After a disappointing experience with an online contest, John decided to use his expertise as a university tutor in creative writing to offer contest entrants feedback on the stories they submit to his Writer's Village contest. He says, "Just for fun I decided to run a contest where every entrant was awarded marks out of 45, across six publishing criteria, and given a brief practical critique on how their story might be improved. That’s how students are treated on MA (MFA) programs. Why not contestants?"
The criteria John uses in judging the stories entered in his contest is as follows. "I award the highest marks for ‘emotional engagement with the reader’ (a maximum of 10) and ‘originality of concept’ (10), followed by ‘the power of the first paragraph’ (8) and ‘structure, including conflict and closure’ (8). ‘Apt language’ gets 6 and ‘professionalism of presentation’ is 3. The cash prize winners usually achieve 42-43 marks out of 45."
And now, as promised, here are John's tips for increasing your odds to win a contest:
First, rate your own story against the criteria above. Better still, have someone else do it. Judges of other contests probably use a similar system. (And if they don’t reveal their system, how can you trust their qualifications?)
Second, be aware of the three main reasons why stories - which might otherwise have promise - fail to win a prize or get published. I can’t answer for other contests but here are my own big no-no’s:
a. Poor structure. A tale starts slowly or doesn’t start at all. It has too much background. It digresses into pointless incidents and irrelevant dialogue. The close is weak. Readers are left asking “What was all that about?”
A story should be a “globed, compacted thing”, as Virginia Woolf put it. Clear structure is vital.
b. Plot clichés. Stephen King once said that he never again wanted to read a story about a cute pet or precocious child that read minds and/or saved the family heroically when the house burnt down.
My own list of clichés includes a visit to a dying relative who reveals a terrible truth, the scandalous funeral (five mistresses turn up, each claiming to be the dead man’s wife), the magic cottage (now you see it, now you don’t), aliens in the bus queue, and my personal bête noire - the writer who’s struggling against Writer’s Block to write the very story you’re reading now!
c. Dull language. Some stories are a Yorkshire pudding. (This is a traditional English dish that, no matter how you cook it, ends up as a soggy mess.) Over-long sentences, unbroken paragraphs, tedious descriptions that could be replaced by one crisp phrase...
A story doesn’t have to dance with metaphors - the most emotive tales are often told in the simplest language - but it should persuade us that the writer knows their craft.
Entering short story contests is a way of earning while you learn enough of the craft to complete your first novel. Regard every story as a five-finger exercise. You might practise body language in one, gain experience with characterisation in another, and try different approaches to dialogue in a third. After you’ve won a dozen top prizes, you’ll have acquired every craft skill necessary to write novels. All you need then is stamina.
As for the Writers' Village short story contest, I plan to keep raising the prize values. Every time I’ve done that, the quality of the entries improves, and I have a more interesting challenge. How can I distinguish between twenty shades of excellence? The job gets harder each quarter but having a rigorous set of criteria makes it possible.
I wish that more contest judges used formal criteria and clearly published them. Above all, I wish that more contests told entrants why they didn’t win, rather than leaving them in darkness and frustration.
Dr John Yeoman, who holds a PhD in Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. He now runs the Writers’ Village short story contest which draws 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. His free book How to Win Story Contests for Profit and 14-part course in story writing for the commercial market can be found at:
Writers-Village.org/Contest-Success Currently, it’s $16 to enter a story but that includes a critique and the chance to win a $660 cash prize.
Posted by Maryann Miller, who has also judged a contest or two.