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Five Things I Learned When Entering a Short Story Contest




Short Story ContestsThe tweet caught my eye: "@SilverEmpirePub accepting submissions for a short story contest."


I was in a rut with my current work-in-progress, a historical mystery. I love mysteries and my shelves are crammed full with whodunits. But I was struggling with this story, the words weren't making their way from my brain to my fingertips. I needed a change.



What did I know about short story contests? Not much.


I'd never thought to write a mystery short story because I haven't really cared for the stories I'd read in mystery magazines. However, Silver Empire's contest was for a story about stairs in the woods.


The submission guidelines were intriguing. They were accepting any genre, although they admitted that science fiction, fantasy, and horror were the most likely genres. I didn't know much about writing in any of those genres, but I'm a big fan of Tolkien and King. So, I figured, why not?


I dashed off to Barnes and Noble and picked up the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. As I read, new ideas for a story zipped through my brain like Ricochet Rabbit on Red Bull (yes, I revealed how old I am, and apologies for the unexpected alliteration). I couldn't scribble fast enough to get all my ideas down on paper.


Five days later, I submitted the story to the contest, a murder mystery set in a fantasy place called D'waachen. These were five days when my fingers struggled to keep up with the stream of words. I skipped the gym and stopped binge-watching Breaking Bad. This was an exhilarating writing experience for me and, win or lose, I'm really glad I did it.


I learned a lot during those five days. Here are some of the lessons:


The spigot of creativity1. Writing in a different genre really cranked open the spigot of my creative juices.


Sure, I was in my comfort zone of dead bodies and bloody crime scenes. On the other hand, I was placing my dead body in a fantasy world that hadn't existed in my mind until a few hours before. World building in F&SF is so much more encompassing than in mystery. But, instead of finding the challenge daunting, I could barely control the gush of ideas.


I had to think of geography and people and magic and monsters, and each characteristic of my new world prompted more ideas.



Killing my darlings2. It's easier to kill your darlings in a short story.


Working on my first novel, I'd written page after page of a subplot involving a minor character I adored because of her obsession with shoes. She was funny and charming and made me laugh out loud. I thought she was the best thing I'd ever written.


The only problem was that she really added nothing to the story.


I had to go through three beta reading cycles before I dared to cut her out. Delete, delete, delete. Thirty pages gone, thirty pages of my best stuff ever. It was painful.


In my short story, I didn't have the luxury of thirty pages to indulge my creative ego. When it came time to excise the darlings, I found wiping out a hundred and fifty words so much easier than thirty pages.



The pressure of the deadline inspired me3. The pressure of a deadline gave me the impetus to solve problems more efficiently.


There wasn't enough time to linger over every sticking point. When I got to a spot where I couldn't figure out what happened next, or how a character was going to respond to another, or how my magical staircase was supposed to look, I couldn't just stop and stare at the screen. I had to come up with options, select the best one, and move on to the next sticking point.


This was a skill I'd never learned before in novel writing, and I hope to be able to apply it going forward.



4. When in doubt, interview your characters.


I'd just read K.M. Weiland's blog post, 100+ Questions to Help You Interview Your Character,  and I figured I'd try the technique with my short story protagonist. At first, it seemed like over kill -- this was, after all, a short story -- but after going through the process, I discovered some delicious tidbits about my hero. One particular characteristic, the fact that the protagonist choked under pressure, completely changed the end of the story. I wouldn't have discovered that fact without the interview.



Having fun with short story contests5. Writing for a contest was a lot of fun.


I got to experiment with new techniques and types of characters, something I wouldn't have committed to with a novel-length project. There's always some pleasure when finishing a project, and writing the short story gave me that satisfaction far sooner than with a longer piece. And, ultimately, it was so enjoyable to get into the heads of new characters and setting. I'll be doing more short story contests.



A few short story contests to consider.


The Aeon Award. Due November 17.


Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers. Deadline October 31.


WritersWeekly.com's 24-Hour Short Story Contest. Quarterly.

Post date: 2017-09-06 20:32:50
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