Last year, The Willesden Herald announced that there would be no winner in the 2008 short story competition. Zadie Smith, the final arbiter after the panel of three judges made their recommendations, could find no story good enough to win. The £5000 prize money was donated to charity.
Understandably, there were a lot of disappointed writers. After the outcry—weeks of bloggers’ complaints, in fact—Steve Moran stepped up and offered a list of the most common reasons for a short story to be rejected. He likens an open short story competition to a talent contest—think American Idol—and states that the “bum notes” and ineptitudes in short stories are just like those in auditions. With around 850 entries, there is no doubt the judges need to be brutal through the elimination process.
Writing expansively, Moran lists twenty-seven common faults, but these tend to fall into the following categories:
- Failure to Follow the Rules Competitions are serious about rules and deadlines. Follow them exactly or your entry will be disqualified. Poor grammar and spelling errors signal lack of professionalism.
- Openings and Endings Over-elaborate beginnings and endings weaken a good story. VS Pritchett describes a short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye in passing”. Allow some mystery, but don’t be cryptic. The false start and the tacked on ending are also clanging notes.
- Subject Matter If a competition is genre specific, submit only a story of that genre. Do not send a crime story to a literary competition or a literary story to a speculative fiction contest. Do not be trivial: choose a subject that is capable of transporting a reader to a different place and mood. Do not be overly sentimental: we have TV dramas for that. Do not be obvious: the short story is a form that lends itself to raising questions rather than giving all the answers.
- Characterisation Too many characters, undifferentiated characters, and miserable characters are all common failings in short stories. Moran quotes Seán Ó Faoláin as saying that a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet: a novel takes a long time getting off the ground, carries a lot of people and takes them a long way from where it started, while a short story takes off vertically, quickly rises, carries only a couple people, and lands not far from where it took off. Each character must come to the story with an individual and unique backstory. Just like you wouldn’t want to spend the evening with a miserable bore, characters need to be interesting.
- Dialogue Clunky dialogue is always a mistake. All dialogue must be essential to moving the story forward. It must also be something people would actually say. Be careful not to use dialogue as exposition. You can reveal a lot about a character in what they say and don’t say. Too much dialogue is just as bad as too little.
- Style As you draft and redraft the story, question each word, sentence, paragraph, passage. Are you showing or telling? (A judicious combination of the two is okay.) Is the pacing uneven? Have you digressed from the original idea? Have you included any clichés? Is the whole story a cliché? Is the tone consistent? Is the story too sketchy? Long-winded?
- An Experiment The short story is actually an excellent form for an experiment. Be cautious, however. You are drawing attention to yourself. Give extra consideration to all the above points.
A writer has some degree of control over every item listed above. Moran also mentions something a writer has no control over:
- Subjective Opinion of the Judge Something may be well-written, but the judge simply does not like it. Or he finds it boring, commonplace, banal or unconvincing. Or she’s in a bad mood or sad or slept badly the night before. Or his wife just ran off with the milkman, and your story is about adultery. There is really very little you can do about this, except to write your story honestly and hope you are judged honestly in return.
The Willesden Herald incident provoked a widespread discussion about writing competitions, judging, literary standards, and the nature of the short story. Maybe this is a prize in itself.