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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Subject Matters
by Jane Seaman

When it comes to articles about producing short stories for competitions, writers are spoiled for choice, with numerous publications and Internet sites producing informative features on plotting your short story, effective use of dialogue, and convincing characterization. Good structure and pacing, how to lay out your manuscript and professional presentation are all covered. Even issues such as inspiration and how to combat so-called writerís block.

But one ingredient is missing from the mix. What themes do you intend to explore in your story? Do you have a burning desire to tackle issues that are gritty and challenging, brave and controversial? Perhaps you prefer to stick to a theme that is likely to be universally recognized by your potential reader (which doesnít mean it isnít any of the above). How are you going to treat your subject? Do you feel more comfortable keeping the status quo or would you be happier rocking it? And if you are sending it off to a competition does the subject really matter?

It has been said before (many times) but it is worth repeating - when you are considering entering a writing competition, study the rules. Really study them. Not just the obvious things like word count and closing date. If itís an open competition, with no genre specified, then try to read winning entries from previous years, if the organizers publish an anthology. Although the judges may change each year, the initial shortlist is often compiled by the competition administrator so it will give you some idea of the kind of themes that were previously successful. You may be able to identify a common thread. For instance, do they all have a positive (not necessarily happy) ending? Do they explore universal themes (such as the consequences of love, hate, jealousy, loss, greed, etc - all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster). Do they employ humor? Are the characters conventional or quirky? Do they swear? Do they have sex?

Some competition organizers helpfully include not only the names of the judges, but also mini profiles. Becoming familiar with their work (if they are writers - which is not always the case) can give an insight into the way they think, and the kind of issues they like to explore. Although I risk making a sweeping generalization at this point, writers do tend to write about the kind of things they also like to read. Not all the time, perhaps. But being aware of this might have a bearing on your subsequent short story. (However, this does not mean that you try to clone the judgeís writing style.)

Who are the organizers of the competition? That should also be taken into account when you decide what to write about and how you treat your subject. For instance, if itís a small competition organized by an animal charity to write uplifting tales about family pets, then a gore fest about a man-eating Rottweiler would be inappropriate!

On the whole, death in various forms (particularly criminal) continues to be a popular subject. A high proportion of us are morbidly fascinated by the subject - or is it writers in particular? (Perhaps thatís an interesting subject for another feature).

The advantage of competition guidelines is the fact that you are given clues and signposting about what is likely to be acceptable. Competition judges sometimes complain about repeatedly seeing tired, over-used story lines. For instance, the main character turns out to be a ghost or the narrator is really a dog, or a down-trodden woman leaves her boring/cheating husband or an evil murderer finally gets his come-upppance. This doesnít mean you should avoid them completely - after all, part of the fun of being a writer is finding new ways of treating familiar themes, injecting an unexpected twist into a clichťd situation. But I am often struck by the dearth of sad and gloomy subject matter that pervades many prize-winning stories.

 Last year, I was asked to review a magazine that included the prize-winning entries from a recent short story competition. In this case, the magazineís readers were invited to decide the final order by sending in marks out of ten. All three winners were well written but depressing (subjects included failed relationships, madness, loss and suicide). I hasten to add that in my view they were depressing and had I been judging, this would have affected my selection. Clearly the readers who voted them winners would not have agreed with me. Which leads to the issue of subjectivity.

The part that subjectivity plays in judging writing competitions is often overlooked and rarely acknowledged. Even where the accepted genres are stated, writing about certain subjects will not do you any favors. Some subjects are perhaps generally accepted as taboos, for instance stories that incite racial hatred or describe gratuitous acts of sadistic violence, but in addition judges will have their own particular dislikes, subjects that they find revolting or distasteful, or situations that strike a very personal chord. Thatís because weíre all subjective - itís part and parcel of being human. So if you write a story glamorizing a burglar and the person judging has just had their house ransacked, your theme may not be well received. You should also bear in mind that some competitions produce anthologies of shortlisted work to go on sale to the general public. Understandably, they will not wish to offend or alienate sections of the community.

Having judged competitions, Iím aware of the importance of not allowing subjectivity to cloud recognition of good writing. Even so, when encountering a couple of stories so unpleasant as to give genuine concern about the authorís psychological state, it is hard to be completely objective. I wouldnít generally choose to read tales of excessive and pointless violence towards humans or other animals, with liberal helpings of gore.

But it isnít just the subject that might reduce your chances of success- the way you treat that subject, the moral stance you take will also impact. I hesitate to use the word censorship at this point. Although subjects such as cannibalism can leave a bad taste in the mouth, one competition I judged included an entry, set in a fantasy romance context, in which this theme was implied rather than stated, and was so neatly executed and well written it was awarded joint first prize.

So perhaps an outstanding writer can overcome our subjectivity and prejudices. And what judges look for above all is a well written story with that extra something, that mysterious quality that makes it stand out from the rest.

Although fiction is just that (i.e., made up, not real) stories are often penalized for being unrealistic. I have always had difficulty with this concept. However, I am aware that the generally accepted view of a piece of fiction is that "pretend" characters in a "pretend" situation should be presented within a construct of "reality". And in order to pull off this trick and pull in the reader, we are told to write, wherever possible, from personal experience. Again, this is a subjective process. I have known of stories criticized by judges for being unrealistic when they were based on actual events, on situations that the writer may have witnessed or experienced. But if the reader cannot relate to the story or characters, then it is unlikely to engage her/him. What is unbelievable to one reader may be perfectly acceptable to another, depending on their own life experience and attitudes, which is, after all, what shapes our personalities, outlooks and values. For this reason, you may find that a story doesnít make the shortlist for one competition but wins a prize in another.

If you want to succeed in short story competitions, you should acknowledge the role that subjectivity plays in the decision making process. If you want to win, be aware of this and use your common sense about the choice and treatment of your subject. And if you donít want to self-censor what others may find difficult to deal with, if you donít want to compromise your integrity, then donít play the game - send your work elsewhere. Outside the competition arena, the rules may differ but whether you are submitting work to an editor, agent or publisher - in fact any other human being - their life experience will affect the way they receive your work. Unless someone comes up with a computer program that can replace the work of judges and editors...........

Jane was born in 1962 and had her first short story published at age 14. She enjoys writing articles, fiction and, sometimes, poetry.  In addition,  Jane also teaches in a college.









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