Avoid These Story Mistakes: As I judge A Short Story Contest

PAPERI’ve been helping evaluate short story submissions for a contest, and I’m on the hook to give meaningful feedback to young writers. It’s been fun! I’d like to share some common mistakes I’ve seen cropping up in aspiring writers’ prose in this post.

Don’t crowd a story with too many concepts 

When writing, the ideas flow: have fun! See where it goes! But then, edit. Focus on one idea and flesh out it’s implications in a meaningful way. If you start the story about a robot, follow through with it. I’ve seen several stories that start with once concept, and then they split off into completely different concepts that don’t make sense. For instance, a robot story becomes a story about a pirate who steals it, which then becomes about a ghost watching over them, and ends with a serial killer. Don’t create new elements to get yourself out of problems. Readers will know you’re fudging. In a short story you have time for one idea. State the idea in the opening, and then complete the arc.

Give readers command of the world and the characters right away

If you’re writing an alternate history, a fantasy in your own made-up world, or about the near future, the reader needs to know right away. Readers will get frustrated if there are no clues about the setting. I’ve seen several stories that didn’t establish a sense of place until they were halfway through the tale. That’s sloppy, and gives the impression you were making it up as you went. That’s fine for a first draft, but your readers want the polished end product. This will make them trust you.

There’s no narrative arc

All stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Spaceships aren’t interesting unless we’re made to care, and the engine of making a reader care is conflict. You might have a great idea, but nobody will care about it if you don’t get your protagonist in trouble because of it. Here’s a basic breakdown of an arc’s structure:

a.) Beginning: conflict

b.) Middle: fallout

c.) End: resolution/catharsis.

These are the basics. Don’t submit your brainstorming notes: mold that idea into an arc.

Some basic prose/ grammar tips

A metaphor is a complete idea that compares unlike things. It’s not enough to say, “Paul is an ant” and leave it at that. Why is Paul like an ant? What are the implications of such a comparison? Never obfuscate for mystery, because chances are you’re just being unclear. “Paul is an ant: diminutive, better in groups where he can disappear into a collective effort.”

Be careful when jumping from one internal monologue to another. Point of view should be cohesive. Is it first person or third person? (Does the narrator say “I” or does it pull back and say, “Mike did X”?) Make that decision before writing each draft. The reader should never feel jarred.

As always: read more. Learning how to develop a prose style is essential to writing anything well. Be sure to read the basics: Dorothy Parker loved Elements of Style , or pick up William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

And never self-reject! Write and submit to as many contests and magazines as possible. You’ll never get better if you don’t keep working on it. Get as many eyes on your work as possible.

** The original version of this post claimed that Parker wrote Elements of Style; that was a mistake. (Written by Strunk)

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Story Organization

This was a cool gem I found on Reddit:

Mary Robinette Kowal gives a rundown of how she turns an idea into a story idea! I’m always interested in seeing how each author does this. I’m going to go through her steps to see if it helps me. Starting out as a writer means learning all the rules and then internalizing them to make them your own.

One of the things that is hardest to learn is that you need to trust your own instincts — not as a writer, but as a reader. Basically that moment when you think, “I would love to read a story about…” is a moment when your brain is offering you inspiration for a story you could write. Even niggling side thoughts like, “it would be cooler if” can be the seed of the story.

The seed isn’t the problem, it’s developing it into a story idea that’s the tricky bit. Here’s an exercise to try.

  1. Write down a gee whiz idea.
  2. Where would this gee whiz idea happen? That’s your general scenic location.
  3. Write down characters who would be there.
  4. From that list, which ones do you want to spend time with?
  5. What does each have at stake?
  6. Pick the one who has most at stake ie the most to lose. That’s your main POV character.
  7. What do they want? Brainstorm for 3-5 minutes and, then bold the idea that excites you.
  8. Why can’t they have it? Brainstorm, then bold the idea that excites you.
  9. What is their plan? Brainstorm, then bold the idea that excites you.
  10. Write 1- 3 sentences summing up your decisions.
  11. Identify what kind of MICE conflict it is.
    • A. Trying to escape – milieu
    • B. Questions –idea
    • C. Crisis of faith/self-doubt – character
    • D. Things happen! – event
  12. Where does that mean the story needs to begin? Or, what MICE Quotient frame goes around it gets.

So that gives you a basic story beginning, but something that is only a single thread is often dull.

Now we need a second plot thread. Typically, if you pick the same MICE Quotient element, it winds up being just a conflict in the main plot, not a second thread in its own right.

  • 1. Try to find a different MICE element to introduce.
    • A. Milieu – What problems exist with your MC’s environment?
    • B. Idea – What questions does your MC have?
    • C. Character – What challenges your MC’s self definition?
    • D. Event – What disrupts your MC’s status quo?
  • 2. From the list, try to pick something that is not the same kind of MICE thread as your primary conflict. This will be your secondary conflict.
  • 3. Write 2-3 sentences summarizing your decision.
  • 4. Weave that into your previous set of decisions and that gives you a very basic frame for a story.

There are other tricks and this is definitely not the only way to go from idea to story, but it’s an exercise that can help you sort things out while you are learning to develop your instincts.