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How to stand out from the slush pile

One of the things I love about reading other people’s work is what I learn from it.

So, last year, when I was asked to be one of the judges for a prose competition, I said yes. The competition guidelines listed the areas we were to rank on a scored number system—things like characterization, setting, dialogue, point of view, etc.

Of the twenty or so submissions I read, there were a variety of stories—from a gothic, steampunk, coming-of-age story to a memoir about losing one’s memory in the aging process.

A few submissions stood out above the others like the shiny, bright agates my cousin and I would hunt for on the beaches of our childhood. These submissions wove all aspects of good writing and storytelling together into a whole that hooked my interest from the first line and never let go.

The majority of the submissions fell somewhere in the middle of the pile—not to be rude—but what I might call “mediocre land.” They weren’t poorly written but they didn’t grab ahold of me and say, “Read this, now!” In fact, in many cases, I couldn’t wait for the story to be over because I was bored.

So, what did I learn?

It doesn’t matter if you know how to write a pretty sentence. Your story needs to draw the reader in and compel them to read forward. Of course, I already knew this, but reading a stack of submissions really brought it home.

The “middle of the pile” stories simply couldn’t hold my interest—they might have had an interesting idea but the execution was poor for whatever reasons: pedestrian dialogue, writing like a reporter summarizing events instead of in scene format, jumping around in time, inappropriate tone of narrator, too much exposition, over-dramatization, or a plethora of adjectives and adverbs.

As I was reading, I began to ask questions of the work. I turned them into a list to consider for my own story-in-progress:

  • In one sentence, what is my story about?
  • What makes my story different from other stories of this type? i.e. if I’m writing a story about getting divorced, how is my story different from other divorce stories?
  • What is the single most compelling aspect of my story?
  • What is the second most compelling aspect of my story?
  • What is the third most compelling aspect of my story?
  • What impact do events have on my characters?
  • Do my characters change in the process of the story? If so, how?
  • Is my narrator’s tone and point of view consistent and appropriate for the subject matter? For example, if the character is witnessing a death scene, they probably aren’t going to try to sound humorous (unless they’re a psychopath).
  • Do my settings come to life through sensory “telling” details? Do my settings establish atmosphere or mood?
  • Is the time frame of my story consistent or does my story jump around too much? Do I ground my readers in the setting/time of the story before I ask them to go elsewhere?
  • Do I have any purple prose? (Overwrought or melodramatic).
  • Do my scenes contain tension or conflict? If the answer is no, then why not???

Since my judging experience, I’ve changed how I look at my own work.

I like to equate the process of writing my story to my experience of childhood fishing trips. I think of my story as casting a line out to my reader, hooking them, and reeling them in. Like a steelhead, I might play with them a bit—let them take the line out for a ways—but I’ll always be in control, reeling them in at my own pace, letting them enjoy the experience as much as I am (well, except for maybe the hook in their cheek).

What metaphor can you find to remind you what you’re trying to accomplish in your own writing?

Exercise: Set a timer for five or 10 minutes and answer each of the questions above.

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