Saundra Mitchell, the editor of Defy the Dark, read every single story that was submitted for the contest. That’s over three million words. She’s stopped by Figment with some advice for the writers who didn’t win the contest. Pay attention! There’s good stuff here!
For the last month, it’s been my honor and privilege to read the stories you’ve submitted for the Defy the Dark Short-Story Contest. I can’t believe how many amazing writers entered. I can totally believe how hard it was to choose the winners.
I wish I could give each and every one of you feedback, because when I was a young writer, one of the things I craved most was information. The turnout for this contest was huge. (You guys rock!!) Because of that, I can’t comment on every one of your stories. But I can offer you some general lessons that might help you win the next contest.
Here are some of the reasons I didn’t select a particular story. The good news is, most of them are fixable!
5. PROBLEMS WITH SPELLCHECK (And Grammar, and Punctuation…)
Since this contest took place entirely online, I could take it for granted that every author had access to a computer and spellcheck. Since it took place on Figment, I knew everyone had a chance to get critiques before submission.
Which meant I didn’t feel bad about putting aside a story full of errors that spellcheck would have corrected. I don’t mean a typo here or there—that happens. But if I got through three paragraphs and there were already six spelling errors, two abused quotes, and a misplaced subject-verb agreement, I moved on.
Submitting for publication means an author is saying they’re ready to be treated as a professional. Submitting without a spellcheck, a look at the grammar, a second or third read for punctuation is a red flag to an editor. Publication happens quickly. There’s no time to correct grammar or to teach someone punctuation.
Sending a story out without a second look also makes editors worry about an author’s attention to detail. They think, “If this author is comfortable submitting without spellcheck, will they really be willing to work hard on revisions?”
With so many clean manuscripts to choose from, there’s never a reason for an editor to select a messy one. Always, always run spellcheck. And always, always take a second look!
(By the way, I know an error is going to slip through in this blog post. It’s a universal rule: complain about spelling, make the same mistake immediately. You can point and laugh; I’ll have earned it!)
4. WALL OF TEXT
Some stories were Walls of Text: not a single line break, paragraph break, or pause. It’s really hard to read a story without formatting.
Since nothing stands out, and nothing’s set apart, nothing is important. And if you’re writing good fiction, something has to be important.
Wall of Text is easy to fix. Break a paragraph when the subject changes. Break dialogue out on its own line. Think about what the page looks like—not just the words on it, but the page as a whole.
Making a story easier to read guarantees people will read more of it.
3. TALKING HEADS
The opposite problem of Wall of Text is Talking Heads. Dialogue can move a story along; sometimes it’s the most exquisite, delicious bits. But if an author has nothing but pages and pages of dialogue with no description, emotion, or sensory detail—that’s a script.
It’s all right to start with nothing but dialogue. But you need to go back: Add motion, emotion, scents, sounds, sights. Add all the beautiful things that make mere words into prose.
Readers want to fall in love, and they need all their senses to do that.
2. THIS IS A GREAT STORY, BUT IT’S NOT YA
I can’t tell you how many amazing middle grade and adult stories I read for this contest. They’re fantastic, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. But I had to put them aside, because DEFY THE DARK is a YA anthology.
This isn’t about age or subject matter (though sometimes that played a part.) It’s about voice, immediacy, and sense of the category. The more you write, the easier it will be to get a sense of your category.
And it’s not just you. I had no idea that my first novel was YA—someone else had to tell me!
1. THIS IS A GREAT STORY, BUT IT JUST DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT
Writing is subjective. Sometimes a story is great, but it just doesn’t make me jump up, dance around and want to share it with the whole world.
There’s no ruler for that. In this contest, it was simply my feeling as an editor. Intellectually, objectively, I could tell it was great writing. But it didn’t have the magical, undefinable “it” that flipped my switch.
There’s good news: Great stories like that have homes waiting for them. Whether in a magazine, or another anthology, a chapbook, or a small press—really great stories will be published.
Not right for me doesn’t mean not right for anyone.
That’s why every author needs to be tenacious. You must keep going. You must keep writing. You must keep submitting. A great story has a home. The trick is finding it.
So keep looking, Figs. And keep writing. Because I just read more than 1200 of your stories. More than 3 million of your words. Even though it meant long nights and bleary days, I loved every minute of it.
You’re so, so talented and I can’t wait to see you all bloom as the next generation of writers.
And stay tuned. We’ll be announcing the winner of the Defy the Dark New Author contest very very soon!