The night was dark. Remind me never to include the preceding sentence in a story.
As part of the summer reading program at the library where I work, I recently had the privilege of judging a flash fiction contest. When I say privilege, I mean it, absolutely. I admire anyone who works up the nerve to put her writing out there. I experienced a little thrill of discovery from getting to see all of the entries. I read some great pieces. And I learned some lessons I hope to remember in my own writing.
My advice for contest entries, based on my limited judging experience:
First, stay away from the obvious. Since the summer reading theme centered around night-time, one of our contest rules stated that the word “night” must be used in the opening line. I saw the same thing over and over. “The night was dark.” Okay. “The night was dark.” Nights generally are. “It was a dark night.” Okay, I get it. When I read an opening line about a protagonist who never allowed a hint of night to show itself in her house, it caught my attention. The story immediately stood out from the preceding few.
Second, pay attention to the rules. As I mentioned above, we required the word “night” in the opening line. One writer didn’t include the word anywhere in the submission. It didn’t matter how good the story was, it didn’t qualify for the contest. It was flash fiction. We gave our writers 250 words to tell a story, and many of them fit an entire arc into this small framework. If you’re given a word limit, stick to it. The 1,000-word masterpiece of yours won’t fly in a 250-word limit flash fiction contest. No matter how good it is, it’s not so good that the judges will suspend the rules and declare it the winner. In my case, I wanted to devote my limited time to paying close attention to the writers who followed our guidelines. I didn’t even read the 1,000-word story, because I felt it would waste time I didn’t have.
Third, and closely related to following guidelines, pay attention to genre. We received one proselytizing religious essay. It would have been appropriate for an essay contest, but not a fiction one. We received two poems. I wasn’t averse to narrative verse, but for me to consider it as a possible winner in a fiction contest, it needed the narrative part.
Fourth, proofread. Especially in short works, errors announce themselves. (I know I’ll see mistakes in the this blog post ten seconds after I click “publish.” As I said, I’m trying to learn here, too.) On my first read-through of the entries, I eliminated a couple of pieces I liked story-wise because they were full of typos and grammatical errors.
Fifth, don’t take it personally. I’ve heard this again and again, but it hit home when I was the one evaluating the work of others. I was collaborating with a co-worker on the judging, and as we discussed the merits of different pieces, we didn’t always agree. Both of us also stayed open to the ideas of the other, and I was able to see some of her points. We eventually settled on a winner we both felt deserved an award. But I can now verify that a different judge will see things differently. Just because you didn’t win one contest doesn’t mean you won’t do well in another. Heck, I was so happy to see how many people were making the effort to write and taking the risk of sharing their creative work, I wanted to give awards to everyone. But we only had a limited number to give out. Some good stories didn’t win, and I hope their authors keep trying. This leads to…
Sixth, “honorable mention” means something. It’s not a participation ribbon. I gained a whole new insight into how honorable mentions are awarded. After my co-judge and I agreed on the first-place winner, each one of us had grown attached to a story from the stack that we couldn’t stand to let go unmentioned, because they were so good. The contest was close and we agonized over a winner. So we each named one honorable mention.
To sum up, I’d have to say you can improve your odds in a writing contest considerably by paying attention to some basic principles. Out of a stack of a few dozen entries, I was able to narrow it down to ten or so finalists pretty quickly. Those ten finalists made sure they followed the guidelines, proofread their work, and included the elements of a story. These simple things put them ahead of most of the field.