Ruth E. Walker
Just last week, I received some great news. PRISM International selected my entry “Exit” for their longlist in the Grouse Grind short fiction contest. It’s been a bit of a drought for me over the past year or so. I’ve struggled with producing creative work and when I manage to actually submit anything, rejections have been the result.
No matter how polite and encouraging a rejection might be, it gets a writer down, you know? So hooray for writing contests for providing the spark that gets this writer back up again and writing.
This whole adventure reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in 2017. Looking at it now, I see that it’s still a valid and useful resource, especially as with Writescape’s recent poetry contest, we received a number of excellent poems which could not be considered as they didn’t fit the required parameters. Rule #1: follow the guidelines.
The following is a slightly updated version and, I trust, something that may inspire other writers with a spark or two of ideas.
Prepare to be judged
It’s been my pleasure (mostly) to serve as a judge on a number of writing competitions. I’ve also been both a first-tier and second-tier reader, helping to cull the entries down by eliminating entries with problems. And I’ve been a final judge for regional, national and international writing contests, choosing winners from 15 or 20 of those final top entries. Each and every time, it’s been a thrill to read creative work that made me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off” (to quote Emily Dickenson.)
I wish I could say it is true for all contest entries. But it is not.
A few years ago, a national organization of professional writers asked me to be a second-tier reader. This means I read stories that had already been reviewed and moved forward. This should mean I would be reading stories that were pretty darn good. I was looking forward to making my notes.
All the entries I read had a great story idea. But not all of them were great stories. Not even pretty darn good.
For this contest, I was only one of several second-tier readers who were also reading 14 entries. So I wasn’t reading all the entries that reached the second tier — only a fraction of them. But of my 14 entries, there were only 6 that I would have recommended as a first-tier reader.
The other 8 all had problems in terms of technique and execution. Here are just four of the many issues I encountered in the stories I scored in the bottom 8:
Don’t tell me, show me. This is a familiar refrain from creative writing instructors. But what do we mean by that? It’s more than the difference between I feel cold versus I shiver and rub my arms, although that is a good beginning. It is equally an issue if the writer shows us something — The cold crept under my flesh and into my lungs and then in the next line continues to tell us about it: It was below zero and I felt so cold.
The need to tell, especially after a show, is a sign of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or their readers. Does this mean that every line needs to be a show versus a tell? No. But any story that relies on tell is a story that soon bores its readers.
Description is great. But if you have to hit your reader over the head with a hammer to ensure they are “getting the picture”…well, it’s soon painful. Definition of Adverbitis: excessive use of adverbs, especially when a great verb is the better choice: swiftly ran = raced/rushed/galloped — any of those three options create great visuals. The same goes with unnecessary adverbs: hurriedly, loudly, slowly…crept slowly = crept carries the whole image. I mean, can you ever creep fast? And how about plummeted swiftly? Ever seen anything plummet slowly?
And a quick note on adjectives. Use them, sure. But think before you dip your creative paintbrush three times too many: A charming, vivacious redheaded librarian is way too much for any brain to unpack and visualize. Stick to the essential descriptions of your character or the setting — leave room for your reader to fill in the rest.
Passive writing: boring, boring and more boring. Be ruthless in seeking out and eliminating passive writing wherever you can. Look for the “to be” construction: was, is, were, has/had been, will/would be…etc. You can’t avoid passive verbs but they should not dominate the page. The same goes for passive sentence construction, where the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence: The writing group was disturbed by the brass band. (passive) The brass band disturbed the writing group. (active) And avoid long digressions and backstory. It’s a short story or excerpt, not a history lesson.
Proofread. And proofread again. Best not to write your entry six hours ahead of the deadline because chances are you will miss mistakes. Put the story in a drawer for at least a day, longer if you can. Then use a ruler to focus your eye on a line-by-line check for errors or omissions. Why does this matter? One of the top three entries I read this week was tied, in my mind, with two others for first place. But it wasn’t error-free. So while I loved it, it made it easier for me to place it lower than the other two that didn’t contain errors.
Writing contests give writers an excellent opportunity to submit their work. Unlike the slush pile, writers know someone will actually read their entry. To be a finalist or to win is a validation of your craft and I can say it’s one of the best moments for any writer. It’s a fantastic feeling that I want every writer to experience and it’s why I wrote this post. (And why I re-posted it.)
Before pressing SEND:
- Telling us a story is not as interesting or engaging as showing us a story
- Lots of adverbs and plenty of adjectives are signs of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or readers
- Passive writing is boring and often includes unnecessary information
- Spelling mistakes and typos affect how a judge reads your entry
- A great story idea may get you past first-tier readers but 1, 2, 3 or 4 will not get you to the final judge
As of this writing, I don’t know if my story Exit made it beyond PRISM’s longlist. But here’s the link to their website so you can check out what happened. While you’re at it, check out PRISM’s other contests — creative non-fiction and poetry, for example.
May your muse be ever-present and generous.