We’ve listed classic pieces of advice and others which are probably a bit more personal (including no references to mashed potato).
Show don’t tell – we can’t stress this point enough. For anyone who has ever been on a creative writing course, you will know that this is one of the golden rules. Neither of us is very fond of rules, and sometimes we break them, but in this case we can’t say it enough. A lot of promise in some stories was let down by the telling.
Adverbs – go easy on them. Adverbs can work if used sparingly or imaginatively. If overused, it feels like lazy writing. Stephen King covers this in great detail in his book, On Writing. We would highly recommend this for any new writers.
If you’re going to do death, make sure it’s original – we had so many deaths by cancer, beheadings, poisonings, suicides, mercy killings, funeral tales in the 2011 submissions. We know death is a part of life, and when done well these stories can be moving, funny, harrowing and compellling, but be careful not to fall into that dangerous pit of the overdone.
Opening and closing lines – think about these. You haven’t got much time to grab the reader and you haven’t got much space in which to leave a lasting impression. Make sure opening lines are eye catching. We thought about a few of our own favourite novels or short stories and their opening lines (see Our Favourite Reads page) and plucked out a few of our favourites. To us they are alluring, intriguing and coax the reader into going further.
‘In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.’
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
‘It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
‘They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.’
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.’
Bliss, Peter Carey
5. What is the premise of the story? Many stories felt like anecdotes, pub tales that prop up the bar but not sufficient commentary on the human (or animal) condition for it to have legs. Anecdotes are not a bad place to start when you’re thinking of writing a story, but you do have to develop it beyond this stage to give it greater weight. And you always want to avoid readers asking “So what?” when they reach the end. We asked this question on several occasions. For us, the more satisfying stories were those which left us feeling we had been challenged or we’d understood something new.
6. Steer clear of the sentimental – we do have a heart but we don’t like cheese. If you’re writing about a broken relationship, or a dying mother, please avoid mawkish mush.
7. Don’t make your dialogue too functional – it’s boring. Give the character an edge. Examples of weak dialogue are often when you try to expose too much detail through the spoken word. People don’t speak that way.
8. Read our guidelines – seriously. We set a word limit for a reason. We think we’re being fairly generous by allowing up to 5,000 words per story, but if you go over that, it will be immediately rejected. And if it’s under 1,000 words, the same rule applies.