Monday, August 13, 2012

How To Win The DEFY THE DARK Short Story Contest

I've gotten quite a few hits lately from the search term "how to win the DEFY THE DARK contest" (which honestly I found quite surprising) so I figured I'd do my best to offer some tips. And they are TIPS only, I don't have the inside scoop on anything, and I'm not a judge.

First of all, let me direct you to some great posts that Saundra Mitchell has done on just this subject.

She's got some really great advice, including actual screenshots of some of the stories in the book (think Tessa Gratton, Beth Revis, Jon Skovron and Christine Johnson) with their edit notes and final revisions!

That said, I've spent some time looking through the entries thus far, and had a few thoughts. So here they are.

1. TAKE YOUR TIME. You've still got over two weeks to enter. There's no bonus for getting your story up early. The prize is MAJOR, so, write your story, let it rest for a few days and then look at it again. Revise it. Send it to a crit partner or friend. Get their notes. Revise it again, and THEN post it.

2. BE CREATIVE. This is not meant to bash any story that has already been posted, but in reading the entries I have found many to be remarkably similar - in tone, in subject, or in plot. Yes, the instructions say to write a story that takes place at night or in the dark but that doesn't mean the story itself has to be dark and/or bleak and/or depressing. (Three things that I love in a story, btw. And three things that, surprisingly, are not in my story.) Sure monster attacks and the end of the world might happen in the dark, but so might a stolen kiss, a bonfire party, or, I don't know, a case of mistaken identity!

3. HAVE A BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END. This is not really a hard and fast rule for short stories in general, but in this case, DEFY THE DARK is a book of complete stories. I don't mean that every thread in your story has to be wrapped up tight with a bow at the end. It's more a caution against stories that are really one long descriptive scene, or a vignette that feels like it's the middle of something bigger. For me, a great short story resolves (or mostly resolves) the main issue in the plot and ends with the reader having a sense of what comes next. But that's me.

4. SPELL CHECK DOES NOT EQUAL EDITING. I cannot stress this enough. Running spell check does not fix grammatical errors, missing words, tense issues, homonym/homophone mistakes, or confusing sentences. This is where a crit partner, and a patient eye come in. While I doubt one or two issues will keep you from winning, this story is out there for the world to see. People will assume you are showing them your best work, so why not make sure that it actually is?

5. READ THE RULES. And then follow them, obviously. I've seen quite a few interesting stories that were only 1300 words long. The contest rules state that entries must be between 2000 and 4000 words. (Also, this contest is for YA - Young Adult - stories. I've seen a few featuring adult main characters, which I find bewildering.) Don't shut yourself out before the judging even gets started!

And... that's it. Really! Take your time, and try to think up something that's truly original, and truly you - NOT what you think should be in the book. Or what you think will win the contest. This is not the time to be calculating. Saundra has made it clear that any genre will do as long as it fits the guidelines. What will win the contest is the best, most original story, told by someone who truly loves telling it. And if you're working with a formula, chances are you're not having fun writing.

If you're curious about the tone of the book, which truly does span all genres, and all uses of "dark", check out the DEFY THE DARK website where you can read the opening paragraphs of every story in the book. (Click on each author's photo and it will take you to their bio page which also features the opening snippet of their story. Mine is here.)

I hope this post was helpful. I can't wait to see what you all come up with! Good luck!

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