For The Literary Maneuvers Contest
Hi, I'm George and I'm not really your uncle. I especially apologize to anyone who actually has a strange uncle named George and thought they were going to get a message from him.
I've noticed a lot of new people joining the comp and the Coffee Shop thread, so figured I'd give my thoughts on the subject. I've been around forever, and read most of the entry and score threads multiple times. All of them at least once. I've judged the contest eight times and probably entered it twice that many times. Only one of my stories failed to place in the final ranks and I've won four times, so I've done OK.
Here, in short and sweet terms (for me), are my tips:
Know your judges. One of the best reasons to enter the contest is to challenge yourself, receive four honest critiques, and possibly vie for a prize. Those critiques, and the scores for the prize contest, are objective but not entirely unknowable. Because those judges will be four of your fellow forum members, whose opinions and preferences are all over the forum. Many of us are repeat judges and our critiques and scores are available to be perused in the archives. Our own fiction and critiques are around for the finding. Find out what your judges like as a way to narrow the prompt ideas. If three of the four profess a taste for science fiction and the third seems neutral, you might consider going for a science fictional idea, especially if you had an idea for one along with other good ideas. This is not a guarantee, but it's helpful in deciding what to write. Which starts with:
Structure. Most judges are going to appreciate when a story has a distinctive beginning, middle and end, since many approach the 650 as an opportunity to do character vignettes rather than plot. But even your character vignette will read better and more like a stand-alone story if it's structured. Once again, this is just my opinion, and a sort of description of how I approach the contest. I've seen some excellent character vignettes here, and seen some of them win. Know your judges, once again. But structure is also a way to take a vague idea to actual scenic narrative, since you can allocate word-count to any number of scenes.
A word on 'nothing' happened.' I've seen this phrase over-used a lot in the LM and in critique of short-count flash fiction in general. Sometimes it's earned: as when a story simply seems to open at a point, continue on with some observations, and end at another point, like a scene without a story. But I've also seen it unfairly used for pieces where not much of physical consequence happened, but a great deal of emotional or character territory was unveiled. Don't be afraid to be experimental, but try to make the goal of 'experimental' into finding something 'odd, but good' rather than just 'odd.'
Use the prompt. I'm hugely against the 'prompt must be used in a strict nature' idea. The prompt should be inspiration or grounding, as the case may be. Clever use of it will please most judges, and stories that seem built around the prompt (thematically, structurally) seem to as well.
Do not write in a single solid block of text. Just, please, don't. And do try and make your entry as spelling/grammar sound as you can. I'm one of the more lenient of the SPaG judges, but repeated typos and missing words will eventually get me to mark down. Almost everyone else is more hardcore than this, so be warned! DOOOOOM! I mean, good luck.
Humor helps. This is actually something I've noticed re-reading the scores threads recently: entries that contain humor seem to get a boost in their scores (effect, usually) especially when the prompt is one that inspires a lot of dark and downbeat entries. I report, you decide if I'm imagining things.
Closure. This is related to structure but (remember, IMO) it's so important that it deserves it's own tip. I like to feel as if a story finished, and I've been given a complete moment of human experience. A strong and decisive ending (one that connotes finality, not one that gives all questions answers) makes a story feel complete. One of the simplest ways to do this is to reflect some quality of your beginning in your ending. This sounds like a gimmick, and could be certainly used as one -- but it has subtler and more thoughtful uses. If this is chosen as the end of that moment, then certainly there is some reason you chose what to depict at the beginning of that moment? A linking draws boundaries around the moment. This could be obvious, such as beginning with the observation that the MC hates red clouds, and ending with those clouds scudding in from the west as he lies dead in a bathtub. It could be subtle -- a hint of similar behavior in two different characters at beginning and end.
Glad to see the new faces, hope for a good turnout, and hope to have my own entry saved from the polishing demon before the deadline!
Best of luck!