A Gem Among the Stones
Entering writing competitions can be a great way of honing our writing skills. Often, they provide a focus for our writing, and there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate. Then there’s the boost of confidence that comes with winning, or even being shortlisted.
Of course, coming out on top of a competition is tough. There are a lot of writers out there, all vying for the same prize. So, how do we make our writing stand out?
Over recent weeks, Field of Words – a project that I run with my good friend and fellow writer, Eileen Goodall – has been receiving entries into our writing competition, which is for emerging Australian writers. After reading these stories, I spent some time reflecting on what we are looking for when assessing a piece of writing and what a writer can do to make their story a gem among the stones.
A Story of Substance:
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it. ~ Anaïs Nin
The main element that attracts me as reader (and writer) is an engaging story. These stories deal with significant issues and themes, which illustrate something about what to means to be human. Such stories are born, it seems to me, from a writer’s natural curiosity about their world and the nature of humanity.
These kinds of writers have something to say and they invite the reader to consider their interpretation of, and thoughts about, a particular subject. Yet, there is no expectation that the reader will agree with them – they are not didactic or moralistic – but they trust in the reader’s intelligence and willingness to participate in the conversation they have begun with their story.
And this is what really grabs me – at the end of such a story, I want to talk about it. I want to continue the conversation, to discuss the thoughts that the story has generated in me, to unravel its nuances and test my own position against that of the writer. Stories that leave me thinking and talking about my world and my place within it are the stories I love best.
Characters of Substance:
It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
~ William Faulkner
Of equal importance to telling a story with substance is peopling that story with characters who are fully alive and authentically dealing with life as it befalls them. Characters are the heart, soul and backbone of a story. Other creative elements in a story can be somewhat weak – plot, setting, perhaps even theme – as long as the characters are rounded and animated.
Having a brilliant plot with weak characters makes for a weak story, likewise with setting; there is no point in locating a story on glorious Santorini if the characters have as much depth as a fish bowl.
Characters are what grab a reader’s attention. It is the characters we fall in love, or loathing, with as we watch them deal with situations that we vicariously want, or hope never, to experience for ourselves. Characters are our connection: our bridge to empathy and to understanding ourselves and our fellow human beings (this is true even if the character is not human).
Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
A writer’s job is to capture the reader’s attention, to lure them into a story, and hold them there until the final word is read. In short story, this capturing begins with the title. This is the first engagement the reader has with a piece of writing and it should be a clue, or a layer of meaning, that adds to the story. Sometimes the title can be a reference point, something the reader can rely on, like a beacon, as they navigate a story. Sometimes it can be an invitation to enticing to resist (The Bear Came over the Mountain by Alice Munro, or Theories of Relativity by Chris Womersley, or Conversations with Unicorns by Peter Carey). Whatever it is, it requires thought and intention, like all other aspects of a story.
Once the reader’s attention is piqued, the next hook is the first line. The first line of a story is like a firm hand shake; it should be confident and convey a sense of control. It should say to the reader: ‘This is a writer who is sure of their craft.’ Here are a few of my favourite opening lines, in no particular order:
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (1948)
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley (1953)
"Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure."
The Stranger, Albert Camus (1946)
"It was the day my grandmother exploded."
The Crow Road, Iain Banks (1992)
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell: (1949)
‘I inherited Walter. Neither of us had much say in the matter.’
Another Man’s Treasure, Joanna Nell (2015).
It’s the Little Things too:
I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out. ~Oscar Wilde
Writing a great story is hard work and while we can pick out a few elements and say ‘focus on these’, the reality is all aspects of a story are important. Story is, after all, like a tapestry where every thread is meticulously woven to create the whole.
So let’s say you’ve been at your loom, weaving a story to capture your reader: a story of substance, with splendid characters, vivid settings, beautiful dialogue, events to set the heart racing, and a thematic resonance that will shake your reader to their core. Wonderful!
But you are not finished yet.
All of that mastery can be undone in an instant by slipping tenses, or by misplaced commas and absent full stops, or an overabundance of exclamation marks. Redundancies are the enemy of good writing, as is repetition and incorrect words usage or spelling; be aware of these in the story. And watch, too, for those vampiric adverbs and clichéd adjective, both of which will suck the life from your beautiful writing. Finally, learn to format as a creative writer – study published novels and short stories, check submission guidelines, and do some research on the topic. Here are two good places to start:
A little aside: I don’t necessarily agree with, or practice, all of the suggestions on these blogs. As a writer, I have my own habits and quirks. For example, I never indent the first paragraph of a piece of writing and I always use single speech marks for dialogue. However, I am open to changing a practice; not so long ago, I double space after a full stop, now I’m a single space kinda gal. What I would suggest is being consistent and, as with every element of your writing, work with intention.
It might seem like pedantic advice but the basic things matter. They speak about a writer’s investment in their writing; how much they care about their craft. They speak about a writer’s skill and professionalism. Mostly, though, they speak about a writer’s respect for their reader, who should never have to struggle with a story at this basic level, unless it is by the stylistic intention of the author.
So there it is: a reflection on what a ‘judge’ is likely to be looking for in a story submitted to a writing competition. It’s been a useful exercise for me, this reflecting, not only because I will approach my own writing with this new insight, but because it reinforces for me that our best teachers are our fellow wordsmiths, both great and emergent.
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