Sunday, September 6, 2015

Authors Helping Authors: 15 Writers Move onto Round 2

As part of the Kickstarter campaign for my new Riyria novel, Death of Dulgath, I promised to include the short story of an aspiring (or new) writer at the back of the book. While the writer will be compensated at twice the standard rate, ($0.15 a word (up to 5,000 words) as opposed to the standard SFWA rate of $0.06), the real purpose was to provide exposure for the writer in a crowded literary landscape, and hopefully jumpstart their career.

I've received hundreds of entries. If you’re wondering if I staffed this out…no, I read each one personally. It should be understood I didn’t read any of them completely.

In the same way that it is possible to tell if a person is a skilled pianist or a novice from only a few bars of music, most people can tell the difference between a skilled writer and a novice from a few sentences. I most often read until I hit enough problems to determine the entry wasn’t going to make it. This usually required me to read no more than the first page, often only the first paragraph. In a few cases only the first sentence was needed. And in two cases only four words. If I read beyond the first page, the piece was dropped into the “promising” folder to be read in full later. If not it went into the “reject” folder.

This is similar to how publishers and agents deal with large piles of submissions and is something of which all professional writers should be aware. You don’t have long to make a good impression. The good news—if you want to call it that—is that unlike most agents and publishers, I skipped the query letter and read the story. I didn’t care who you were or what your credential were until I determined if you could write. Only after your story landed in the “promising” folder, did I read the query, or even your name.

For those who are wondering why they bothered to work on the query if I ignored it in the majority of the cases, don't should be worth your time. You see,  everyone who submitted will walk away with at least a critique of their query, but that process will occur once I'm past the deadline for delivering the novel.

Judging literature is a subjective endeavor. I do not profess to being The Authority on Good Writing, but this contest isn’t being award to the best literature submitted, it’s going to the one I like best. While most creative competitions are determined by a consensus of opinion, in this case (because this is my competition) only one opinion matters—mine. As a result I can tell you exactly how I judged this first round. I eliminated entries if they exhibited any of the following:

  1. Poor writing (repeated words, unnecessary words, poor word choices).
  2. Story doesn't start at the start of the piece.
  3. Too much exposition.
  4. Difficult  to understand.
  5. Lack of interest.
Any of these were likely to send your story to the “reject” folder very quickly. I would however read more if I encountered: 
  1. An original or interesting premise.
  2. Excellent writing.
Two pieces I read in their entirety because they were so well written, but alas, both lacked a story—part of the reason why I kept reading is that I was trying to find it. There are many short fiction works that aren’t stories, meaning they don’t pose a question then answer it. Instead they are simply an example of writing that begins nowhere special and ends at a random point with out actually having one. I don’t view these as stories so much as exercises in writing. While they might display superb literary skills, they’re cheating by skipping the hardest part: developing a complete, satisfying, engaging and hopefully, moving story in less than 7,500 words. This is what makes short story writing so hard. You have to invest massive cosmic power in an itty-bitty living space, something Hemingway famously managed in six words: 

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn. 

Works that skip this part usually display only the skill, or acquired craft, of a writer, but there is more to fiction than craft. As a result, excellent writing got my attention, however, it didn’t win me over. A great story with wonderful characters and mediocre writing consistently beat out great writing with only the hint of a story.
Of the hundreds of entries I went through, fifteen are waiting for me in the “promising” folder. Those of you who entered this contest and don’t see your name on the list, might wonder what exactly you did wrong, or—should you find your name listed—what is it you did right? Here are the most common problems I found:

  1. You started your story with boatloads of exposition. As in: In the land of Hezgoroth a hot wind blew across the land where ancient kings of the Jeilian Horde warred against the*…I’d usually hit reject at this point. I don’t want you to tell me a story. I want to live it. (* This is not from a submission. I made this up. I won’t post anyone’s work and criticize it. That’s just mean.) Fact is, I hate the rampant habit of the fantasy genre to indulge in excessive, and usually unnecessary, exposition. If your story started this way, have hope, not everyone almost no one feels the way I do.
  2. Nothing happens at the start of the story, as in: Leroy sat on the log pondering his life as he waited to find out the verdict the king would hand down. Ever since he left his home of… Again this is exposition, but at least it started with a character doing something, too bad they were only sitting. Better to have started the story with the verdict, or better yet with the consequences of the verdict. (Again, this isn’t from a submitted story.)
  3. Purposeful avoidance of details that keep the reader from understanding anything, as in: The person was there thinking. They weren’t certain when it would happen, but they knew it would happen soon, or soon enough. It was hard to tell. Or it’s slightly lesser annoying sibling, dithering, as in: He wasn’t certain but he seemed to be almost falling. He thought he might be, and maybe he was but… 
  4. You may have spent your precious first words of your story setting the stage as opposed to starting the story, as in: The forest was dark and gloomy. A thick eerie mist rose. A full moon was only a hazy faint light. Everything was cold and damp and filled with fear full forbidding. It was an evil night. Even the…Reject. 
  5. Confusion. If I couldn’t understand what was going on, I passed. 
  6. Boredom. Maybe I could understand it, and something was going on, but if I wasn’t intrigued, I passed. 
A short story is akin to a sprint. The faster you are off the blocks the better your chances of winning. Meandering your opening isn’t going to win races. Remember the first sentence, and to a lesser extent the first paragraph, might be all anyone ever reads and this applies to novels too. The opening has to be great. 

That said, if the first sentence was a bait-and-switch where you invented a compelling opening line just for the sake of a great opening line, that too was passed on, as in: Bob was plummeting to certain death. Bob woke from his dream drenched in sweat. Bob was born thirty-five years about, and now I will tell you about his childhood. It started… 

The opening also can’t just be action—as many of them were. Action scenes didn’t work for me. Combat isn’t interesting. It’s actually very boring unless you care about those involved, and you can’t if you don’t know who they are.

In the first paragraph of your story I was looking to discover who the story was about (not just their name), what they were trying to do, and why they were having troubles doing it. The entries that managed this had a much better chance of me getting to the end of the first page. Therefore a sentence like: Officer Jane Williams didn’t know whether to cut the blue or the red wire, but she knew she had ten seconds to decide.
  • Who: Most likely a police woman. 
  •  Situation: Most likely defusing a bomb. 
  •  Problems: A bad decision will bring death.
After the first sentence I am into this story, (which again I just made up). I don’t need setup, or mood, exposition, backstory, fancy prose, or clever internal dialog. Twenty-three words and I have what could be the entire story laid out along with the main character and the conflict. As the reader of this I know all the important facts, and am invested. I want to know if she cuts the right wire, what happens if she doesn’t. This is where this story might end as the question posed in this opening is which wire should she cut? The story then could be how she goes about deciding which wire. This could even have a twist in that she cuts neither wire. The point is, a short story, being short, needs to start right at the beginning, grab the reader and go. At least, that’s what I’m looking for. And the ones who managed this, or at least managed to entertain me and were also well written, and who didn’t blow it by the end of the first page, got into the “promising” folder.

Out of hundreds there were fifteen. They are (in no particular order): 
  • Jillian Lokere
  • H. L. Fullerton
  • Kate Smoot
  • Hannah Dancy
  • Tyler Powell
  • Desmond Warzel
  • Thorn Stratton
  • N. E. White
  • Heather Jean Matheson
  • Steve Williamson
  • Marina Lobstetter
  • Terence Kuch
  • Anthony Lowe
  • Setsu Uzume
  • Zachary Brennan
Congratulations to the Promising Fifteen. At this point I will be reading each of these in their entirety and sending the very best to a “Finals” folder. After that I’ll likely invite my wife to read them for a second opinion, then I’ll be contacting the winner. Good luck all.


  1. Dear Mr. Sullivan (Hi Michael?),

    What a fantastic idea to include a short story by a new writer! I particularly liked your break down of rejection reasons in this blog entry.
    Congratulations to the fifteen people in the second round.

    All the best,


  2. YES!! Way to go, everyone!

    Michael & Robin -- Thank you so much for creating this opportunity. It's generous of you to break down the process here on your blog. What a great project.