WOTF Tips and Tricks (What I learned from analyzing other people’s stories by their results)

I submitted to the Writers of the Future contest a total of five times.

Vol. 33: Q3 – R; Q4 – R (rewrite of previous submission)

Vol. 34: Q1 – R (new story); Q2Second Place (rewrite of submission from vol. 33, q’s 1&2); Q3 – HM (accidentally submitted under a different name arrangement so it didn’t get pulled after I won)

Well, after receiving two rejections on a story I thought very promising, and then yet another rejection on a new story I thought promising, I decided I needed to do a study. I have a background in sociological research and analysis so of course I fell back on qualitative research. I requested other submitter’s Q1 stories along with their results and why they thought they received that result. In return, they got critiques on their stories with no commitment to return the favor (though many offered to anyway… thank you!)

I critiqued 3 rejections, 1 honorable mention, 2 silver honorable mentions, and 1 semi-finalist. Of course, that’s not nearly a large enough test group to make any kind of sweeping conclusions, but… I’m going to anyway. Here are my conclusions.

*Disclaimer: This is me guessing what Dave wants from a story and how he decides to rank stories. I very much doubt that I’m guessing everything correctly. Please do not take this as Gospel!*

Rejections

Most likely, these stories’ intros failed. Reasons vary widely. As far as I can tell, Dave looks for these things in the beginning of every story.

     The first 450 words should:

– Provide a hook.

– At least mention the story’s original concept(s) and speculative element(s).

– Identify or at least imply one major conflict central to the story.

– Orient the reader in a specific setting/world. (Description!)

– Orient the reader in a specific scene. (Sensory Detail!)

– Set the tone and point of view of the story.

 The first 1000 words should:

– Expand on the story’s originality. (Don’t be stingy with plot-relevant details but beware of irrelevant world-building or commentary.)

– Identify/Clarify the external, internal, physical conflicts (or at least one).

– Prime the readers’ expectations (make promises) for genre, tone, POV, and the discoveries they will make during the course of the story.

– Identify the characters’ desires/wants/goals and essential character traits (especially the main character).

– Introduce or establish the instigating event (“inciting incident”) that launches the rest of the story.

For more information, check out Dave’s article on immediate rejections. There’s a continuation of this article, titled “A Few Common Problems with a Story’s Opening, Part 1” and “A Few More Ways to Get a Quick Rejection,” but I wasn’t able to find the articles on his blog.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions encompass a much wider scope of flaws. It was likely strong on originality in the intro but failed to deliver on another significant point, such as immersing readers with strong descriptions and sensory detail, adequately resolving the conflicts, maintaining originality, poor writing technique, etc…

Dave wrote this article on Honorable Mentions.

On his blog, he also has a series of articles titled “The Perfect Story…” on all of the following points:

Balance (balancing the intro/backstory, middle, climax, and resolution and the conflicts of a story).

Content (delivering a story that influences readers. Also see his articles on Profundity and Surprise).

Economy (making every scene, description, sentence, and word matter).

Engrossing the Reader (using description and sensory details to engage readers).

Escalate (creating a sense of rising action to keep readers engaged).

Flow (pacing the reveal of information to maintain tension and logic).

Guidance (using sensory detail, specific details, and logical descriptions to guide the reader’s attention).

Promise (setting up the reader’s expectations and fulfilling them).

Weakness in several categories would result in an HM.

Silver Honorable Mentions

As far as I can tell, this is similar to HM but had fewer flaws than a story that receives an honorable mention.

Semi-Finalist

I was only able to read one SF so I can’t be very precise here. I think most SF have one major weakness (but nothing that has to do with the plot so most commonly a weakness in description and use of sensory detail or perhaps an unsatisfactory resolution) or a combination of minor weaknesses (e.g. not very profound content as well a few awkward passages and overlong descriptions).

Finalist

Strong intro, contains original concepts and/or plot elements, and meets Dave’s “A Perfect Story” list adequately.

Conclusion

I performed this analysis after I’d already rewritten and submitted my Q2 winner. You could say it was a way to keep myself occupied while the results came out. However, I’d already determined much of the above before I ran this analysis. Mostly, I wanted to confirm what I’d learned to be true. Well, my two-time rejection story turned into a Second Place winner. I certainly can’t take all the credit though. It was after a very rigorous round through Critters that many of the failures of my story were pointed out to me. That’s when I started suspecting the above points and realized how often my story contradicted Dave’s own suggestions.

In short, the things I learned don’t just apply to a single story or a single competition. The points I make above apply to storycraft in its broadest sense, and until I can apply the above principles with expertness, I can’t know the best ways to bend and break these rules. I must know the rules first before I know how to best break them.

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