd be a good idea to share some of the writing advice I gave to some of the contestants.
The genres I judged were scifi, fantasy, ghost stories, and fairy tales.  


Follow the Rules
The very first advice that comes to mind is this: Follow the rules, submit your story to the appropriate genre, try to understand all the elements of a particular genre.  
One story, especially, had me quite torn. It was the best story I'd read in the entire competition, probably one of the best stories I'd read in years. But I had to disqualify it. The author had put it in the wrong category, the scifi category.  I suppose the author thought the story was scifi, but having a sprinkling of scifi catchphrases does not a science fiction story make. 

Other authors were rejected either because their stories did not have all the elements of a genre or the authors decided to go meta wink-wink nudge-nudge and parody a traditional scifi, fairy tale, or fantasy story.  It's best to create your own original fairy tale than to play with a well-known one. I cannot tell you how many "not your mother's fairytale" stories I saw. Worse, these "new" twists on traditional fairytales were not so new at all. Competition judges have read a lot; few "twists" are new to us.    

Know when to begin a story
Knowing when to begin a story is difficult. It is not necessary to start the story with guns blazing. A story that begins too close to the action might confuse the reader if it is badly-executed. So, should we start a story a second, an hour, a day, a month, a year, three hundred years before the event in the opening scene? Infodumping background and backstory at the beginning of a story is problematical. Most readers will not remember names, places, and dates, presented to them at the beginning of a story. Those captains, kings, nations you dumped on them in the opening prologue will have to be interwoven into the story again. Remember that people generally don't care about facts unless emotion is involved, and they don't care about a character's history until they've lived a few hours with the main character in the present.  Some writers use flashback scenes and others sprinkle backstory into a story, interweaving past events into the present. One warning about flashbacks: it's best not to use flashbacks too early in a story. In a novel, wait a few chapters or you will halt the forward thrust of the story. It's best not to use flashbacks in a short story unless one can get away with it. (And never assume you are so skilled that you can get away with breaking the rules.)
Know how many characters are needed
A failed story sometimes has too many characters; this just leads to confusion and a list of names the reader cannot connect to. Sometimes a story has one main character in the beginning then changes to another main character toward the end. Sometimes there is a missing character. Just as there can be a missing line in a story that pulls certain thoughts together, or a missing scene or a missing chapter, the missing character is the hardest character to "see." The writer has to step back and see if everyone present in the story is necessary, and if any essential person is absent. 
Talking heads
Narrative beats are not always necessary but long sections of dialog only punctuated by "he said" or "she said" is a lost opportunity to show aspects of the story, characterization, even subtextual metaphors.
Filtering words
Words such as "I looked," "I saw," "I glanced," "I heard," "I felt," or "I smelled" are filter words. They put a distance between the reader and the story's narrator. If one isn't careful, these words can overwhelm a manuscript, at every sentence. Instead of writing, "She saw him that morning wearing a blue-colored shirt," tweak the story to make it more active. "The blue shirt he wore" or "That morning, he wore a blue shirt." Instead of "She listened to the sounds of a bird singing in the woods," write "The caw of a raven echoed through the pine barrens." Avoid words such as "seemed," "appeared," "felt," "had the feeling," and "realized." They are often a sign that the writer is telling. Don't write "She seemed happy" or "I realized he was holding his breath" or "he looked scared." Try instead, "A smile flickered on her face" or "His shoulders relaxed and a silent sigh escaped his mouth" or "His hands shook."
Vagueness never helps
Use the perfect word. Why use "car" or "sound" when you can use Lexus or hooptie? Or splashing or gurgling? 
Lack of Voice
One of the worst problems I encountered was the lack of voice in the stories. Voice is not difficult, and yet it is one of the hardest things for new writers to master. I wil only say that "voice" reveals the narrator's heart. Sometimes it reveals more, such as the author's culture, obsessions, or preoccupations. But at its basic level, voice reveals the narrator's personality and heart.In the same way that a visual artist chooses a particular palette, medium, or subject, a writer chooses --or allows-- voice. Voice is often found in description. The way a character washes laundry can be conveyed in different way depending on the narrator's backstory, present situation, emotional state, age, rank, wealth, hopes. The description of an abandoned house depends on who is describing it. If the description of the abandoned house in your story could fit into any genre or could be done by any author, that description lacks voice. The writer doesn't have to be over-the-top, but merely himself.   
A story is not a summary
Know what a story is, how to tell it, and how to end it. A story is not a synopsis or a memo. Stories have elements of fiction, which include characterization, description, action, a story arc, a geographical or chronological setting. Many of the stories I read seemed to have characters hanging in space. The season, time of day, locations, were absent or had no effect on the character. Some stories were more like descriptions of situations; there was no beginning, no middle, no end. And some stories felt as if the author thought the twist ending would make up for the lack of plot.  
Watch the coarse language
Coarseness doesn't imply honesty, truth, passion, edginess, or anger, especially if a writer uses the coarse word repeatedly. Also, you never know if the judge is religious or easily offended. If you're going to use a coarse word, make sure it's absolutely needed.  
Be careful when attempting versimilitude
Fiction reflects life but in order to work, it can't reflect life too much. The dialog must feel real, have verisimilitude, but it must also be crafted. If two characters are arguing, don't write every word of the argument in order to show how stressed both characters are. Real-life arguments go on forever...but dialog is perfected conversation.  Have you ever seen a movie where characters are having a boring conversation? The boring conversation lasts just long enough for the viewer to understand that it is a boring conversation. Then the scene ends. The writer doesn't give us the full extent of the conversation but manages to cut away after the plot point is achieved. Consider also good dialogs, which are fictionally styled and carefully-crafted but somehow feel real, natural, and free-flowing.  
Pronoun Referrents
When using pronouns such as "it," "its," "she," "her," "this," "of them," "these," "those," "that," "there," or "which," always remember that the reader is not inside your head. Always ask yourself if the reader will understand what "it" is referring to. 
Watch for overly-long sentences 
Some of the sentences I saw in some stories were doing much too much work.  There is just so much information a sentence can hold. And some sentences work so hard they should be paid overtime. Watch, also, if you overdo it with commas, prepositions, clauses, phrases, etc. 
I hope this helps you. And happy creativity, all!
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