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)

I Have Some Good News This 2016: Published!

So yea, 2016. This wounded artery of a year.

dicaprio

But, I am able to share good news for once: I sold my first short story, to be published in a Science Fiction Anthology either this Dec or Jan.  The contract is signed and the publisher working away on the printing.  I’ll share the details once it’s put up for sale.

Honestly, this is amazing news. I’ve worked very hard to get here, and hopefully this is the start of a writing career. I have several other subs out, so I’m hoping to keep up the momentum!

This particular story was rejected 6 times- but the sub times were long. One publication held it for five months, so I lost some time there. I finished the story in March 2015, after it went through eight drafts. The rewrites were helped along by Critters (I’ll report to them this “Woohoo!” once published) and one last, very incisive critique by a major magazine editor.

Making art is hard work. Lots of rejection, lots of technical and creative skills required, many late nights spent just trying to hit a word count so that they day can be considered well spent.

So, here’s to my little story. Hurrah!

Cope with Rejection Like a Boss

I found a great new blog today called Rejectomacy! The latest post is an interview with Gabrielle Harbowy, managing editor at Dragon Moon Press:

As an editor, Gabrielle has many strange and wondrous powers, one of which is removing rejectomancy points from foolish Rejectomancers who fall prey to SSD (special snowflake disorder) or FTFFD (failure to follow fucking directions). But her powers are not always used for evil, and her suite of extraordinary abilities includes many that are beneficial to the Rejectomancer. Follow all the submission guidelines, proofread and revise your story, and she may bestow such boons as Read to the End or Create Constructive Criticism or that most potent of editorial blessings, Aura of Acceptance. But writers beware, she also has access to the dreaded Random Reject Table.

Read the rest here.

And remember everyone- drown your sorrows in non-destructive ways!

Now excuse me while I have my third cup of therapy coffee- time to get to heart-exploding levels!