Your writing will never be loved by everyone…
… but these basic tips will help you get it in favour with more readers
By Livia Hlavackova
Have you ever written a short story?
Have you sent it to a competition? If yes, have you then wondered, why somebody else’s story was chosen? Why did you get only a few points? Or why did one of the judges give you 8/10 and another 0/10?
This series of blogs will answer at least some of your questions.
I have entered a couple of writing competitions, won a few, wasn’t so successful in others. And I’ve also judged stories in competitions before.
This blog is related to Fantazia Award 2021 – Slovak competition for stories written in or translated to English. Judges of the competition occasionally write short blogs discussing the stories.
I had a different idea.
This blog won’t focus on the competing stories as much. I’ll explain how I’ve assessed them and how other readers might look at your stories as well. That way the blogs could help other writers too. Although it’s a Slovak competition, we’ve decided with the organisers that I’ll write it in English. (Note, I haven’t had it proofread by a native speaker as I would always do for a short story.)
Bear in mind that assessment of any art is always somewhat subjective. I’ve once won with a story that was given 0 points from one judge and 8 from another. And I’ve been only recently reminded of a story to which I gave 0 points while others praised it and loved it.
That’s how things are. Your writing will likely never be loved by everyone. But you can improve your craft and make it at least liked by more readers.
How did I assess the stories this time?
I have looked at each story from 9 separate categories that had different “weights”. In 3 of the categories, a story could get 1 point. In the other 3, the maximum was 2 points per category. 2 categories were most important to me with the weight of 3 points. A story could get a total of 15 points in my made-up categories. (Simple calculation translated it to the total of 10 points needed for the competition.)
In this blog I will look at the first 3 categories with 1 point in each:
- Is it a story?
- Does it have appropriate formatting?
- Is it speculative?
Let’s talk about each and let me explain why I find them important and why many other readers do too.
Is it a story?
This goes down to the very basics of what the competition was about – short stories.
What is a story?
A dictionary would tell you that it’s a narrative, either true or fictitious. A short story is a subcategory of that. It should have a fully developed theme but it should be shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
The first piece of advice for those who seek glory by entering a writing competition – read the instructions first.
A story should have some beginning, middle part and some end. It’s usually called plot and I’ll get to that in my third blog. These “milestones” should be connected by a narration.
3 pieces got 0 from me in this category. I call them pieces and not stories, as for me these were not really stories:
- One of them took place on a ship and it was told from the first-person point of view (1st POV). It read as incoherent babbling of the narrating character who was a sailor. The “story” was extremely difficult to follow. The whole thing was over before I figured out what it should have been about. I gave this piece a low number of points in other categories too. The formatting was off (I’ll get to it later), the characters were underdeveloped, there was no real plot and the language wasn’t very impressive either.
- The other with 0 points in this category was also quite short. It reminded me of a boring history lesson. There wasn’t any character, nor a single line of dialogue. Have you read a fantasy book with elaborate mythology introduced in a prologue (that many readers skip)? This piece was like that. That’s not a short story. On the other end, it had nice language use and the formatting was OK, but that’s not enough, at least not for me.
- The third one consisted of snippets of texts that slid through centuries of European history without apparent connection. Maybe the writer relied on my detailed knowledge of history and expected me to figure it out? But while I agree we should never underestimate the reader, it is the job of the author to narrate a story. That is to make some connections for the reader. The story had very nice language use and some bits were quite intriguing. It was probably an experiment. If so, another piece of advice for beginner writers – don’t enter competitions with experiments unless you’re 100% sure you can pull it off.
Does it have appropriate formatting?
Now, this might seem to any beginner like – is she for real? Does she actually judge formatting?!
Well, I do. And I bet you do too.
How many times have you seen a discussion – eBook or Paper? Hardback or Paperback? I’ve once even seen a book review that went something like this: “The plot was fine, but the book’s binding kept falling apart so I stopped reading.“
That is formatting and we all judge writing on it (to some extent).
Imagine coming to a formal business meeting in torn-up jeans and a T-shirt with Mickey Mouse. Unless you have a very good excuse for your appearance, you will be rightfully scorned upon. (Think in terms of your plane being delayed by hours + your luggage getting lost + you having no chance to buy something appropriate in time.
Dressing appropriately for an important, formal business meeting is a sign of:
- your awareness of existing unwritten rules. If you are not aware of them, you come across as a total amateur/unprofessional
- your respect for people you’re meeting with. If you choose to ignore unwritten rules without a good reason, it’s a sign of disrespect
Formatting your written piece appropriately is just like that. And I bet you don’t want to look like an amateur (even if you are one) and I advise you to never disrespect your reader.
Dialogue has distinct formatting – each character deserves a new paragraph. The author of the piece I’ve already mentioned (1) did not follow this rule. The dialogues looked like this:
“Hi, what are you doing?” she asked Rob. “I am just playing some game, why?” “Well, I wanted to ask you for help. Would you mind leaving the game for later?”
Luckily, only this author wrote the dialogues like that. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. When I judged writing competitions in the past this mistake was much more prevalent.
Length of paragraphs
I am not a happy reader when I see paragraphs nearly half a page long. They are difficult to read, and it is easy to get lost in all those words lumped together.
A paragraph, according to a dictionary, is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent and are all related to a single topic. If a paragraph is too long, it is usually because it contains more than one topic.
Several stories had lengthy paragraphs.
- One of them was a story with very nice language use. Thus a reader who doesn’t need an elaborate plot might be happy with this one. But to me, it was not interestingly told. Long paragraphs certainly didn’t help. It was about a terminally ill young woman and it was written from a third-person POV (3rd POV). There was no real narration, it was a dry summary of what happened. The longest paragraph had almost 350 words. Some writing experts recommend no more than 150-200 words per paragraph. I’d add another piece of advice: mix it up a little. Write a long paragraph, followed by an ultra-short, followed by middle-long… To illustrate, I’ve kept this assessment of the story in one paragraph, although I cringe. This paragraph is 147 words long.
If you don’t overdo it, then paragraph length is more of a matter of personal choice. If the writer likes longer paragraphs, it can still be fine, especially if the writing is otherwise good. Some readers even prefer longer paragraphs.
This was the case of another story from the Fantazia Award competition:
- It had a few long paragraphs but I’ve still found it very good. It was about time travellers who keep an eye on history. I found it well crafted, the language use was nice and there were some nicely written, believable dialogues. I liked the plot and how it developed, although it could use some polishing. The characters could use some more depth and emotions, but in general, the story worked well. It was mostly easy to read, none of the paragraphs reached 300 words, but a few were almost 250 and that didn’t sit well with me.
Formatting is also about how you use italics, bold or UPPERCASE. These are there for writers to enjoy but don’t overuse them.
There was one particular story with messed-up formatting in this respect:
- The story was about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It seemed heavily influenced by Neil Gaiman. But it read rather well, I liked the characters and enjoyed how they were characterised. I particularly liked the dialogues. The plot was well developed with a nice plot twist too, which I always appreciate. For some mysterious reason, several pages were in italics. It was quite disturbing. The author seemed to know what they were doing thus I assumed it was some technical glitch. I reduced the points in this category, but I have an inkling it was a „delayed plane and lost luggage“ type of problem.
Last thing about formatting I want to point out to all Slovak writers:
- An apostrophe is a specific punctuation mark and it is different from the “acute accent” mark. (Try AltGr + P on Slovak keyboard next time.)
- In English text paragraphs are often separated by blank space. That is, in Word, done by Paragraph -> Spacing. In other editors might be some other way to do it. Don’t create a new line, it’s annoying.
Is it speculative?
This term, speculative, is rarely used, so let me introduce it first. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for fantasy, sci-fi, horror and alike. There is not much to say about this category as it was specific for this competition. All stories sent to Fantazia Award complied, so none received 0 from me.
I reduced the 1 point that a story could get in this category (mostly to 0.75) in stories where I found the “speculative” part to be omittable. That is a quite subjective assessment. Still… sorry, not sorry:
- One that got even less than 0.75, was a horror story about a love triangle that ended up with the death of 2/3 of the protagonists. Horror should incite fear, shock or disgust and this did none of these things. English reeked of Slovak sentence structures and phrases. The author tried to convey some emotions but wasn’t very successful. The dialogues were unbelievable and pathetic and so were the characters. The plot was OK-ish. The author tried to build up the tension and to narrated, but it needs more work.
That would be all for now. If you have questions, you’ll find me on social networks. Feel free to ask. (Don’t ask me about your stories in the Fantazia Award. At the time of writing this blog I’m not supposed to reveal more than I’ve already done.)
In my next blog, I’ll discuss the other 3 categories that I’ve defined for myself: emotions, language, dialogue (or equivalent). It will be probably as long as this one or longer. Brace yourselves and see you next time.