To quote one of my favorite old movies from the 80’s:
CHARLES DE MAR: I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.
I originally put this up on the Writers of the Future phpBB forum, but I wanted to repost it here for everyone who doesn’t visit that forum, but is still curious about what it takes to get called up to the WotF ‘majors’ and, ultimately, get a base hit — or a home run!
These are just my opinions, of course. But seeing as how I never got a rejection — four Honorable Mention and two Finalists, one of which won — I do think I have my finger somewhat on the pulse of the contest.
NOTE: Please read recent volumes of the contest anthology. I’d recommend vol. XX through XXV, if you can get them on-line or at your local Big Brick store. My first three entries were all Honorable Mention, but I didn’t crack Finalist until I’d begun purchasing and reading the anthology. Each one has a minimum of 12 good examples of what it takes to succeed with the contest. If you do nothing else, this is the one thing I’d recommend most. Not all of the stories will be to your liking — and I suggest you ignore totally which stories placed where in which quarters — but pay very close attention to the ones you do like. Re-read them if necessary. Let them percolate across your creative unconscious for awhile. Think on what it was about those stories which tickled your fancy, and ponder for a moment what you might want to do with your stories to get them to the same place of impact, with your readers.
Here are some things I noticed, for myself.
1) Put your Science Fictional or Fantastical element right up front. Don’t play around with this, or reach for too much subtlety. Granted, the stories in WotF books run the gamut on this. But contemporary stories where the SF or F element is too subtle, or very abstract, or very under-the-radar, might still be good stories, they’re just not wearing their SF and F credentials on their sleeves enough to make the WotF cut.
2) Avoid doing “downer” stories. We all know it’s become chic in the literary field to write “down” fiction, because “downer” stories are basically code for realism, because as every good emo knows, life is pain and suffering and you can’t write real fiction and be a real writer if you don’t write about pain and suffering. Especially on a quasi-existential level. Pah! I say, pain and suffering are fine, but they must serve a purpose in the story. A positive purpose. They must either drive your character towards a more positive outcome, or they must be crucibles that transform your character into a better person(s) than they were before. Pain and suffering — for their own sake — aren’t what WotF is interested in. So have your story and your protag(s) follow a more or less positive arc, or at least end up somewhere that, when you read between the lines, appears to be taking them in a positive direction.
3) Don’t go bashing religion. Here again it’s chic — in SF especially — to get up on a soap box and lecture the unwashed about the evils of Belief. This might be fine for other markets or contests, but it’s my inexpert opinion that you hurt yourself doing this. In fact, I’d suggest taking the opposite road. And I don’t mean bible-thumpin’. I mean, explore a religious theme, make a character or characters sympathetically religious, etc. Religion, as an artifact of human behavior and society, can be endlessly fascinating. It can also be a tremendous informant of a character’s ideals, thoughts, motivations, etc. Doesn’t even have to be a religion we’d recognize from modern day. Make it up! But make it relevant. Delve into what it means to Believe. Or, have your character torn between the secular and the theological. Make this part of the character’s inner journey, either away from an incorrect spiritual perception of the universe, or towards something that seems more consonant with a fundamental truth or otherwise defining aspect of the character’s perception.
4) On that note, your character(s) ought to be going on a bona fide voyage. A trip. A journey. Current literary cant dictates that Good Fiction is a talking-heads, painfully self-absorbed thing. Grand journeys are soooooooo passé. Everything has to be angsty and happen inside the character’s head, or it’s no good. Again I say, pah! Take the reader — and your protag — on a grand ride. Go places. At the risk of sounding corny, dig out that box of “kids cereal” SENS-O-WUNDA™ that you put in the closet long ago, and shovel a few scoops into your next WotF entry. Grand vistas. Big places, with big people and big ideas. Get large with your perspective and your characters. Then, dovetail this Big Adventure Thing® with an inner voyage (see #3 and #5.)
5) Your character needs to be going on an internal quest at the same time he or she is going on an external quest. And no, angsty navel-gazing is not a substitute for personal evolution. Have the events and the travels and the exploits of the story change the character(s) on some level, so that they’re not the same at the end of the story than when they set off. This might actually be the most important part of all, beyond everything else I’ve already mentioned earlier. Because this is where you’re liable to Hook The Reader© with the emotional and psychological and spiritual development of the character(s) as they surmount or face down the external challenges you set before them. In the end, your story won’t matter to the readers if your story doesn’t eventually matter to the character(s) in the damn story.
To recap, I am not an expert, and these are just my theories. If you have been struggling with rejections and rare HM — but no semis or Finalist stories — or if you’re brand new to the contest and would like to have a Cliffs Notes on success, then give my advice a shot. Try it out. Take it for a test drive. See if it makes a difference. It might.
CAVEAT: Of course, if you’re literally brand new — meaning you’re truly a Fresh Aspirant with very limited experience writing anything at all — there is no replacement for homework. You’ll have to write a lot of words to improve, and probably none of them will score you a win — or a sale — right out of the chute. Take it in stride. Do the homework anyway, and enjoy the teaching and the exploration of the words. Don’t fret, just work. And when the rejection(s) come, don’t let it go to your heart or your head. It’s not personal, it’s just business. File them and get back to work on the next story. You can’t win if you don’t enter, and you can’t enter if you don’t write, print, package and mail.
In the U.S. Army we’ve got a Soldier’s Creed. I often think there are aspects of the Creed which can apply to life as well — not to mention Big Dream Pursuits, such as getting published and having a writing career.
To quote the Creed:
I will always place the mission first.
I will never quit.
I will never accept defeat.
That is all. Carry on.