While I’ve been fortunate enough to have most of my short fiction published in one form or another, I don’t really consider myself a short story writer—I’m too lazy. Page for page, I find shorts far more difficult to wrangle than novels.

Indolence aside, I was recently invited to judge a short story competition. With entries ranging from novice to virtuoso, the contest turned out to be a learning experience as well as a unique opportunity to sample work from a wide variety of writers over a relatively brief period of time.

In today’s post I’ll be sharing some advice based on FOGs (Frequently Occurring Gaffes) discovered in these shorts. Take heed. Whether you’re writing for competition or publication, don’t let this happen to you. Oh, and you novelists out there? Don’t walk away. Much of this post applies to long fiction as well.

(frequently occurring gaffes)

The Hollow Laughter of the proofreader/bluedevi(flickr)

The Hollow Laughter of the Proofreader/bluedevi(flickr)

  • For the love of all that is holy, PROOFREAD YOUR WORK!!!
  • Please, please, please do not have a one-way phone conversation unless there is another more important in-person conversation already happening in the room. Key phone conversations should be written as dialog.
  • Respect submission guidelines. If the rules call for a story to include a romance, write a romance into your tale. If the contest calls for a crime, write a crime. No matter how good your story, if you ignore the guidelines, your chances of success are nil.
  • If you have a great story idea with the perfect end twist, make sure the entire work shines. A clever ending will not make up for poor structure and slow pacing. It doesn’t matter how fabulous the end-payoff if your reader tosses the story aside before s/he gets there.
  • Subtlety is fine. I’m a firm believer in letting the reader’s imagination take over, but don’t be so vague that your reader is left hanging. While it’s not necessary to connect the dots, you have to give the reader a pencil. In other words, don’t let ‘less is more’ turn into ‘WTF?’
  • The flip-side of the above is don’t keep repeating information. It’s boring. Trust your readers to remember. They’re smarter than you think; show them some respect.
  • Stay away from clichés and that ultimate harbinger of evil: predictability. If a reader can confidently predict the ending of your story while on page two, then you’re rewriting someone else’s work rather than telling a unique tale of your own. Start over.
  • Understand what you’re writing. Is it genre? Then make sure there’s at least a plot arc—a beginning, middle, and an end. In literary fiction you can get by with a slice of life tale, but not in genre fiction.
  • Don’t show off your writing chops at the expense of story. All description—this is especially true for short stories where real estate is limited—should move the story forward or reveal character. Overwriting is the mark of a neophyte.
  • If your protagonist is unlikeable, make sure he or she is at least interesting enough  to compel the reader to turn the page. Your job isn’t to make your protagonist lovable. Any writer can do that. Your job is to make your readers care, and that’s hard.
  • Watch POV slips and don’t head-hop. Few writers can successfully head-hop, and those who have the ability are nearly all British. Unless you were born in the UK, don’t waste your time trying. Hold your POV.
  • Be careful of anachronisms, they can totally pull a reader out of a story. For example, don’t have someone call 9-1-1 in a story set in the 1940s.
  • Finally we come to the golden rule. Yes, you’ve heard it before: show don’t tell. And as a corollary, when two characters are conversing, do not describe the exchange in narrative—write dialog!

Have you ever entered your work in a contest?
Would you consider it?