The Whittaker Prize is run by The Write Idea and each year they run a poetry and fiction competition. I am honoured to be their fiction judge this year. I’ve marked and commented on 30 stories and the other 240 will arrive in waves over the next few months as the writers craft them.
I was asked to give some feedback after the first round. Mostly, my advice is gleaned from my own mistakes and corrections. Like most writers I have a bending bookshelf of how-to-write books. In addition I’ve learnt a great deal from conventions, conference workshops, writing weeks away and from personal contact with writing editors such as Allan Guthrie and Neil Marr. I can share my report with you so here it is:
In this round I have been treated to stories about wives with awful husbands and vice versa; an insightful experience of autism and a surprise trip to the moon. All the stories have memorable elements, whether they are scenes, characters or terrific phrases I wish I’d invented.
Although I’d expected the writers to submit their oeuvres in standard formatting I didn’t measure margins and fonts. Nor was I concerned with common spelling foibles. By which I mean all right should be two words, no one shouldn’t have a hyphen, and any more is two words. It doesn’t matter if you find them otherwise in contemporary dictionaries. If you want to get by strict publishers and stricter judges than me, you confer with the style guides. Naturally, I accept UK or American English – I relish the richness of cultural language differences.
There were no disastrous stories. You all relay an interesting tale. However, many of you fall short of optimising Show, in particular with sensory input such as smell, tactile, taste, sounds other than speech, and colours. They shouldn’t be overdone either: it’s a question of balance. Some of you have it spot on, while others make no use of colours or aromas at all.
A third of you wrote in first person. That’s fine if the tale is expressed more strongly that way. A difficulty though is that it is sometimes desirous to follow the main characters from the voice of the story rather than the character.
The better stories tended to have more Show than Tell, and to use more active than passive voice, avoiding clichés not just in phrases but in plotlines and characters. Stronger tales had only three or four characters with at least two at odds with each other. Some narratives had no real conflict, so nothing to resolve.
There is a fashion in contemporary fiction generally not to use dialogue tags at all. Good writers like A. L. Kennedy can do this perfectly so that you don’t notice. The Fiction Dream isn’t spoilt. Philippa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl makes a hash of it. I once found myself having to turn back four pages of unattributed dialogue because I’d lost track who was saying to whom. The word said used to be present but invisible but now it is absent so much its presence is more noticeable. Nevertheless, some good stories used said in this batch. The highest graded stories used very few dialogue tags.
Speaking of unattributed speech, to open a story that way is generally considered to be an amateur alert for publishers. Several of you launched a story with a speech leaving the reader with no idea who is speaking. Only one did so successfully.
Another amateur alert flag is the use of nodding. Many years ago, an acquisition editor (talking about a submitted novel of mine) told me that when he sees a nod, a sigh or a shrug is sure to follow. (they both did – the shame of it). It isn’t that the three are not succinct Show and body language but that they have become clichés. Find other ways of expressing those emotions – as some of you have.
A word about ! They are so much an amateur alert that editors call them screamers. They tend to expose the over-melodrama in a writer. When you have the urge to use a ! ask yourself if a screaming situation is occurring. If so, does the context show it so as to avoid a screamer? Thank goodness none of you used !! or ?! Don’t tell me that Tom Wolfe wielded a screamer scattering gun. He isn’t here trying to win comps and sneak into modern anthologies. As a general rule, try to limit the number of exclamation marks to one per 1000 words. That’s generous compared to some editors who say one per short and no more than three per novel.
If only I could follow the advice I offer.
To molest a quote from Mortimer Adler: The point in me reading short stories is not to see how many I can get through, but how many can get through to me.