by Hugh Wilson
If you want to win a writing contest, the first thing you must do is study the rules. Many entries are disqualified because the story has not met every requirement, e.g. if the rules state a maximum of 1000 words, a 1200-word story, however brilliant, will go straight on the NO pile.
Assuming you’ve done that bit right, the judges will be looking at four elements:
Don’t let those official sounding words put you off. They are only words. Let’s look at each and see what they mean to us as writers.
Think again. Winning stories come from second, third, tenth thoughts. Some contests give you a theme – “Wedding Day” for instance. What’s the first thought that comes to mind?
Forget it. You can bet your last dollar that everyone else will have thought it, too. A large percentage of submitted stories will be so similar that the judges will be tearing their hair out.
Make yours different, and they will love you.
Don’t “wrack your brains” to get ideas. Relax, get your conscious, critical mind out of the way, and allow ideas to bubble up from your subconscious. In other words, daydream.
Ask yourself who, what, where, when, how, and “what if?” Let the trains of thought go where they will. Before long, you’ll have an idea for a story that is different.
What if that shy looking woman with people entering a church, where a wedding is about to take place, sits in the empty seats at the back?
At the reception, she avoids conversations, eats and drinks, then leaves.
Back in her lonely, one room apartment she scans the Forthcoming Marriages column in the local paper, to see where her next free food and wine is coming from.
You won’t go far wrong if you remember three little words:
Keep it simple.
Don’t try to impress the judges with long, obscure words and “writerly” language. Like any other readers, they want a story that is easy to read.
Don’t stop to admire the view. Every sentence must move the story forward. The reader doesn’t want flowery descriptions of a rose garden in the moonlight. She wants to know what the girl is doing there at two in the morning, and what happens next.
A story has three distinct parts to think about: beginning, middle and end.
The beginning introduces the main character and what the story is about, so that the reader wants to know what happens.
The middle develops the theme, keeping the reader hooked.
The ending must be believable and leave the reader satisfied. Too many otherwise good contest entries simply stop when they reach the maximum word count, with no conclusion.
Always write your story specifically for that contest. Don’t be tempted to re-cycle an old story in the hope it just might fit the contest’s requirements. It won’t.
Above all, enjoy writing it, and the chances are your readers will enjoy reading it.
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