Defy the Dark: The Stories We Didn’t Choose

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!


Dear Figs,

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!)


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.


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.


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!


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!






57 thoughts on “Defy the Dark: The Stories We Didn’t Choose

  1. Oh my goodness, my heart raced when I saw this. I actually thought she’d posted the winners, or the stories she didn’t choose. Oh goodness, that scared me!

  2. I’d like to thank Figment personally for holding a contest that wasn’t heart-based, and especially Ms. Saundra for reading the vast amount of entries–what an effort! This was one of the contests that I truly enjoyed entering, and I hope that Figment has more.

  3. By the way, the errors you were fearing are thus:
    1. “And stayed tuned” should be “And stay tuned”
    2. “very very” should be “very, very”

  4. This is very interesting to look at! Thank your for sharing this. 🙂

    (You were right, Saundra, about the spelling/grammar error that would slip out. “stayed” at the end of the letter. 🙂

    • Hey Erika-
      We’re unable to comment on the stage of the judging process, but winners will be announced on the blog as soon as possible!

  5. While I really appreciate the tips for improvement, I feel this post should have come after the winners were announced. All this is going to do is make everyone feel more anxious. If it’s posted after someone’s received a rejection, then it’s a positive note to take away from the experience, and something to build on. Posting it now is only going to make everyone over-analyze their stories and wonder if they did all these things.

    Just a thought.

    • I agree with this. I know I read it and started agonizing over whether my submission was the correct genre, and what ‘YA’ is supposed to really be? What if mine wasn’t? My MC was a teen, but if age has nothing to do with it, how do you know?

      She says age of the character isn’t an issue, but isn’t it, if even a little? What defines middle grade from YA? I really want to know. Does YA have to have romance in it? Gah. All that one is going to do is make everyone afraid they wrote the wrong thing from the get-go. I know I’m scared I did. I’m not worried about it looking clean, I’m worried about that!

      • My MC was ten! So when I read “YA,” I flipped out because ten isn’t exactly the age of most YA main characters….I’m glad age has nothing to do with it. And also that he was telling the story at 13. Best wishes to all!

      • I agree with you. I’m currently taking a class on writing for YA and children, and it states:

        “The age of a story’s main character almost always determines its readership level.”

        And that’s how I’ve always understood it as well. I hate getting advice that says, “it’s a feeling…” What does that mean? When I think of YA fiction, I think of…young adults being the main characters. It has nothing to do with the subject matter. “The Giver” by Lois Lowry is considered children’s fiction and has no romance in it. In fact, it’s deeper than some adult fiction.

        So, that piece of advice didn’t make much sense to me either. I would tell you to keep reading YA to get “a voice” for the genre. But yes, the MC should be around the age of your audience.

      • I’ve always thought that YA refers to any work that is designed for teenager and young adult readers, not about the age of the characters. Although I see a lot of YA that’s written about teenagers, that’s mainly because it’s the age that the target audience is, so the point is to get them to sympathize more with the characters. However, it’s entirely possible to write YA about adults and younger children too.

        It’s more about the plot and it’s complications, the themes the story focuses on, its subject, and things like that, than the ages of the characters.

    • Hey Catalina-
      We’re unable to comment on the stage of the judging process, but winners will be announced on the blog as soon as possible!

  6. I didn’t enter the contest, but this is good general advice for any time someone doesn’t win something with their story. Good, general, and true. Too many people take the loss personally. It’s a selection, not a rejection process. Good tips.

    • Hey Matilda-
      We’re unable to comment on the stage of the judging process, but winners will be announced on the blog as soon as possible!

  7. Nice to know I don’t have to worry much about 3-5. Now I just have to worry about having 1-2 (though I’ve seen YA with things much worse than what was in my story). I hope, if my story did not make it to the top three, that I at least grabbed your attention, even a little.
    Thank you so much for giving us this opportunity and putting so much time into this! I can’t wait to see the results!

  8. Thank you so much for the treasure trove of suggestion, Saundra. As a writer, it’s so terrifyingly easy to give up and assume that one rejection means a million rejections. I am guilty of this exact thing myself. What you wrote is very true, and I will try to concentrate on this in my quest to get published. Good luck to everyone!

  9. I am SOOOOOOO glad to FINALLY get this sort of information! 🙂 I especially love it when professionals speak and give their first-hand, fully experienced information. 🙂

    Thanks a lot Saundra!

  10. This is great advice! I will take all of it to heart when writing my next story. One quick question, have the winners already been contacted by email? Do they already know they won?


  11. gdagjdkalgkdalgakl

    I CAN’T WAIT. The suspense is killing me; I’m so excited! Thanks for the feedback, Saundra! I’m glad you had as much fun with this contest as we did. :^D

    So has the winner already been chosen? And how soon is “soon”? X^D So curious!

  12. Ahhhhh. I hope my friend’s story wins! She worked so hard and spent so many nights writing and rewriting till everything was as close to perfect as it could get!

  13. Will the winners be conacted beforehand like some contests, or we all find out at once? I’m getting pretty hopeful because my story met most of this requirements, assuming you liked my idea.

  14. I’ve read many stories on Figment and I think this is EXCELLENT advice to nearly every writer, contest or not.

    Your reasons and explanations behind them were even more wonderful, honest, and true. Thank you for not only taking the time to read every entry but for giving every writer, young or old, information that can help us grow!

  15. This was truly wonderful advice! Thank you so much for reading our work and giving us this extraordinary chance! And thank you to Figment for this chance as well 🙂

  16. Hmmm. I’ve never had a name for #3. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I’ve been doing critiques. I feel like it’s often a misinterpretation of the maxim *show don’t tell.* But when I see it, it feels off. Good to know that it has a name. And good to know that I’m not crazy. (At least about this.)

    Ah, but #1. I agree, there are pieces here that are brilliant and will find good homes. But the thing is, we know Saundra’s work and we’ve seen her name in more acknowledgement sections than I can count. (And many of them are REALLY great books.) So I hope I’m not alone in saying this, but it seems like the winner almost gets two prizes: they get published AND they get to work with an author that we all REALLY, REALLY respect.

    I hope that’s not embarrassingly mushy.

  17. Ahhhh!!!!

    Does this mean that they already know who the winner is?!

    And that would mean they’ve already contacted them…


    • Hey Jo-
      We’re unable to comment on the stage of the judging process, but winners will be announced on the blog as soon as possible!

  18. Really great advice, thanks for that!
    I feel bad now though, I had a typo in my entrie that spellcheck didn’t pick up (it was a real word) and I didn’t see it until I had already tagged my entrie.

    I do wish everyone in the contest luck!

  19. Thank you for these comments. It is good to hear from the editors/publishers, and even a general notice like this is a big help. It is a shame that, with so many entries, there can’t be individual feedback.

    No matter who wins, this was great info. Thanks for taking the time in writing this, and especially in reading all the submissions.

  20. Well this makes me feel like I’ve been slapped in the face…..
    I do the BEST I CAN with grammar and give it my Grammar Nazi friend, but she doesn’t have a degree in English so she can’t catch EVERYTHING (though she tries -_-).

    Anyway, is there any other general info u can give on the contest? Like of it’s going to be later in the month when we find out who won, or in the the early half of the month?

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