Grammar and Punctuation

Ten Top Tips for Winning Short Story Contests

Ten Top Tips for Winning Short Story Contests

As well as being fortunate enough to win several short story contests, I have been asked to judge a few. So I thought today I would share some tips that come at least partly from my judging experience..

1. Most important of all, obey the contest rules. It they say the maximum is 1500 words, don’t submit 2000. An entry that clearly breaks the rules has no chance of winning.

2. Don’t enter the same story in more than one contest at a time. It will be embarrassing to both you and the organizers if the same story wins or places in both contests, and you may end up forfeiting your prize (or prizes).

3. Try to come up with an original idea or angle. Remember that your story will be competing with many others, so avoid the predictable plots that have been done to death, or at least give them a fresh twist. A clever double-twist ending that surprises the judges and subverts their expectations can be a winning formula.

4. Twist endings aren’t essential, though (unless that is specified in the rules). A story that engages with the reader on an emotional level and leaves him/her something to ponder can also be a strong contender in a short story contest.

5. Other things being equal, avoid submitting stories that are laden with doom and gloom. As a judge I’ve been amazed (and depressed) by the high proportion of miserable, downbeat tales that are entered in competitions. That’s not to say such stories can’t be good, but judges are only human. Faced by story after story brimming with misery, when we come across a tale with a bit of humour it really stands out. So go easy on the negativity. Witty, humorous stories (even dark humour) are far more likely to catch the judge’s eye, partly because they are so unusual. And even if you don’t end up winning, my fellow judges and I will be grateful to you for brightening our day!

6. Avoid cliches such as ‘she was a mine of information’ or ‘he was as cool as a cucumber’. These are signs of lazy writing and won’t impress the judges.

7. Likewise, try to avoid stereotyping. Just as judges are familiar with all the usual plot twists, so they can recognize flat, two-dimensional characters. Admittedly short stories don’t allow much space for characterization and character development. But if you can go beyond the standard stereotypes and present readers with interesting and surprising characters who spring to life off the page, it will greatly boost your chances of success.

8. Check and double-check your spelling, grammar and punctuation. No story that demonstrates a lack of attention to the basics of good English is likely to win a contest. Ideally, have someone else who is good at this check your entry for you before submitting it.

9. Don’t be too despondent if your story doesn’t win or even place. In most competitions there are hundreds of entries, and luck and the judges’ personal tastes inevitably play a part. I have had a story come nowhere in one contest and win another. If you are confident of the quality of your story, give it another polish and send it out again when a suitable opportunity arises.

10. If possible, though, take the trouble to read the stories that do win and see what this tells you about what the judges were looking for. Compare your own story honestly with those of the winners and see what they did that you didn’t (although bear in mind my comments above).

Good luck, and I wish you every success entering short story contests!

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Editing

Do All Writers Need to Hire an Editor? Here’s Why I Say No!

A trend I’ve noticed recently among writing blogs and websites is a growing consensus that to succeed as a writer, you MUST engage an editor for your work.

This is an assertion that I feel needs to be challenged. Yes, a good editor is a wonderful thing to have, but there are two major stumbling blocks.

First, finding a good freelance editor isn’t as easy as you might think. Bear in mind that anyone can call themselves an editor. As well as the genuinely good ones, there are plenty of deluded amateurs and some out-and-out fraudsters. Sorting out the good from the bad and the ugly is by no means a simple task.

And even if you are lucky and find a good editor, their services aren’t cheap. For a full-length book you can expect to pay several thousand pounds/dollars. If you are self publishing – on Kindle, for example – you need to think carefully whether any boost in sales that may result will cover this.

Self-publishing authors sometimes believe that a freelance editor will be able to help them with the deeper, structural aspects of their book as well. This is akin to the role performed by developmental editors in traditional publishing houses. Whether a freelance editor can realistically offer this service is in my view very doubtful, however.

Developmental editing tends to be a slow, iterative process. The editor typically reads and reflects carefully on the manuscript, then raises queries and offers suggestions to the author. The author duly reflects on this and gives his/her reactions, and so on. This can work very well with a salaried editor who is employed by a publishing house, but it is not really compatible with freelance editing, where you are charged by the page or the hour. If you hire a freelance editor, what you are basically getting is a copy editor. They may (or may not) make the odd structural suggestion as they go, but it is a long way from the in-depth feedback you will get from a developmental editor in a publishing house.

My advice is therefore to ignore anyone who tells you that you MUST hire an editor. Instead, I recommend a two-pronged approach. First, be sure you are fully up to speed with the basics of grammar and punctuation (my course Essential English for Authors might be helpful here – just saying!). Aim to be your own best editor (and proofreader) rather than relying on someone else.

And second, make full use of free and low-cost resources such as beta readers (other authors are often happy to reciprocate in this role) and online forums such as myWritersCircle. Off-line resources such as writers’ groups can be a big help as well. By this means you can get a lot of valuable feedback about your work without spending a fortune.

If you hear of a good editor and can afford their services, by all means use them too. But be realistic about how much benefit you are likely to get from their input, and weigh this carefully against the costs involved.

Remember, also, that with e-book (or POD) publishing, if someone tells you about a mistake, it is a very simple matter to correct and republish. Getting everything 100 percent correct before publishing, while still desirable, is therefore no longer so essential.

Of course, if you’re aiming to get published by a traditional publishing house, some of the above comments may not apply. But still, bear in mind that in-house editors provide their services free of charge if the publisher sees potential in your work. Your objective as an author should therefore be to ensure that your manuscript demonstrates such potential. No freelance editor will be able to ‘fix’ your manuscript if it is basically unpublishable. But that won’t stop them taking your money, of course.

So that’s my view, but what do you think? Should all aspiring writers be told to hire an editor for their work, or is this (as I think) unrealistic in many cases? Please post any comments you may have below.

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How to Apply the Advice “Show, Don’t Tell”

Show, Don’t Tell is a mantra frequently repeated to new fiction writers. It’s good advice, but can cause some confusion unless it’s properly explained.

I was reminded of this by a question posed a while ago on the forum at www.mywriterscircle.com. The question was as follows:

“I’m a new writer and I know that the main thing new writers do is that they tell and don’t show. I get that. I just don’t get how you would show things. Not really.

Okay, this is hard to explain. I have seen instances where it’s shown, I just don’t get how to do it.

For example: I want to show that someone is quiet and doesn’t talk a lot about herself. How would I do that?”

I thought this was a great question, and one that deserved a reasonably in-depth answer.

I wrote about this subject at some length in my CD course Write Any Book in Under 28 Days. I’ve therefore adapted the relevant section in my answer below, starting with a couple of examples…

(1) It was nine o’clock on the night of Sunday 16 October 2009. This was also the date when, six years earlier, a young cashier named Nicola Smith had been murdered in the bank. Tonight another young cashier, Catherine Nicholls, was working late in the bank on her own.

(2) Catherine gazed up from her report to the desk calendar. The date showing was Sunday 16 October 2012. She sighed. Working alone on a Sunday night was bad enough, but the fact that it also happened to be the sixth anniversary of Nicola Smith’s murder in this very building was giving her a bad case of the jitters.

In the first example the writer is simply telling the reader things. This is sometimes called reportage.

Much the same information is conveyed in the second example, but here all the events are portrayed through the eyes of a (third-person) viewpoint character, Catherine. The second example works much better at bringing the character of Catherine, and hence the story, to life.

Show, Don’t Tell can be expressed in another way: Write In Scenes. Think of your story as a movie or TV show. Rather than telling your readers what happens, your story will be much more entertaining if you show it in a series of vividly portrayed scenes.

Many new writers have difficulty grasping this concept. So they write material such as the following:

George Johnson was in the dining room. He was a tall, thin man with a permanently mournful expression, aged fifty-two. He had spent all his adult life working in local government. He sat at the table and looked at the kitchen door expectantly.

Rosemary, his wife of twenty years, knew he would be expecting his usual Thursday night steak. George lived by his routines, and normally Rosemary was happy to go along with them. Someone else might have resented it, but she was normally very easy-going. That day, however, she had had the urge to try something different, so at the supermarket she had gone past the meat to the fish counter, and bought red mullet instead.

When George saw the fish, he wondered for a moment whether he had become confused and today was Friday rather than Thursday. He asked Rosemary what was going on. A few moments later he would lose his temper.

Written (correctly) as a scene, this might look more like the version below:

“Is it ready yet?” George shouted from the dining room.

“Nearly,” Rosemary shouted back. Six new potatoes were neatly stacked on the dinner plate, topped with a sprig of mint and a dollop of butter. The garden peas steamed appetizingly in a little mound alongside them. The fish was almost ready to come out of the oven.

Everything looked perfect, but she hesitated. George could be such a stick-in-the-mud. He liked his routines. But just for once, she had decided to do something different. Oh well, it was too late to change now. She put the fish on his plate and took it into the dining room.

George looked down at the plate in front of him. “What’s this?”

“It’s fish. Red mullet.”

“But today’s Thursday.”

Rosemary noticed a pinkish tinge creeping up from his collar. Inwardly, she sighed.

“I know it’s Thursday. I know we always have steak on Thursday. But just for once, I thought we’d try something different.”

As these examples demonstrate, Show, Don’t Tell is closely linked with the principle of writing from a single viewpoint.

In beginners’ work, the viewpoint is often vague and constantly shifting – from Character A, to Character B, to the omniscient author, back to A again, and so on. By contrast, in a story written in scenes, consistency of viewpoint is usually maintained throughout each scene (though different scenes may have different viewpoint characters).

Look again at the examples with George and Rosemary. The first begins with a few sentences of explanation from the author’s perspective. Then the viewpoint shifts to Rosemary, then to George, and finally back to the author again.

By contrast, the second is written as a scene, portrayed from the first word to the last from Rosemary’s point of view. I hope you will agree that the second version is more vivid and entertaining for the reader than the first (and, incidentally, helps and encourages readers to identify with Rosemary).

One other thing to watch is when a large proportion of your story consists of one character telling another about something. This is telling rather than showing in another guise. If the action described is important, show it to the reader as it happens, rather than have a character in the story tell someone else about it later.

Returning to the question reproduced at the start of this post, saying that someone is quiet and doesn’t talk much about herself is – of course – telling.

If you wanted to show this instead, the key would be to portray the story in scenes from either her viewpoint or someone else’s. The action and dialogue (and thoughts if you use her as a viewpoint character) will then convey the desired impression to your reader. Something like this, maybe:

The hands of the clock crept slowly but inexorably toward five. Susie logged off her computer and closed it down.

Her colleague Clare was way ahead of her. Her computer was already off, and she was touching up her lipstick. She caught Susie’s eye and grinned. “Friday night at last! I suppose you’ll be out clubbing it again tonight.”

“No.” Susie picked up her handbag and headed toward the door.

“Oh, come on. I know you’re out every night really. That Goody Two Shoes schtick is just an act, isn’t it?”

“See you on Monday, Clare.”

Susie closed the office door behind her and headed out into the high street. She took a deep breath, relieved that another week was over and she didn’t have to pretend to be sociable with her colleagues till Monday. And her favourite dance show was on TV tonight! Despite what Clare might have thought, a night in watching the stars twirl, her ginger cat Darcy purring on her lap, suited her just fine.

As characterization goes, that’s about as subtle as a brick, but in a short story for the popular market, it would serve to establish your viewpoint character as a quiet, stay-at-home type. And it does so by showing rather than telling.

To sum up, here are a few tips to help you follow the Show, Don’t Tell principle throughout your story…

* Write in scenes portrayed through the eyes (and other senses) of a viewpoint character.
* Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene.
* Don’t include asides or other information that can only come from the author.
* Aim for as high as possible a proportion of action and dialogue.
* Keep reportage and reminiscence to a minimum.
* Aim to write most of your story in your characters’ present.
* Avoid having characters tell one another about events – if something is important to the story, show it happening instead.

If you have any comments of your own about “Show, Don’t Tell”, please do leave them below!

Photo credit: CC BY by Akuppa

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Who, Whom, Whoever, Whomever – How to Choose Which Is Correct

It’s been a while since I discussed a grammatical topic on my blog, so today I thought I’d address a problem area that arises quite often among writers. It concerns the use of the word who and its variations whom, whoever and whomever.

Grammatically speaking, who is a relative pronoun. The relative pronouns (who/whoever/which/that) relate groups of words to nouns or other pronouns – for example, “The writer who works the hardest usually achieves the most.” Here the word who connects or relates the subject, the writer, to the verb within the dependent clause (works).

One major source of confusion among writers is when they should use who and when whom. Of course, in spoken English today the word whom is seldom used, and many people simply use who in every context.

In written English, however, and formal English especially, the distinction is still preserved.

The rule is that who is used when it refers to the subject of a sentence, and whom when it refers to the object.

Often, the simplest way to decide which version is correct is to re-phrase the sentence so you choose between he (the subject form of the third person singular pronoun) and him (the object form). If you want him, write whom; if you want he, write who. The examples below should make this clearer.

Who do you think is responsible? (Do you think he is responsible?)
Tell the officer who has done this. (Tell the officer he has done this.)
Whom shall we ask to the party? (Shall we ask him to the party?)
Everybody knows whom I mean. (Everybody knows I mean him.)

Choosing between whoever and whomever can be even trickier. There are two rules to guide you here.

Rule 1: First of all, use the ever suffix when who or whom can fit into two clauses in the sentence.

Example: Give it to whoever/whomever asks for it first.
Give it to him. He asks for it first.

Rule 2: Now, to determine whether to use whoever or whomever, follow the rule below.
him + he = whoever
him + him = whomever

In the example above, the first clause contains him and the second one he. Following the rule above, this means that whoever is correct.
Give it to whoever asks for it first.

Here is a further example:
We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend.

The two clauses here are:
We will hire him. You recommend him

In this case, the first clause has him and the second also has him. The rule tells us that whomever is the correct form here.

We will hire whomever you recommend.

Even experienced writers and editors sometimes slip up over when to use whoever and when whomever. One reason may be that the word often follows a preposition such as to or from, and we are accustomed to anything following a pronoun taking the object form. (Give it to him. Take it from me. He’s with her.)

However, in a sentence such as “We will give the award to whoever performs best”, the object of the preposition to is not whoever but the clause “whoever performs best”, and whoever is the subject of this clause.

This means you should check any such instances carefully, using the rules set out above. As a final test of your skills, see if you can decide which form is correct in the sentences below. The asterisks can represent who, whom, whoever or whomever.

1. It doesn’t matter ***** you choose.
2. Do you know ***** is going to the conference?
3. She gave gifts to ***** she liked best.
4. ***** arrives first will win the first prize.
5. She asked me ***** I was with last night.

The correct answers can be found at the bottom of this post.

Even if (to sound more life-like) you choose to have your fictional characters say “who” rather than “whom”, it’s still important to understand the grammatical rules governing the use of these terms.

In my view, professional writers should always understand when they are breaking the rules of grammar and their reasons for doing so. Understanding the rules will also help you avoid the potentially more embarrassing mistake of using “whom” when actually “who” is correct.

I do hope you found this post helpful. As ever, if you have any queries, please feel free to post them below.

Quiz answers – 1. whom. 2. who. 3. whomever. 4. whoever. 5. whom.

  • If you need a bit of help getting your English up to a publishable standard, my downloadable course Essential English for Authors may help. It’s a guide to the main things you need to know to ensure that your manuscript is taken seriously by agents and publishers and not rejected out of hand due to errors of grammar and punctuation. For more details click here.
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