Recently, I received a request to judge a writing contest. Flattered, I thought, yeah, sure, why not? All I have to do is read through the entries and the top three will leap right out and fall into my lap. Oh boy, was I in for a surprise.
I love to enter writing contests. It always feels like a new challenge that works a different part of my brain. I’ve won, I’ve lost, and I’ve placed. And, with this new experience, I’ve now garnered a newfound respect for the Judges.
Sometimes I’ve entered what I thought was a complete and utter masterpiece only to find that it didn’t even place or get an Honourable Mention. I’d often wondered if they even read my entry because surely, had they read it, it couldn’t have been overlooked.
I’ve learned over the years it’s not the judging that lacks but the writing, the story, or the presentation. Almost without exception, I’m able to go back and see, or find, the reason it didn’t win. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/fayeearcand.com/1736
Sometimes the story sucks and other times I’ve edited so much that an extra sentence that should have been deleted–wasn’t. Ugh. Or I’ll read it again and it’s lacking direction or focus. We’ve all submited what we think of as our best work when there’s still work to be done.
But I digress….
The contest I recently judged was short story nonfiction—max 1500 words. There were twenty-four entries with no identifiers except for an assigned number. N1, N2, etc. I read each one from beginning to end and then read them again to place them into a pile of maybe and no. Here are a few of the questions/criteria I considered in choosing the top three. These can be applied to either fiction or nonfiction short stories. Just because a story is factual doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
The first line–did it draw me in? When you only have 1500 words, you better get started immediately in the story. Long descriptions and jumping from one thing to another are distractions and don’t add to the story.
Do I know where I am? And what era? I require a simple description of time and setting. Weave it into the first line or two as this grounds the reader immediately. Do this through a short description that names or describes the city. If you mention the Statue of Liberty, I know I’m in New York. If you say you’re isolated at home during a government lockdown because of Covid-19, I know you’re in the 2020s. Find something in the story that brings in the reference to time and place. Remember, you as the writer are the lens through which the story is being told.
Who’s the main player? A 1500 word story needs to be tight. Keep it to one main person/character (two if you must) otherwise it can get confusing and jump around too much as you try to fit in too much information. Relate the story of that person–what happened? Who is this person? If you describe a middle-aged man with a thick waist and a toupee, then I have a clear picture.
Who’s telling the story? What point of view (POV) is the story told from? For such a short story I find first person works well (the I perspective). Second person (perspective from you/your) could be interesting and is common in nonfiction. Third person (Perspective of a particular character: he/she or her/his) is effective and allows some out of the box observations. Make sure you stay in one POV (one head) only. For such a short story any POV hopping would be difficult to pull off.
Is there some emotion elicited from the story? Does it make me laugh? Smile? Cringe? If a story doesn’t evoke some response you may need to add to it or rethink a scene.
Is there conflict or tension in the story? If a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, follows a linear timeline that relays facts but there’s no stumbling block (physical or mental) then the story falls off quickly. There must be a change or struggle, and hopefully some resolution that brings the story full circle. Otherwise, it could read like a diary entry with no direction.
Always give a good ending. That’s the reason we read through to the end of the story, isn’t it? The reader/listener wants to be surprised, pleased, or shocked–otherwise it falls flat. Why did you tell this story? Ask yourself what the story is about and is there a beginning, middle, and end.
Five Senses—Sight, smell, sound, touch, taste…Use them: What does it smell like? Is there any background noise? Bring the reader into the experience.
A Pet Peeve–Don’t use $20 words. If your choice of vocabulary needs a dictionary for me to understand–sorry won’t happen. To me its a complete turn off and I’ll move on. If you want to write academia then go do that.
And, my best advice to anyone who wants to enter a short story contest is for you to read other non-fiction/fiction stories that have succeeded. Just google it, you’ll find something. You can also purchase the anthology and read the stories that won.
Choosing a winner from a pile of entries was difficult as I would have liked all the writers to be recognized. So many had a good start but fell flat, while others had fantastic settings but no development of the main character–there’s so much to consider. In the end I chose the three winners and gained a new respect for the judging process.
Stories and writing are personal. Sometimes as writers we feel like we’re putting it all down on the paper, but in reality, it doesn’t quite make it. Ask yourself the above questions and get writing again.
Congrats to all for throwing your hat in the ring. If it’s not there, it’ll never win.
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