I recently judged a short-story competition for the National Society of Arts and Letters. The NSAL, by the way, is this amazing organization whose sole mission is to support young artists as they begin their careers. To that end, they hold several competition throughout the year with very generous cash prizes to help support young talent. I was really proud and happy to be part of this literary contest. And the winners, whom I met at the award luncheon on Saturday, were wonderful and very deserving of their prize.
I have been a contestant of literary competitions many times but this was my first stint as judge and it was really an eye opening experience. Some of the stories were wonderful, really unique and well written and beautiful. And some...hmm. Some were not.
It got me thinking about what is important in a literary piece. So here are some tips that I've compiled to all future contestants:
Grammar: I'm not a stickler for grammatical rules. I think that as a writer you use whatever you need to make your story and if that means tinkering around with sounds, with tenses, with dangling participles, fine. But don't be sloppy and don't be lazy. So that if your story is in present tense, make sure you don't forget half way through the paragraph and switch to past tense. You would be amazed how often that can happen.
Story: as in, please tell one. Even short stories are still stories. So make sure you're actually writing one, not a scene or a journal entry.
Unlikeable protagonists: Not everything needs to be sugar, spice and everything nice. Not every story needs a happy ending. But be careful that you're not writing a story about a total jerk. There needs to be growth, or change, or insight about what created such a creature and not just that they're mean and rude for the sake of it. You really need to think about your readers when you write.
And last but not least: Keep writing. We all need to keep writing, to keep practicing, to try new things, and yes, to fail sometimes. So if you didn't win this competition or any other, pick yourself up and try again. Write another story, try to make it better, and find another contest, a magazine, a school paper. Every one of us fails about a hundred times before we succeed. Success is the difference between those who gave up and those to stuck with it.