Top 5 Issues I Saw as a Judge for a Short Story Contest

I was a judge in all three rounds of NYC Midnight’s 2017 Short Story Contest (they also run flash fiction and screenplay contests). This means I not only got to read hundreds of stories between 1000 and 2500 words long, but compose comments and critiques for each one. Writers had an exceptionally limited time to write and edit their submissions–from about a week to 24 hours, depending on the round. They were also restricted to certain genres, characters, and other requirements…again, depending on the round.

I got to read some truly marvelous stories during this time. I also read a great many fair-to-good pieces. Fortunately, after the first round, the most poorly-written examples were few and far between.

Here were some of the issues that prevented many of the contestants from scoring as high as they might have.

  1. Not understanding the genre

The NYC contest dictated the genre for the first two rounds. Honestly, were I to enter the contest myself, I don’t know how I would manage writing, for example, a political satire or romantic comedy. So I can identify with those poor souls who had three days to write an award-winning tale in a genre they had never touched before.

That said, the contest rules gave descriptions for each genre. I had to call out several stories for missing that particular boat. Fortunately for the contestants, two other judges and/or the contest moderators had to agree with me before the submission could be disqualified.

Whether you are submitting a piece to a literary magazine or contest, understand what they want. When a journal says “read a back issue to get a feel for what we want to see,” take them at their word to increase your chances of selection. If a contest wants “magical realism,” know what that means before sending your best work to them.

  1. Ignoring or misapplying the cadences of storytelling 

The best contestants understood the rhythm of language and how it affected the reader’s experience. From small scale pacing (sentence construction, where and when to insert a pause, sentence length); to mid-scale (paragraph construction and size); to large-scale (paragraph usage, dialog placement versus narration, section breaks)–the flow of the story is controlled by these decisions.

The most troublesome stories usually did not understand this concept. One submission contained, for no good reason, sentences so long they left me reeling. The longest was over 90 words! Some others were 60 to 70 words. A few geniuses can get away with this (I’m looking at you, Victor Hugo), but even those are typically in novels, not short stories.

  1. Sending a first draft

Okay, the NYC Midnight contestants are understandably rushed. But writing a story also means rewriting a story. Working on a deadline? Budget time to edit the piece. Editing and rewriting are part of writing. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you are tacking the last paragraph to your first draft six minutes before you have to attach the document and press SEND, don’t bother pressing that button.

Harsh? No. In my case, contest rules required lowering a score for even one spelling or grammar mistake. Editing is a necessary component of good writing and storytelling. Many submissions had an interesting plot buried under adjectives or misused commas. Whether you have five years or one day, a sizable portion of that time should be spent rewriting, rearranging, chopping, weeding, and all the other colorful metaphors for editing. For best effect, have someone else do the final edit and proofread. If that is not possible, spend as much time as you can spare reworking that first draft into a polished piece.

My most common reason for lowering a submission’s score? Poor editing. Because poor editing makes for a substandard story. And why send out anything but your best effort?

  1. Lack of focus

This applies most especially to short stories and flash fiction: Every word should be put to work. Put a leash on your adverbs. Strengthen your verbs until they can do the heavy lifting. If it isn’t setting the tone, it should be advancing the plot; preferably both.

Cut characters. Several submissions had far too many characters for the story length. Cut needless settings. Why did the characters walk to the library? There better be a story reason; if you can remove that trip without crippling the plot or the emotional arc, do so.

  1. Flat emotional arc

True, not all good stories necessarily need a strong emotional arc. Some stories, especially genres like murder mysteries or police procedurals, can get by just fine with the energy of the narrative arc alone. But if your character(s) are going on an emotional journey, or changing and developing between the first and last sentence, there also needs to be an emotional arc. And too many writers do not quite grasp that.

Maybe the character starts off happy, has something terrible happen, then fights to reach a new high. Or perhaps the emotions just get worse and worse–welcome to many horror stories. A short story has to pack a lot into a little space, so the crafting of an emotional journey must be tight, with thoughtfully chosen situations and clear characterizations.

Although the following reference applies more to long-form fiction, consider studying No Film School’s page on emotional arcs for a brief education on the subject.

—Michael Fink


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