Common faults in short stories submitted to the Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize
The Willesden Herald Prize is an annual contest and prize celebrating the short story. Past judges have included Zadie Smith and Rana Dasgupta. New Short Stories is the anthology that results from the contest.
Some people have expressed interest in knowing why entries in the Willesden Herald short story competition are eliminated or advanced, so I offer the following notes on why all but the last few are eliminated.
Writers need to realise that writing is like music: there is no getting away with bum notes. Think of the judging process as a series of auditions – X-Factor, American Idol, Young Musician of the Year, if you like. Now think of the hopeless cases. Out of tune: Next! Inept: Next! Hopelessly feeble: Next. Ego tripper: Next. An open competition is by definition a talent contest, and the entries can be imagined in the same way. But what are the bum notes, gaffes, misconceptions, delusions, ineptitudes in writing that are analogous to the failings of talent show entrants? Here are a few, not rearranged, but simply as they come to mind.
1. Failure to observe the rules. Let’s get this most boring reason for rejection of entries out of the way. In this year’s Willesden competition, the rule most breached was the one that specifies no author’s name on the manuscript. Not double-spaced or single-sided also featured, as well as missing or incomplete entry forms. Last, in both senses, were entries received after the closing date. Something approaching one in ten was eliminated for not complying with the rules. It is likely that some people took incomplete information from third party sites, so I recommend that you get the official rules and entry form from the competition website. Then follow the rules exactly, not approximately. Any entry that is not in compliance with the rules will be binned, unread.
2. Overcrowded with characters. Seán Ó Faoláin said a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet. Like a jet the novel takes a long time to get off the ground, carries a lot of people and takes them a long way from where it started. On the other hand, the short story takes off vertically, rises directly to a great height, usually carries only one or two people, and lands not very far from where it took off. So when you mention three, four, five and sometimes even more names in the first two pages, it is inevitable that readers will be turned off (unless you have created a virtuosic masterpiece that defies all critique, such as Theresa's Wedding by William Trevor). Your story is likely to suffer from the following problem as well.
3. Undifferentiated characters. A name is not a character. Pinky said this, Perky said that, Blinky said something similar and Pisky said the same, as the old wartime song might have gone. Each character should be a complete person, with their own C.V. if you like, their own history, temperament, habits, weaknesses, plans, objectives etc, though these need not and should not be explicitly listed as such.
4. Solipsism. One miserable person being miserable. This was the most common and depressing failing. Unrelenting monotony of one single, invariably miserable and oppressive viewpoint. No sign of concern or even mention of any other character, nothing other than one person’s dreary moaning. If you are not interested in other characters, at least make it funny.
5. Well-enough written but I just don’t like it. This is the uncongenial protagonist or narrator, arrogant, cruel-minded, usually petty, often attempting gross-out effects, and usually going round in ever-diminishing circles before vanishing in a puff of studied triviality. It leaves a bad taste and invariably evokes the response that it’s well enough written, but I just don’t like it. There is no gun to the reader’s head. People do not read to be grossed out, or to join in somebody else’s squalor or misery. There has to be an element of transcendence, transmutation of the base material into the gold of fiction.
6. Throwaway endings. The story has been going along fairly well, showing signs of life and suddenly the writer must have thought, “Oh I can’t be bothered, I’m just going to put a twist here and finish it.” It’s literally almost impossible to believe sometimes why anybody would ever think of sending in something that is clearly truncated and given up on – what a waste of postage etc.
7. Over-elaborated endings. All has been going well, we’re hoping this might be a contender, we come to an excellent sign-off line, then woe, woe, thrice or four or five times woe for every extra sentence or paragraph that follows after that, telling us what should be left for us to decide for ourselves. So frustrating to hit one of these after reading all the way.
8. Throat-clearing openings. A build-up to the fact that we are about to hear a story, what it’s not about, what it is about, the fact that it starts here, the fact that it starts with something, the fact that it’s of a particular kind, the fact that you’re going to tell it. Cut, cut, cut. Then we come to the line where it really starts, but by then it’s too late: for something to get on a short list, it has to be virtually flawless and you’ve just started with a whopping great flaw.
9. Boring. “Middle of page 3 and I am totally bored.” “Well enough written but what is the point?” “I’m losing the will to live.” Again, I keep repeating, the reader does not have a gun to his or her head. We have lives of our own. We don’t need to substitute somebody else’s dreary domestic arrangements in our minds for our own. To us, yours are far less interesting – and ours were not that interesting to start with. Who cares if somebody listened to a news story on the radio, went shopping, bought a packet of corn flakes. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
10. Banal. Commonplace, dull, the sort of thing you hear every day. This is really a continuation of “boring”. A lot of stories about elderly people living in squalor. A particularly English phenomenon. A lot of stories about dying relatives. Ok, but they better be good. It’s important to write about these things, but when you do you need to realise that there will be ten other people writing about the same thing, so you’d better make it very good. Life can be banal, but we turn to fiction to find – again –transcendence. This is more or less the same point that dead henry made in his “statement to the peasants”, which was so ill-received.
11. Mush. Mom and Pop and kiddie all having breakfast mush and school mush and boy and girl friend mush, car and scenery mush and all starting and ending up in a nostalgic sunset mush. I’ve given you English kitchen squalor, now I give you American kitchen mush. Both equally nauseating. I might as well add princess and frog fairytales in here.
12. Failed experiment. It’s fine and admirable to try an experimental format, but it’s not an excuse for slightness, skimpiness, overwriting, repetitiveness, underwriting, forced or boring content, or as often as not for semi-disguised or decorated solipsism, or any of the other failings listed here.
13. Unconvincing. Clunky or melodramatic. I just don’t buy it. This is fake, phoney baloney, unbelievable but presented as supposedly realistic. Often forced and plot-driven. Corny ending likely. Let’s add in here “routine police procedurals”, where hard-bitten Captain Craggy trades inscrutable comments on cases with eager tyro etc.
14. Weak premise. The triviality of some themes submitted is hard to believe. When you get a story that is 30 pages all about a minor ailment that has no apparent effects or significance, what are you to make of it? The writer is talking to himself, like one of those poor souls you can see on the high street any day. A sort of sub-category here is the “clever-sounding” element, that is like a lump of gristle in the apple pie of the story. Some people have a compulsion to mention things they have some specialist expertise about or simply know the names of, in a certain way that makes me think, “Go away.”
15. Not a short story. We don’t tell you what a short story is, you’re supposed to know. If you don’t know, tough. You need to go away and find out. I can tell you it’s not something over 220 pages long, as one entrant must have thought. Neither is it an essay. I presume people send in essays, thinking “Well it’s a longshot.” No it’s not a longshot, it’s a dud. Regardless of length a short story is not a mini-novel – a real tyro failing. The simplest advice is to read as many good short stories as you can and yours should be at home in their company – if you aspire to that. And if you don’t then why do you bother writing?
16. Full of errors. Slapdash spelling and grammatical errors are like bum notes in a musical audition. Even if you are a shining genius (as you all think you are) it is unlikely you will get away even with one. More than one and you’re stone dead. A lot of people who do not speak English seem to think they can find success in a short story competition with texts that contain errors in every sentence. Very rarely, there may be a story that is otherwise compelling but frustratingly riddled with errors.
17. Transparent attempt to pander to the judges. Every year we’ve had one or two (usually impossible) journeys in London, invariably ending up in Kilburn or Willesden. Try to see it from my point of view, imagine I open a guide book and try and write something about your city, where I’ve never lived – imagine the phoniness of the result. I would suggest you do not attempt to write to order for a competition. You can if you insist, but I can spot it a mile off and it is really off-putting. It just suggests that you have no real hinterland of your own.
18. Poor dialogue. Exposition of the story in dialogue is a common failing. “We must be very careful, as it is raining now and visibility is low.” “Yes, and it is cold. Ooh, look at the traffic there,” said Pinky. “Yes, there is a lot of it, isn’t there,” said Perky. “Look out! Elegant variation dead ahead”, muttered Pinky and exclaimed Perky simultaneously. Maybe you’ve heard somewhere that there has to be dialogue. What they didn’t add was, “not at any price.” If there is dialogue, it should be something that people really might say. Do not make your characters into ventriloquists dummies to tell your story through. There can be long passages without dialogue or there can be lots or a little dialogue. What there must not be is phoney dialogue. Another thing, if your characters are well enough defined, you should find that hardly any attribution is needed.
19. Unevenness. This includes unevenness of tone, pace, style and theme: parts of the story that are not in keeping with the rest, which should have been edited out or replaced. A story that starts out in one tone, maybe as a serious and really compelling story, then halfway through turns into a facetious spoof. A digression from the main theme that makes the reader think, "What is that doing here?". I think there was one entry we received that seemed to be three short shorts stuck together. More slapdashery. Remember: it’s like music – you can’t “get away" with anything. With most competitions it should be safe to assume you are writing for/playing your music for people who can say in all modesty that they are not tone deaf.
20. Summation. "All in the past" syndrome. This is a problem sometimes characterised as “undepicted action” or “telling instead of showing.” Most writers seem to have a grasp of the need to get attention at the beginning, but an astonishing number by the middle of page two have started to tell us all about some ancient family history. All sense of immediacy and story is lost and instead we’re having summaries of complex events that happened, one sentence each, like a dry and tedious history book.
21. Underwriting and overwriting. Too sketchy or too longwinded. I get the impression that the longwinded are probably more pleased with themselves, but they’re no more popular with readers than the skimpers – rather the reverse. Cut out as much as you can, without cutting into the quick, and you’ll find that your text will improve. Isaac Babel said that our writing becomes stronger, not when we can add no more but when we can take nothing more away. The skimpy efforts are just rushed, undercooked, choose your own metaphor. I’m sure we know when we have underwritten (I include myself), so why do we waste postage sending underwritten pieces out?
22. Unicorns and elves, chick lit, police procedurals and bodice rippers. These should only be submitted to specialist competitions for their specific genres. The Willesden is for so-called literary stories. It’s not a pleasing term, so I would rather say non-generic stories. (I think Joyce once said that the word “literature” was used as a term of abuse.) Readers will not get beyond the first line of - and they are invariably labelled thus - the Prologue: “Nervelda gazed on the mistfields of Thuriber. Her green eyes glinted in the slanting sun, as the tribes of Godnomore straggled over the barren land.” Lord and Lady Farquahar and their servants will journey in vain to quaint villages full of worthy and unworthy peasants. I think I’ve already mentioned Inspector Craggy (promoted in the sequel) and his eager sidekicks. As for chick lit: in reading as well as in life, we may be partial to a bit of office romance, but about ten or twenty of them later and they begin to pall.
23. Faux jollity. Particularly faux jollity centred around pubs, and particularly around pubs in Ireland. Industrially extruded quantities of guff about distant histories in small town life. Standing jokes that should have been left where they toppled. Weird spastic prose as if the task of writing the story had been given by a writer with a good idea to the former class dunce, now barman. I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.
24. Ankles. Particularly ankles in Asia. But I don't want to be overly negative and turn critique into a blood sport, because there have been many charming, fascinating and amusing entries from the sub-continent as well as from Africa and other (to me) strange places. As a matter of fact, I’m not at all sure that Ankles in Asia, though it sounds worryingly now like a rare disease, is not in fact a virtue. Let a thousand professors dream of butterfly kisses with a thousand feisty young neighbour girls. And please do try us again with wonderful tales of African village life and politics.
25. Clumsiness. Proliferation of unnecessary commas. Awkward mis-edited clauses, unintentional rhymes, pedestrian, dull prose, infantile expressions, over formality ("Mr Smith had a reputation as bit of a disciplinarian. Miss Elma Furblong often thought that, while thinking about what to get to ease the hunger pangs in her tummy.") Stuffiness generally. Let's save a few more categories and add here out-of-date literary sensibilities and pretensions, the aphoristic, portentous, pompous, didactic and polemical. If I think of any more I'll most likely add them into this catch-all category.
25. Clichéd. I'm thinking mostly of clichéd expressions. If I said I'm thinking "by and large" of clichéd expressions, that would be an example in itself. It's usually little clumps of words that always seem to go together, but also whole concepts that go unquestioned. Cities are always bustling, sunsets always golden, looks always stern etc. The Irish poet Jean O'Brien said (in a workshop I attended) "Beware of the bits that seem to write themselves." In avoiding clichés it is the underlying assumptions that have to be dispelled. A "translated cliché" would still be a cliché.
26. Unspeakable. "Actors call some lines pills to swallow, for they cannot be made to sound genuine" is an example of this syndrome. Maybe it's just me, but I find the use of the word "for" instead of "because" archaic and laboured. I tend to think that if I wouldn't use the word in speech then I shouldn't in writing. I wouldn't say "I think it's very cold today for the pond is frozen" so why write it? Anything that would sound laboured if read out has to go. You probably recognise the dismal effect when somebody says something and "it sounds like they're reading it out". If I write: "The solution to this problem is to read everything aloud first" that in itself contains an example of the problem. If I read out that sentence, it sounds like I'm reading it out. Maybe it's acceptable in an after-dinner speech, but it's death to a story. It breaks the spell. (How might it be improved, the injunction to read aloud? How could it be phrased better? It just doesn't sound right, maybe this way would work: "A good way to find parts that sound clunky is to read things aloud, as part of your editing and rewriting.")
27. Pastiche. There can be cases where the whole story is a cliché, if you see what I mean, which is usually to say that it is derivative in the extreme. It might be deliberately writing to a formula, or it might be lacking a genuine "voice". I'm very impressed by people who can emulate other writers to a tee, which can be brilliant, but I find it difficult enough just "to write like myself". Here's a little story: When I was a kid I used to sing myself to sleep at night. One Sunday I went to see The Jolson Story, and I think I saw parts 1 and 2 on successive Sundays, in fact, at the Casino cinema in Finglas (Dublin). I remember that night or one of those nights when I began to sing in bed - something like "California, here I come" it would have been - and trying to sound like Al Jolson. After a while I asked my Grandad, who slept on the other side of the room, if he liked my new voice. I always remember his answer and I thought about it a lot. He said, "I prefer your own voice."
In summary, when there are hundreds of entries to a short story competition, only a story that is near as dammit technically flawless has a chance of reaching the shortlist. As you know, there are still more qualities beyond technical perfection that are required. In a world class orchestra every musician is technically perfect, leaving them free to work on interpretation and expressivity. With stories I suppose it's subtle resonances and other quasi-poetic elements in the layering of words, a sense of adventure, newness etc - another list to think about for another day.
I've just added another three categories of fault, a couple of days after posting the first draft of this, and a list of books* stopping short of literary theory, philosophy of language and suchlike. In the Willesden short story competition we’re not asking for high philosophy – dead henry might be, I can’t really say, though he has been compared with Baudrillard – but we are looking for something technically perfect, original, vivid and compelling in serious or humorous non-generic stories. Exactly how or why these come into existence may always remain a mystery but they do.