We received an incredible number of submissions for our Winter Short Story Award judged by Aimee Bender, and the shortlist decision was tough. So many excellent stories we couldn’t nominate! Editors Cole and Melissa discuss the strengths of the stories on the shortlist, where others fell just short, and common trends we see in successful (and unsuccessful) submissions.
If your conflict is based on characters withholding information from one another— unless you have an extremely good reason for it— I’m bored.
Cole Meyer: The shortlist is out and the stories are with Aimee Bender. I do not envy the decision she has to make! I was truly blown away with the quality of stories submitted for this contest; it felt like an impossible task narrowing our selection down to just ten.
Each story on the shortlist is unique in its own way, too. While in our last Notes from the Slush, we noted that there were a number of non-traditional POV pieces that made their way to the top, it seems like the pendulum swung in the opposite direction this time. There were a few pieces that I’d characterize as “non-traditional” narratives, but largely the stories that stood out again and again were narratives I would consider more traditional. It’s fascinating how trends like that emerge. I’d say all but one of the stories on our shortlist fit that “traditional” mold. But where they stand out and separate themselves from the rest is in their well-crafted characters, or the skill of the author who takes on this “traditional” story to make something wholly unique and surprising and powerful. Did you feel the same way as you were reading through our selections?
Melissa Hinshaw: The challenging part with an open Short Story competition is that range of stories you get coming in. If it were, say, a magical realism story competition, or a horror story competition, or themed in some way like that, we’d be narrowed in the scope of what we’re looking for and paying attention to. Instead, I feel like we get such a variety of types of stories, and when I’m reading them, I try to pick the “best of” in each type/or category I see—even if there are several very good stories in each sort of unofficial genre that presents itself. There were a few really great stories from other countries in other political climates; there’s always a couple of exceptionally well done quiet, small-town-America stories; always a few touching on big life schisms like miscarriage or disease. So what happens is these come in and I feel we’re always deciding whether the technical skill of one story outweighs the uniqueness of another, no matter what the “category.” For example, the miscarriage story (is that politically correct to say?) that rose above the many we saw involved a character caretaking for an elderly gentleman who asked her to help end his life. And that could be very melodramatic, of course, except this piece is done with a light touch and great psychic distance and you end up having to triangulate the ideas of life and death in a different way than you do when you read other life and death stories. So I think that’s what you’re talking about, right? Because our writers are readers as well, and they’re out there reading all these “traditional” or archetypal stories, and they are getting to decide (however consciously) whether they are replicating that tradition or transforming it somehow. And the ones that manage to transform it somehow get our attention, for sure. I was sort of hoping that having Aimee Bender judge would bring in some weird stuff—and it definitely did. There was one about a holly bush with gender dysphoria that didn’t make it to final rounds, but how are you going to forget that?
CM: Exactly. I thought it was interesting that we had two stories on our longlist with very similar plot beats, although the writing style and perspectives were quite different. To echo some advice I was given by a creative writing professor in college: Make your story stand out. I’m going to go more into depth on this in on an upcoming post about smart submitting, but consider ways to separate your story from the rest. Give us something new and interesting! Think of how many stories you’ve read which start with the protagonist waking up in the morning, how many stories are titled with a singular, vague word like “Happy”. We’re more likely to return to stories that stick in our heads, like the one you mentioned about the holly bush, but they still need to work on a craft level, too. There were some weird magical realism stories that I loved— a piece about school children morphing into bugs, for example—but they weren’t full realized. And I want to reiterate something our founding editor Kim said in a recent interview with The Writer: Submitters don’t know how close they get sometimes. There were more than a handful of stories we seriously discussed that just missed the cut, and I sincerely hope we see more work from those writers in the future.
Were there other reasons we passed on stories for this round?
MH: There are so many that I’m like, extremely impressed with, and which stand out far above the majority of submissions —but by the time we’re talking about the final 40 stories, it’s very easy to be like “Oh no, cut that one,” “Oh never mind,” or “Nope,” to a handful within that last grouping. I bet you could plot it out mathematically on a curve or something: all these middle-of-the-road stories and then all of a sudden a few great ones and then WHOOSH! One or two or three that are way up there, very exceptional. This is where what you’re talking about with a new, interesting, unique, bizarre, or esoteric element comes in handy. Those are the ones that it breaks our hearts to let go of, and we actively search out excuses to try and keep them in the running. You know? “Well, there’s 28 spelling errors on the first page and all the characters are flat and does it even really have a story arc?” “But Cole, there’s BUGS in it!!!” That kind of thing. But this is also where we let go of stories that are very, very good, have very compelling voices, because we don’t remember them even if we’ve read them four times or we confuse it with three other stories from the finalist pile or like, it’s the greatest, cleanest narrative style we’ve ever read, but it’s a vignette, not a story. I’ve been particularly pushy about this this year, but I want to see characters actually face and work through their conflict. There are a good number of stories I remember cutting because they ended at that moment right before something big happens—and I get that, as a writer, one hundred percent! That’s the moment where there’s all this great tension and you feel so much and you don’t wanna mess with it. But guess what? You have to. Because that’s how story happens. So that’s a big reason I pass on otherwise-great stories, and the next big reason is related to the step right after that: that moment of conflict. It’s very easy to be cliché in that moment of conflict, and it’s very easy to leave it like that because, well, you finally made it happen! Good job! But let the story sit for a couple of weeks, then come back and rework it so the dialogue or narration doesn’t sound exactly like every other moment of conflict in any other story. Successful moments of conflict contain the concretely-stated heart of the matter within this particular story, not an abstract commentary on how hard things are. They literally show you what’s at stake. They’re rarely actually subtle, but they also manage to feel subtle within the pace of the story.
Oh, and I have to say: I don’t know if this is just how we talk as mainly-white millennials who sort of don’t understand their life circumstances all the time but there’s been so much aggressive dialogue that doesn’t really mean anything. There this whole slew of dialogue tics that are almost verbatim to other pieces about completely different things: people refusing to give information, lots of swearing, using names indignantly. If your conflict is based on characters withholding information from one another— unless you have an extremely good reason for it— I’m bored. Just put the information in at the beginning and then the dialogue can be about something different and then your story’s different and then voilà, you stand out from the pack. I say it like it’s easy but I also know from experience how hard this is.
CM: Your last point is great. This is something I see so much: conflict that’s generated from willful withholding of information, either from the reader or from other characters within the story. It’s an easy way to create “intrigue” or tension within the story (or the semblance of these things), but it’s artificial. It’s easy for the reader to see where this “tension” breaks down, too: stick your fingers into the thin mesh of the story and it falls apart. I will say, for me, it’s more sinful when the story withholds information from the reader and either reveals it at the end in a pseudo-profound way or uses the lack of information to make things seem hectic or jarring. I find myself yelling at my computer screen, Just tell me what’s going on! A story that opens with a car accident, and all we get for 3 pages are physical descriptions: sounds, mangled metal and shattered glass, a character saying What happened? What happened? but we’re told nothing about who these characters are, or even that they were in a car accident—I see this way too much.
In fact, we’re publishing a story that opens with a car accident in a couple of weeks and it executes it perfectly (by doing exactly the opposite of what I just described).
Thanks for having this chat with me. It’s always great to wrap up our thoughts after big discussions like this!