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Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition: Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition

Today, as part of our Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition series, Short Short Story Competition judges Debby Mayne and Michael Vaughn discuss common mistakes and crafting compelling short fiction.

Meet the Judges:

Debby Mayne has written and published more than 50 books and novellas through traditional publishers and on her own. She has been a product information writer for the Home Shopping Network, the managing editor of a nationally distributed health publication, and creative writing instructor for the Long Ridge Writers Group.

Michael Vaughn is the author of seventeen novels, including Mascot and The Popcorn Girl. He’s also a poet with more than a hundred poems in literary journals and working on his third collection. He has worked for Writer's Digest for ten years as a contributing writer and competitions judge. In addition, he is an enthusiastic musician, working as a singer (Sinatra a specialty) and a drummer, for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland.

What are you looking for in a submission?

Debby: I'm looking for a compelling story. I want the opening sentence to pull me in and for everything to make sense, unless there is a strong reason for it not to.

Michael: Direct, active language that sends the reader immediately into a situation. I often find entries that include the kind of backstory details that might be more suited to a novel. Take a flyer! Trust your reader to follow your narrative, and perhaps even create a little mystery by leaving details out.

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

Debby: A submission that opens with a hook, has very few (if any) errors, and well-motivated characters stands out for me.

Michael: Crafted prose that reads easily, almost as if the writer is speaking to the reader, spiced by occasional flights of poetry. Immediately interesting characters who possess the feel of authentic humanity.

What are the unique challenges of short short stories

Debby: Writing a short short piece is challenging because it's difficult to have a beginning, a middle, and an end in such a small amount of space—all things that are required for a complete story.

Michael: Getting to the point, right away, and attempting to convey the arc of a classic storyline without the benefit of length. Also, self-editing with the idea of cutting out all excess.

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

Debby: Some of the mistakes I see include using a font that is difficult to read or a confusing stream-of-consciousness story that is difficult to follow without having to go back and read it several times. Most readers aren't patient because there are so many other things vying for attention. I also get frustrated when a story shows promise, but the ending leaves me hanging. It makes me feel cheated. The ending doesn't have to be a happy one, but I want closure at the end of every story.

Michael: The most common mistake is writers who behave as if they are writing the first chapter of an epic novel: overdone and unnecessary details, lengthy backstories, excessive descriptions of gesture and tone of voice in dialogues.

What tips and techniques can you offer to entrants?

Debby: Characters don't have to be likable, but they must be well rounded, compelling, and relatable on some level. Remember that protagonists can't be perfect, and villains can't be all bad.

After writing the first draft, go back and fix obvious errors, find places to tighten, and look for opportunities to make readers care about the characters. Have another pair of eyes look over it (a friend who can and will be brutally honest), and make any changes you agree with. Then put it aside again before doing a final read-through.

Michael: Jump right in to the action, almost like a movie scene that you're viewing halfway in. Take a flight, and don't immediately explain yourself. Get the reader's curiosity activated, and involve them in the process. This is why many smart people like mysteries. They get to participate, interpret, and solve puzzles. The best way to resolve what's going on in the story is by bits and pieces, which gives the reader a trail of breadcrumbs to get them to the resolution.

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

Debby: There are very few competitions for people who write short fiction with the opportunity to win such valuable prizes.

Michael: As a devoted minimalist, I think the short-short (and especially flash fiction) challenges the writer to strip down their narrative to the bare essentials. It's almost like going on a survival mission, and learning how to get by on very little. It teaches one to be fierce when it comes to self-editing.

Enter the 2015 Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition Now

Want to see how your story stacks up against other writers? Want to gain recognition for your great work? Enter the 2015 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition now for a chance to win cash prizes and more. Deadline: January 15, 2016!


For more information and how to submit, check out

Chelsea Henshey is an Associate Editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writer’s Market series. Follow her on twitter @ChelseaLHenshey.

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