1) The idea for the story isn’t particularly fresh or interesting. You
may not realize it, but the basic concept of your story has probably
been done before. For example, let’s say that you decide to write a
story about “Zombie Sharecroppers.” Great. You might write it
beautifully, and I might get through the entire tale and enjoy it. But
ultimately I have to look at it and ask, “Is the basic tenet of the story
fresh and original? Did the author give it a surprise twist that lifted it
above similar stories?” If the answer to both of those questions is no,
then it will probably not get higher than an honorable mention.
You’ll need to come at me next time with a fresh idea.
2) If the idea is good, then it may be that your execution is off. Very
often I’ll get stories where the idea intrigues me and the story is
written pretty well, but the author still has a few problems. Maybe
the author uses too many weak verbs, or has word repetitions. I had
one a couple of days ago that was set in Haiti, and while interesting,
nothing about the character’s voices suggested that the author had
ever listened closely to a Haitian. The accents just weren’t right.
|By Giorgio Baroni|
3) The story may have plotting problems. Very often I’ll have a
story whose concept is good and the writing is beautiful, but the plot
just doesn’t work. Usually it has a good opening (that’s why I got
hooked), but perhaps the middle of the story is weak, or the ending
doesn’t quite pan out. I got a beautiful story last week, told in first-
person. But the plot only worked because the author withheld
information from the reader. Does the story work? Well, only if you
don’t think about it too much.
So when plotting your story, make certain that its plot is logical, that
it builds with each try-fail cycle, and that you have a powerful
ending that leaves the reader thinking and emotionally moved.
4) The story has missing elements. This is the most frequent problem,
and the hardest to solve.
For instance, when I finish a story, I want it to have some universality.
I want to understand why this story is important for others to read. In
other words, “Does this story have a message?” Sometimes, the answer
is no, and that usually means that it won’t hold up well in a competition.
Those missing elements can be a lot of things. Sometimes I’ll have a
story where only one character is involved. There’s no interaction. As a
judge, I have to wonder why? Why didn’t the author put in a sidekick,
someone to talk to in order to make this more engaging?
Usually the author is blind to his or her own missing element. Some
authors, for example, forget to describe what is off in the distance (a
line of mountains, a roiling sea). Others forget to describe the middle-
ground (a golden pyramid with a congregation of Egyptian slaves and
merchants bowing to the god-king at its peak). So when you read their
stories, the protagonist is often bumping into characters that seem to
come out of nowhere.
In other stories, the author forgets to engage the senses. A lack of smells
or touch is the largest problem.
Still other authors have no internal dialog, so that you never know what
their character is thinking or feeling. Instead, the author writes in a
cinematic style that keeps the reader at a distance. In such tales, the reader
might as well be watching a poorly made movie.
Frequently I see stories that just don’t have enough conflicts, or the
conflicts that they do have aren’t dealt with as rigorously as they should be.
Or maybe your opening doesn’t have a hook.
Or maybe your descriptions aren’t crisp enough, or your characters feel a
bit flat and stereotypical, or your language isn’t fresh or beautiful.
All of these issues get your stories only as far as Honorable Mentions,
and many lead to rejections. Make a list of any possible problem area you
might have and work, work, work until every one is eliminated before
submitting. You should be able to look at your story and find ways to
“boost” the story, perhaps by adding new dimensions to it or by fixing a
weak middle to the tale. But if you win an Honorable Mention, you
should also know that I’m rooting for you!