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I've written many stories and have received some good feedback but have never tried to compete with others. I've been thinking recently that it would be nice to enter a piece of my flash-fiction in one of the many competitions I see advertised. But before I do that, I'd like to try to maximise my chances of winning.

So my question is: what are the specific writing techniques that can be used to make a short piece of fiction more likely to win a competition?

I'm aware that this can be interpreted as asking: 'how can I write good fiction?', but I want to be more specific here. I'm trying to get at the things, if they exist, that make competitive fiction-writing different from general fiction-writing.

closed as off-topic by Pawana, Stéphane Mourey, De Novo, Galastel, Jason Bassford Jun 23 '18 at 2:49

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    If I have to write differently to be "competative", either my "general" writing is not good enough or I have no interest in the competition ;) – Totumus Maximus Jun 22 '18 at 8:38
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    If there was a surefire way to win a competition, why would anyone share it? And as soon as it is shared, who would win if everyone used it? – Polygnome Jun 22 '18 at 8:49
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    If they have no interest in entering writing competitions, how would anyone know if their advice works for winning writing competitions? – a CVn Jun 22 '18 at 9:37
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    @Michael - There are people who do things successfully (like winning competitions), discover that they don't, for whatever personal reason, want to do it again and yet still want to tell people about their experience and share the techniques they employed. Tangentially, it seems that altruism can be explained by natural selection: nature.com/news/2010/100825/full/news.2010.427.html – robertcday Jun 22 '18 at 9:45
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    @robertcday Altruism has little to do with it. If someone knew how to win such competitions, what would happen if two people sing the same strategy enter the same competition? Only one of them can win, and thus the strategy can not have been an always winning strategy. What you are asking for is inherently paradoxical. – Polygnome Jun 22 '18 at 10:55
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I read for a contest run by a literary journal. There are a few rounds of reading. In the first round we weed out the pieces that are problematic from the start. So polish your piece to perfection. Fix all punctuation and grammar problems. In the second round we're reading stories that are all pretty good, and we read to find the ones that are seriously good. The third round is when the journal's editors read through the ones that have made it through, and I think the few that remain go to our guest judge to pick a winner.

We have a lot of stories to get through, so don't give us any reason to stop reading. And be lucky.

  • Indeed. Provide no easy way to be rejected. – DPT Jun 24 '18 at 0:11
  • I'll add this, based on pieces I'm seeing currently: A lot of them start in the middle of the story, then they stop the story to give background info or descriptions or to explain relationships and such. I find myself wanting to skip ahead, to find where the story picks up again. Minimize interruptions, but if you must interrupt, make it worthwhile. – Ken Mohnkern Jun 25 '18 at 12:14
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Speaking as a professor, I have frequently been a judge (one of five for my field) for our annual poster contest (all sciences) in which students produce a poster describing their research, suitable for an academic conference (often actually accepted for display in such a conference). These typically take students about a month to produce, they are not done lightly, typically contain illustrations, charts and text with references.

Drawing from that experience, I'd say the winning criterion is surprise.

Most research produces nothing very surprising. It isn't that I knew their results in advance, but their results are in line with what I would expect myself if I undertook their research.

The students may make a valid discovery or provide statistical evidence something is true, something I would guess is true but did not know for certain was true -- but the key element for winners always seems to be a surprising result that, once you learn it, makes sense. The results stick with you, get you thinking, make you wonder about something else or further implications, or get you talking with the presenter (the student) about where this goes next, what are the next experiments, where do they think it is going.

Translating that experience to a fiction contest; I think a surprise that in retrospect makes sense could go a long way toward winning. A twist that resolves the conflict in an unexpected manner, whether it is humorous or not.

I realize that is often how a joke is described; the punchline is an unexpected statement or action that, in retrospect, works.

But in fiction the twist can be like The Sixth Sense, it isn't really funny in any way, but it is fun because it suddenly recasts the story in an entirely new light, and for some reason that makes us humans laugh, we really like it.

It is a prescription that might be difficult to fill, twist endings and surprises are not that easy to devise, and may fall flat. But hopefully a little more specific advice than "write better."

  • I’ve noticed a lot of contests have a coda: “No O. Henry-type endings.” – August Canaille Jun 23 '18 at 16:23
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    @AugustCanaille Well, if you can't have a twist ending, it is still possible to have a surprising plot or surprising character with a happy ending. e.g. a professional criminal with a surprising hobby, or charity, and a situation in which the two heretofore separate lives come into conflict. Say he is not going to kill the President --- of his bridge club, or let anybody else kill her, either, so he has to find out who wants her dead, and why, and kill them instead... Just an "O. Henry" end of Act I, not an "O. Henry ending." – Amadeus Jun 23 '18 at 17:52
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This is really the number one advice I can give anybody entering creative competitions:

Learn how the competition works.

Every competition has rules. Wordcount; formatting; themes.

Some of them also have guidelines. Stuff the judges like; stuff the contest is kind of tired of; stuff that's considered particularly impressive, or that's OK but generally doesn't do to well.

Learn all of them; follow all of them (or know why you're choosing to ignore some; don't make any unnecessary mistakes.

This will do two things for you:

  • It will keep you from being in the bottom 25%. In most contests and competitions, there are many participants who don't read or follow the rules. They can be pretty much auto-rejected out of hand -- and even if they aren't, they give an extremely poor first impression.
    Now, being in the top 75% is still a far cry from winning, or even placing -- but it's a lot better than being in the bottom 25%.
    (The choice of "25%" specifically is a gross exaggeration, in one direction or another -- it will vary from contest to contest.)

  • You will learn to be critical of submissions in general, and yours in particular. The rules, guidelines, and mores of the competition can, in combination, teach you an incredible amount. By focusing on "How to do this one specific task, in a way that will impress these specific people" -- you will have developed your own taste, and your own writing ability. It will also help you improve specifically at whatever this particular contest values most.

All this works best with a competition that is relatively consistent -- held regularly, with the same set of judges (or mostly the same, or with similar-ish tastes), spoken about enough in public for you to actually get a sense of what the contest is looking for.

Not all contests are like that -- but that's a good reason to seek out a few that are.

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Look at the competition from the judge's point of view.

Whatever the theme of the competition, assume that the vast majority of entries will grab for its' low hanging fruit. If a competition is about vampires, most of the entries will deal with normal afterlife challenges, such as sunshine and madmen with wooden stakes. So find something new such as a vampire sommelier (wine-expert) with a cellar full of vintage winos.

Always try to make the judge laugh.

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    You had my vote until the last line. Why do you think humor is always necessary? – Todd Wilcox Jun 22 '18 at 13:43
  • It isn't necessary, but it is usually very welcome. The closest I have ever come to judging a writing contest is grading a stack of papers. All of the authors take themselves so seriously that over time, the task becomes pure drudgery. Unusual points of view break up the repetition and artistic word choice can also help; but humor, that always works. If a student can make me laugh, that is worth a full letter-grade boost. i.m.h.o. – Henry Taylor Jun 22 '18 at 13:47
  • Personal anecdote: once, in my GCSE English class, we were given a collection of short stories written by the previous year's class, and asked what mark we'd give them out of 40. One of them was about a woman being murdered by a serial killer, and it was so well-written that it was apparently worth full marks. I gave it a 39, because as well-written as it was, I found it such a depressing read that I couldn't bring myself to call it perfect. A bit of levity is always welcome. – F1Krazy Jun 22 '18 at 14:09
  • I wonder if grading papers gives you a strong demographic skew in the authors you are reading, perhaps towards the young and angsty? In support of your assertion, I'm currently working on application materials for a writing workshop, and the only type of writing that must be represented in the samples is comedy. Perhaps authors are prone to taking themselves too seriously. – Todd Wilcox Jun 22 '18 at 14:09

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