So You Want to Win a Literary Contest: 10 Tips on Getting Out of the Slushpile

Ah, the promise of the literary contest: the fame, the accolades, the love, and the cash. The rewards are enough to bring every closet scribbler into the light.

But it’s not that simple. Though everyone may indeed have a story worth telling, not everyone knows how to tell it well.

I recently agreed to be one of several readers for a literary fiction contest. As someone who not only writes fiction, but teaches creative writing and literature, you could say that I have a lot of experience reading, which comes in handy when you receive hundreds submissions, from which you must chose the best 5 with only a few weeks to deliberate.

This process of separating the wheat from the chaff is what I assume agents, editors at literary journals or at publishing houses, and selection committees at creative writing programs the world over spend much of their working life engaging in. The latter, of course, are just looking for potential, the diamond in the rough, whereas everyone else is really just after the diamonds.

So what advice might I give contest hopefuls who, most often, are paying to have their work considered among hundreds or thousands of other hopefuls?

  1. Have a great title, something intriguing, suggestive, rather than a cliche or someone’s name. Work as hard on the title as everything else, and try not to include it in your first or last line. A good title gets your story more favourable attention right off the bat. It makes the reader curious about what will be revealed.
  2. Avoid long prologues or epigrams, and especially don’t italicize them. The former is better used in a novel, which has room for a ‘before,’ the latter is often trying to deliver the message of the story, which is the job of the story itself–and by extension the writer. And please leave the introductory poems to the poets.
  3. Make sure that your first few lines are interesting, have a hook, and get the story going right away. There’s no room or need for back-story in a short story. You need to hit the ground running. I want to already be in the weeds halfway through the first page, if not at the end of the first paragraph.
  4. For God’s sake, don’t have typos or grammatical errors in those first lines. If they come later they look like an oversight, but right at the beginning they tell me you’re not paying attention or simply don’t know better.
  5. Actually write scenes so the reader can immerse him/herself into the action. This falls under show don’t tell. I don’t want to read about the story, I want to be lost inside it.
  6. Make sure something happens! This should go without saying, but recent experience tells me that it needs to be said. On a related note, make sure something changes for your characters because of this thing that happens. When did watching someone stuck in the mud become interesting? Don’t we all have enough hopeless friends and aggravating relatives who refuse to change their minds, learn from their mistakes, or do what is obviously necessary in the face of adversity?
  7. Avoid the 1st person. This may seem harsh, but there are too many disguised autobiographies floating around out there, which is the primary cause of the lack of scenes and the dearth of important action. Third person gives you distance and forces you into a fuller storytelling. But if you do write 1st person, or 3rd for that matter, give your protagonist other characters to interact with. That will also ensure something happens.
  8. Try to make your language evocative and interesting. It will bring extra life to your story, whereas mundane or repetitive language will drain it of energy. Use regional accents/dialect sparingly. They become annoying and unreadable, and don’t really help in defining character or place–they are a short cut that doesn’t get your characters or your reader anywhere.
  9. Give your characters names. Why should anyone care about anonymous he’s and she’s? It’s the individuality of characters that make the same old stories interesting. Remember, nothing comes into existence until it is named.
  10. The last line is as important as the first. You can get away with a so-so ending in a novel, but a short story lives or dies by its ending. The standard advice is that it should be surprising yet inevitable.

Sound like too many things to consider? Then save your entrance fee. Because this is what separates those who have taken the time to consider the art and craft of writing from those who simply know how to line up sentences one after another until they, more or less, get some sort of event or series of events across. And rest assured, if you don’t consider these basics, there will be at least a few people among the hundreds of submissions who have, and chances are they will be the ones to make it out of the Slushpile and into the winners circle.

Bonus tip: Hospital stories, the decline of the aged, accounts of trips to exotic locales, and love stories are often prone to dull, informational writing and cliche. The first two are also inherently depressing, so if you want to write about any of these things, make sure you have a bigger point to make above and beyond the plot. And don’t write them in 1st person (revisit Tip 7)!

Caveat: All rules can be broken, but you need to know them first, and you need to break them so well that readers are blown away, and all they are paying attention to is your brilliance.

All except this one, of course.

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2 thoughts on “So You Want to Win a Literary Contest: 10 Tips on Getting Out of the Slushpile

  1. Reading this I realized why I didn’t make it to the long list… this lists pretty much my entire story… well except the auto-bio part ;p

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