Zadie Smith created something of a furor when she announced that “The Willesden Herald” had cancelled it short story competition for 2008 due to a lack of suitable entries. (Not a lack of entries, mind you, but a lack of suitable, prize-worthy entries.) The 5,000-pound prize money was donated to charity. (Not a bad thing, but something that disappointed many, many authors.)
Steven Moran, one of the competition judges, was gracious enough to list the twenty-seven main reasons short stories fail. I’m not going to list all twenty-seven here, but they do all fall into the following broad categories. While these are Steve’s suggestions for story failure, I’ve reworded and added a few suggestions of my own:
Failure to Follow the Rules: Competitions and magazines are serious about the rules and deadlines they set down. Make sure you follow them to the letter, and if you don’t, don’t be surprised if you’re disqualified.
Openings and Endings: Very elaborate openings and endings weaken an otherwise good story. The false start and the “tacked on” ending are also to be avoided at all costs. They are very obvious and no one, except maybe the author, likes them. Your story has to be an organic, seamless whole, from the first word to the last.
Subject Matter: If a competition is “genre specific,” then adhere strictly to that genre. Don’t send a mystery to a literary competition or a literary story to a competition for speculative fiction. Do not be trivial, do not be overly sentimental (the emphasis here is on “overly,”), and do not be obvious. The short story should raise a few questions rather than hitting the reader over the head. On the other hand, never play coy with your readers. Coyness is not a quality that’s prized in literature.
Poor Characterization: Too many characters (usually more than three in a short story), undifferentiated characters, and totally miserable characters are all too common in today’s fiction. Each character comes to the short story with a unique backstory. The short story takes off quickly, doesn’t carry many people, and doesn’t travel very far. This is a very focused genre. Make sure you stay focused as well.
Dialogue: The proper use of dialogue is even more important in a short story than in a novel. Make sure every line of dialogue in your short story carries it forward. Never, never, never use dialogue in a short story as exposition. Dialogue can bring your story to life, but because it is so powerful, a little goes a long way. Too much is just as bad as too little, and clunky dialogue is always a terrible thing.
Style: As you draft and redraft your story (and if you think you don’t need to write multiple drafts, then you might as well stop now) examine each word, each phrase, each sentence, each passage. Are you showing or telling? (Generally, showing is best, but a judicious combination of both is fine.) Is the pacing what it should be? Have you digressed from the original idea (this can’t be successfully done in a short story, which is very, very focused). Have you avoided all clichés? Is the tone consistent? Is the story predictable? Is it too sketchy or too long? Have you painted an effective “word picture?”
As Steven Moran tells us, a writer has control over each and every element listed above, however, there’s one element over which a writer has no control. That element is:
The subjective opinion of the competition judge or editor/agent/publisher. Something may be very well written, but a judge or editor might just not like it for a wide variety of reasons. There’s really nothing you can do about this except write as well and as honestly as you can and hope the judge or editor reads your material objectively. I had one very honest agent tell me that while he found my novel very well written, he simply didn’t like the style. This is bound to happen to every writer now and then. We just have to learn to live with it and realize that while some people won’t like our writing, others will.
Zadie Smith’s decision not to award a short story prize in 2008 upset many writers, but something good can come from her decision. We can all examine our writing more closely and make sure we improve and grow in the process.