I (Wayne – WebMaster) thought this was excellent commentary from Jacqueline Winn and deserved its own separate post. Looking for feedback on writing for a competition? Have a read of this:
Whenever I judge a short story competition, I’m taken through a whirl of characters and circumstances, as well as a wealth of genres and styles. It’s always enjoyable seeing what writers can come up with, especially when they’re limited to only 2,000 words. This year’s Mona Brand Award entries gave me quite a few stories that were compelling to read, with memorable characters and conflicts. I hope these writers will find opportunities to be published so their work has a chance to be read by many more people.
The first-prize winning story Precipice was beautifully constructed with the heart of the conflict revealed little by little, as the reader learnt why the main character had been in hospital. The writer kept the curiosity factor high throughout. A two-hander, with the main character and only one secondary character, the interactions and dialogue were a joy to read. The language was evocative and gave me such a rich picture of these two women, separated by two generations but sharing a common grief. Like all well-written stories, this one ended at just the right moment, with a little morsel of hope to make the story complete.
There were a number of shortlisted stories that deserve praise, some for their wonderful use of language, others for their lively characters, and a few for their imaginative storylines. Talking About It was a gentle story of dealing with impending death, as the main character tries to coax life out of her father’s vegetable garden, while avoiding talking about the inevitable. Strays had me laughing aloud with some delightful humour and a very engaging central metaphor. Summer of Stories tackled an edgy issue of bullying in a halfway house, with some excellent dialogue and rising drama. Blackberries used some lovely poetic language to explore a new mother’s struggle with post-natal depression.
As with all competitions, there were many stories that lost marks for simple mistakes. Grammar, spelling and punctuation (yawn!) ruined the chances of some stories. There is one easy solution: get a basic grammar/punctuation book and upgrade the essential skills.
Plausibility was a problem in some stories. Either the writer had failed to research an unfamiliar topic or had introduced plot or character twists that were unjustified by earlier story.
Too many of the entries in this competition were memoirs that lacked story structure. In a short story competition, a memoir needs to be told as a story rather than simply a family recollection or meditation on the past. Just like fiction, a good understanding of main character and conflict is necessary to tell a factual story successfully.
Lack of sufficient conflict was a major setback for some stories that were otherwise excellent in their writing style or language use. If there is nothing stopping the main character from getting what he/she wants, then there is no conflict and the reader finds it hard to care what happens next. Conflict is the curiosity factor that keeps the reader in a story. The outcome of the conflict, for better or for worse, is what leaves an impression on the reader after a story is over. Some entries in this year’s competition would have done very well in memoir competitions, where conflict is not a necessary component of the genre.
Congratulations to the winner of this year’s Mona Brand Award and also to those who made the shortlist. But, even if you didn’t make the shortlist this year, keep writing. It’s an achievement in its own right, to complete a story. And who knows? Your story might rise to the top in the next competition you enter.
(The results of the Mona Brand Award 2015 can be viewed by clicking here.)