This year we were thrilled to see some truly exceptional work. Out of hundreds of submissions we saw a pretty wide array of stories and styles from students across the country. We asked the editors and readers who reviewed stories to discuss some of the areas they felt stories could improve, and while the majority of the work was highly publishable, there were some elements worth mentioning. Here is what they said.
You’ve heard this one before and it falls under the “all you have to do is follow directions” spiel. If you’re submitting to a journal with a New York Times bestselling author as judge, it stands to reason your narrative would have to be pretty damn impressive to pass along if your work is riddled with punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors. Mistakes happen all the time and a missed plural here and there is no big deal, however, the cleanliness of your work is a testament to how much time you’ve spent with your story, and editors don’t want to feel like they’re reading a first draft. Trust me, we can tell.
Also, and because it must be said, please follow directions.
Point of View
We saw a lot of second-person narratives this year. Second person can be a difficult POV to do well and there were some truly excellent stories that were written from this perspective. However, most of the second-person narratives we saw weren’t flushed through or working properly. In a contest, you want to set yourself up to be successful. Because second-person is a challenge, you probably aren’t achieving it as well as you need to be (or think you are). It’s a great way to practice and push yourself as a writer, but unless it’s shining glimmering perfection, you might want to think again. If you’ve got a good first or third-person narrative you’ve been workshopping, we’d really like to see that. Shoot, our submissions are free. Send us both.
If there’s anything that convinces me we all share the same set of experiences just seen through different eyes, it’s reading submissions. Studying abroad, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, feeling out of place in a new environment, struggling to fit in, the list goes on. As unique as you think you’re being, you’re not. But that doesn’t mean your story’s not worth telling! Find a way to make your story unique. Find a way to make the reader care. The simple ebb and flow of your plot usually isn’t enough to draw the reader in and make them feel like what happens to the protagonist really matters. To me, this is the biggest divide between good writers and really great writers. A great writer can put together a piece about sitting down to breakfast and will make it feel profound — probably because what’s happening beneath the Cheerios and coffee is something profound! By a novice writer, it will feel like another lack-luster breakfast. Think about what you’re trying to say. Think about what your story means to you. Then, make the reader feel it too. It’s the hardest thing in the world to achieve but I saw it time and time again in some of the stories we passed on this year. The story doesn’t matter. Nothing is happening. I want to care. Make me!
A good narrative nonfiction piece conveys a real event but through a voice that feels like a fictional narrative. Most of the nonfiction we read didn’t speak to a bigger issue or picture. It was mostly a small glimpse into the life of the writer. While this is fine if done well, I was craving stories that used a single event as a microcosm for a bigger argument. Similarly, I would have loved to have seen a piece of narrative nonfiction that wasn’t about the writer himself. A research piece, a political commentary, or a historical essay about a hometown; each of these can strike home just as powerfully as a writer’s personal journey abroad or through a hard time in his life, for example. My feeling is, some creative nonfiction with some powerful research elements would have really shown through the submission numbers. I don’t think we saw a single one.
The 6,999 Word Submission
Our word count limit was 7,000 words. We saw an enormous number of pieces just below 7k and just above 6900 words. I’m not saying your work didn’t truly come in under the word limit. But there were times where the trimming felt forced. Do the contest justice and submit a piece that stands up to the word count. If it’s an excerpt or part of a larger string of short stories, that’s great. But try to send us something that feels like it stands on its own. There’s just something irksome about a 6,999 word submission. Call me the devil, but there just is.
I want to end by saying I was overall truly impressed with the caliber of work and the creativity in the stories this year. I felt like writers were taking chances, jumping off cliffs, baring their souls. It was wonderfully refreshing and I applaud everyone who submitted. I hope writers who submitted and who are reading the above can take the feedback graciously. For the most part, we saw some damn fine short stories. The process of submitting and waiting and then hearing back is daunting for authors at every level. I want to thank each and every one of you for the work you put into your submissions this year and for providing me and the staff at The Masters Review the opportunity to read them. There are so many of you I want to shake and kiss and buy brunch for and whose pet’s birthday parties I’d like to attend. I am rooting for you. Keep writing. Please, please, keep writing.
By. Kim Winternheimer, Fiction Editor.