I recently entered the Katherine Susannah Prichard Speculative Fiction Awards 2009, an Australian short story competition. Sadly my story didn’t win a prize or a recommendation, but that’s okay. I have another story to put back into the market now and see if someone will buy it. (You have to look for the positive in rejections to survive as a writer.)
However, the wonderful Tehani Wessely (editor, writer, Aussie legend) was the judge of the comp this year and she sent out an excellent letter with the announcement of the winners. The letter was excellent because in a single page it summed up the most important things to consider when submitting your short fiction for publication or competitions; we should expect nothing less from an editor with Tehani’s experience. The letter has already been published on the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre website here, but I’m going to copy it down in this post too, because I want this advice right here on my own website. Whether you’re a new writer or an old hand (or somewhere in between) it would pay to read over this from time to time.
Katharine Susannah Prichard Speculative Fiction Awards 2009
It was an absolute pleasure to judge this competition, with such a large number of high quality entries in the Open category. My long list was long indeed, and winnowing down the short list was a challenge. The percentage of highly readable and interesting stories was very high, higher in fact than I’ve come across in some stints slushreading for various publications, which is impressive indeed. As an editor of Australian speculative fiction, reading so many stories that hit my marks for character, plot and plain old “grab” factor made me feel that the position of Aussie SF is excellent and will continue to strengthen in the years ahead.
It’s perhaps worth pointing out a couple of the problems with stories that consistently knocked them off the longlist. The first such issue is that of a work that is overlong for the story being told. This happens more frequently than most readers and writers realise. As an editor, I often come across a story that grabs me, is beautifully written, with engaging characters, but drags the plot out to a point where I lose interest. As an editor, if the story is strong enough, I know I can work with the author on tightening up the writing to eradicate this problem, but the very best authors (and this is often something that comes with experience) are those who tighten their stories themselves. Again, as an editor, given a choice between two stories with great characterisation, plot and writing, will ALWAYS choose the tighter piece. It generally comes with practise, but one method I recommend to fledgling authors is putting a story aside for some weeks on completion, and coming back to it with a fresher view, looking specifically for places where the words simply don’t advance the plot. Don’t be precious about your words! Be thrifty with them.
Another problem that arose across a number of stories was that of an overused story trope that was not executed in a fresh or exciting way. There’s an adage that there are only nine plots in the world. That may be true, but plenty of authors find plenty of new ways to work those plots! Marvellous story tellers like Margo Lanagan take this quite literally in their use of traditional tales in their work.Your job as an author is to find your own new way to inject energy into a story idea, because there truly are no new stories, just new ways of telling them.
One final note that will always deflate a story in my eyes, is when a story has not been thoroughly proofread and self edited. Typos, spelling mistakes, misused grammar and punctuation, faulty paragraphing and other common errors MUST be tidied up before the story is sent out. If your manuscript does not look professional, your story is less likely to be taken seriously.
So there you have it. Tehani then goes on to talk about the actual winning and commended stories and describes what it is that set them apart. If you want to read on about those stories, click the link above; it’s all very interesting stuff.