Contested learnings

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a first reader for a reasonably prestigious literary magazine’s creative non-fiction writing contest.  (Say that 3 times fast.)

I then promptly forgot that I’d agreed to do it, though I did remember just in time to turn in my votes and comments 1 day late, so they couldn’t use them. (Don’t try to bribe me, people, I am not organized enough to handle it.) But still, I learned.  And not just about writing down deadlines.

Of the nine entries I had to read, only one was good enough to make the longlist (which the real judge reads.)  And even that one, well, it wasn’t amazing.  It was simply good; nothing obviously flawed, but nothing incredible.  I’d be surprised if it wins, though the writer could probably sell that piece to a magazine somewhere.

Here are some of the big problems I saw.  If you can revise out these problems, your work will stand out:

  1. There’s no story. Amazing how you can write a story with no story in it.  But the truth is that we all do this.  Or we start a bit of a story, and then we don’t go there.  We forget about beginnings, middles and endings.  We forget about conflict.  We ignore the naked guy.  Make sure your story has a story.
  2. Falling in love with a gimmick. Sometimes, that’s a complex structure. Sometimes, that’s a dialect.  Sometimes, it’s even as little as a line or as much as a character.  Whatever it is, the reader can tell you’ve fallen in love with it because it stands out more than the story.  Once you’ve ascertained that you really do have a story there, ask yourself “Would I still have my story without this?”  And if the answer is “yes,” you don’t need it.
  3. Telling me the story. Your job, as a storyteller, is not to tell me the story. (Misleading job title, eh?)  Your job is to reveal the story.  Show it to me.  Let me enter your world and participate in it so that I can make up my own mind. If you’ve revealed the story well, the story I see is the same story you showed me, and I will walk away thinking “Ah, I just read a story.”  But if you are telling me what the story is, and telling me what the characters are like, and telling me how to react to everything…. frankly, I don’t like being told what to do. At best, I’ll tune you out.  At worst, I’ll start telling you why you are wrong, and since you aren’t here to defend yourself, I will win that argument handily.

There you have it.  Three little things.  None of these things are easy, mind, but all of these things will make you a stronger writer.


One response to “Contested learnings”

  1. And here’s a blog post about the contest I (didn’t) read for.

    In re-reading my blog post, I think I was a bit hard on the entrants, so let me add this caveat…. most of what I read fell into the frustrating category of having the potential to be amazing, but the writing did not go there, usually for one of the three reasons above. A couple had the potential to blow the piece I voted for completely out of the water.

    So really look at your work, and ask yourself, is there a story, do I need all these things I fell in love with, and am I showing you the story or simply telling you?

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