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Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards: Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition with Science Fiction Judge Philip Athans

Today, as part of our Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition series, science fiction judge Philip Athans discusses how important first sentences are, what makes a good short story and more.

NOTE: The deadline for the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards has been extended to October 14!Enter here!

Meet the Judge:

Philip Athans is the founding partner of Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, and the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and more than a dozen other fantasy and horror books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction and Writing Monsters. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He makes his home in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.

What do you think is unique about the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards? Why do you believe writers should submit?

Writing can feel like a solitary pursuit, but the point of written language is to convey ideas to other people. Until you start putting your work—putting yourself—“out there” you aren’t really writing.

The reality of the publishing business, and this contest is no different, is that bad news travels fast and with little or no additional information. If the editor (or judge) didn’t like your story, it comes back with essentially a form rejection. Any professional writer will have collected enough of those to wallpaper his or her office (or, preferably, bathroom). These rejections don’t tell you anything except this: Keep writing. They don’t say, “You suck.” They don’t even, necessarily, say, “This story sucks.” For a contest like this it might mean that there are exactly ten other stories that I liked a little better. And that’s all.

Thirty years or so in and around the publishing business later, I’ve picked up some experience, and dare I say it, authority, but still this whole thing remains the triumph of the subjective. I liked ten stories better. Someone else with all the same years of experience or more might like a completely different set of ten stories, yours included.

The one guarantee I can make to any aspiring author—the only guarantee, actually—is that if you don’t first finish something (a short story or a novel) then send it out into the world to sink or swim, you will remain forever unpublished. Get your work in front of people who can help it, and you, get somewhere. And know that in that thirty years I’ve rejected more short stories and novels than I could possibly count, quite possibly ten thousand or more, but never once have I rejected an author.

Get me with the next one.

What are some common mistakes entrants can avoid, either in terms of formatting or storytelling?

After my first round of working as a judge for this contest, I was inspired to write a blog post called “How Not to Open a Short Story.”

I hope everyone will get a chance to read that, however it may come across. In any venue, a short story lives or dies by its first sentence. Editors will know almost instantaneously whether or not to keep reading, so your efforts really need to focus on that all-important opening.

What are you looking for in a submission?

Because the field is so deep—there are a lot of entries—the standards can be set quite high. There’s no such thing as the “perfect” short story—creative writing by its very nature precludes that possibility—but I want you to get as close to that as you possibly can. In other words, show me you’re trying.

The science fiction short story has a long tradition that includes some of the very best works of short fiction ever written, so in some ways you’re not just competing with your fellow entrants but with the likes of Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

I want a good story, one with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. Science fiction should never be afraid of plot, but that plot should always be in service to the characters. Then show me you can write. I want to see that clever turn of phrase, that perfect metaphor, that surprising description, and that ever-elusive living dialogue. Show me this isn’t just a lark or a hobby but your life’s work.

What, in your opinion, makes a submission stand out?

If I’m still reading at the bottom of the first page you’re going to the next level, plain and simple. Short stories do not allow you the time, as a novel might (and I do mean might) allow you to set the scene, slowly unfold the plot, gradually introduce characters, and so on. Show me you can write in sentence one, back it up in paragraph one, and prove it wasn’t just luck in page one.

The deadline for the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards is
October 14! For more information and how to submit, visit

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Chelsea Henshey is an associate editor for Writer's Digest Books. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaLHenshey.

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