If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve wondered whether or not you should enter a writing contest. There are lots of good reasons you should: the confidence boost if you place, the practice of submitting your work, and the awards and/or publication information you can add to your writing résumé, which boosts your credibility with potential readers, agents, and publishers.
For the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of being an early reader for the Women’s National Book Association’s annual fiction writing contest. While many of the entries are good, there are some that stand out. What makes these entries different? I’ve compiled a list of things the best fiction entries have in common.
- The writers follow the submission guidelines. If the contest has a word limit, stick to it. If there’s a theme, include it in your story. And be sure your story fits the criteria—don’t send your science fiction piece to a historical fiction contest.
- The copy is clean. Most entries are going to have a typo or two. That’s understandable. But the more errors I see, the more likely I am to stop reading.
- What’s in a name? Winning entries have intriguing titles. Every word counts in a short story, including your title. Good titles make me want to read immediately. Reading a title like “Excerpt from ________,” on the other hand, sounds like a snoozefest. Even if the entry is an excerpt, give it a standalone title.
- The beginning is strong. I know you hear that your lead must grab the reader’s attention right away. And you’re probably sick of hearing this tidbit, but it’s true. A short story follows a traditional story arc, but everything’s compressed. You’ve got to pull the reader in immediately.
- There’s an ending, not a cliffhanger. This is a biggie for me. Endings are tough, I know. Often short stories leave readers with an open-ended interpretation. The writer wants the reader to ponder what happened. But open-ended conclusions are not the same thing as cliffhangers. A cliffhanger is a great way to end a chapter, not a short piece of fiction. Readers want closure.
- The main character is vivid. By vivid, I don’t mean that the writers spend many words describing what the character looks like. I mean this character is hit with conflict and responds. Everything about him is believable from his dialogue to his actions.
- There’s something unique about the plot. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that a third of the entries I read for this last contest centered on someone having an affair. Another third focused on death. If you’re going to write about such a common theme, you better tackle it in a new way. To prove that this is possible, my favorite entry (the one I hope wins the whole shebang) fell into the affair category. But by golly, the author put a spin on it like I’ve never seen.
- The story made me feel something. The best entries made me laugh out loud, filled me with disdain, or left me sniffling. If you can make a reader connect emotionally, you’ve got something worth pursuing.
It’s a brave move to enter a writing contest. Make sure you’re competitive. Good luck!