Short Story Collection Contests, Part II: Submission Pitfalls and Tips

Posted on 13 May 2014

Yesterday, I described my process for reading and evaluating dozens of manuscripts for a short story collection contest. Today, I’ll share some of the common problems I saw in the submissions as well as some tips aimed to help writers submit the strongest collections possible.

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. Here are some of the most common pitfalls I noticed in contest submissions:

One of the Crowd: The writing was competent (or even impressive) on the sentence level, but the stories were slow, predictable, or uninspired. Even if the stories were proficient, if there was no spark – nothing that excited me, made me want to keep reading, or set the collection apart from others – that collection didn’t stand a chance against the other submissions.

(Un)happy Endings: The writing and stories were interesting and well-written, but they ended poorly. Most often, the stories would conclude very abruptly or just trail off, creating the sensation that they had no endings at all. Other endings were predictable or sentimental. Either way, a weak ending ruined any effect the story might have otherwise achieved.

Highs and Lows: The collection was uneven. In addition to several stellar stories, the collection also contained stories that were dull, predictable, slow, or flawed. No matter how wonderful the strong stories might be, the weaker ones detracted from the collection as a whole.

Most of the submissions I received were really well written. Beautiful writing, however, isn’t enough to make a standout short story collection. If you’re putting together a collection, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do my stories end strongly and leave the reader with a lasting impression?
  • Do all of these stories belong in this manuscript, and if not, am I willing to hold off on submitting until the entire collection is as strong as it could be?
  • What about this collection might excite or inspire readers? What sets it apart from others?

In addition to these big-picture craft issues, some additional, nuts-and-bolts issues cropped up in my batch of submissions. Here are some tips for when you’re compiling your own contest entry:

Make sure you are submitting work appropriate for the contest. I know this one should be obvious, but I received several submissions that did not meet the parameters of the contest. Several writers, for example, submitted novels instead of story collections. (The first time I came across a novel, I was so surprised that I actually stopped and double checked the contest’s rules.) I did look at these novels – I wanted to give everything a chance and didn’t toss anything aside unread – but they did not make it into the “yes” pile. Even if they had, they probably would have been disqualified. I also received some essay collections (nonfiction) or hybrid collections of multiple genres that also didn’t qualify as short story collections.

Please note that there is a difference between a novel and a linked story collection. I received many linked collections, some of which were very strong and ended up among my final selections. I understand that some manuscripts might blur the lines between linked stories and novels, but the submissions I received were very easy to figure out: either they were story collections, or they weren’t. It was clear that the novels were submitted by writers who didn’t fully grasp the type of contest they were entering.

Adhere to the page length expectations for short story collections – and if you deviate from those expectations, make sure you have a good reason. Most story collections generally came in around 150-225 manuscript pages. I received one, however, that topped 400 pages, and another, very short collection that consisted entirely of single-page flash stories. Now, I recognize that there could exist an unpublished 400-page story collection of great genius just waiting for someone to overlook the page count and take a risk, just as there are surely readers who’d fall in love with that very short flash collection. But be aware that if you submit something that doesn’t meet the traditional expectations of what a story collection looks like, you start out at a disadvantage unless your work is so special/strong/compelling that it makes a case for itself. Unfortunately, none of the outliers in my submission batch gave me a convincing reason to move them into the “yes” pile.

Follow standard format guidelines and don’t use decorative clip art/images/graphics of any kind. I only saw the clip-art issue a few times, but it was always memorable if only because it left such an unprofessional impression. Of course, if one of your stories makes use of graphs or charts that are integral to the work, then fine. But putting clip art on your cover page or on the first page of each story doesn’t work in your favor. In general, you can’t go wrong with using a 12-point font like Times New Roman or Garamond, double spacing, etc. And please don’t forget page numbers.

Check and double check your table of contents before submitting. I saw quite a lot of table of content pages that were off – either by a few pages per story or, in some cases, by many dozens of pages. This didn’t prevent me from reading and enjoying a collection, but it was a bit of an inconvenience. I do use the table of contents to orient myself, skip ahead, return to another story, etc. It helps when they’re accurate.

Pay careful attention to story order. Remember, I started by reading the first story and then the final story. There’s no guarantee that’s how your collection will be read, but I do believe it’s a fairly common practice. In any case, you’ll want to start strong, and you also want your final story to leave the reader with a lasting impression. I suggest putting your strongest story first, your next-strongest story last, and then your third-strongest story second. I understand that your “best” stories are subjective (everything here is subjective), but surely you have an idea of which stories might be your best. And please don’t place one of your weaker stories second in the collection. Several times, I read a strong first story only to feel let down when it was followed by a weak second story. Even if the collection picks up again later, that sour taste lingered from the questionable second story. (The best advice, of course, is to slave over your collection until you don’t have any weak stories in the collection. Easier said than done, I know.)

When I finally finished reading and packed up the manuscripts (mostly to prevent Cirrus from trying to eat their rubber bands), I was left with a solid list of finalists and a better understanding of how these contests work. And while I can’t speak for all contest readers, I can say that when I stepped into this role, I tried really, really hard: to be fair, to be attentive, and to treat the work as I’d want mine to be treated. But I also saw that no contest can be truly fair or objective or correct. Every reader and every judge brings his or her own tastes and passions to the table. All we can do is hope that our work, once it’s developed and strong enough, hits just the right person at just the right time.

Are you entering contests? Why or why not?

3 responses to Short Story Collection Contests, Part II: Submission Pitfalls and Tips

  • I have a question about font. Maybe from your perspective as an evaluator you can offer an insight. My question is this: if the contest processes entries electronically, and if this means that one’s manuscript is being read from a screen, should one format the manuscript in a screen-friendly sans serif font, such as Verdana, or stick with the industry standard Times New Roman and the professionalism is implies, even though it is harder to read on a screen?

    When I asked this question of a contest manager at AWP, he said to stick with Times New Roman. He said that sans serif fonts imply amateurism even though they are more readable onscreen,

    • I say stick with something standard like Times New Roman. First, you never really know how your entry will be read. For example, the entries I read were submitted electronically but then printed and sent to me. (I did read a few electronically, as PDFs, but most were hard copies.)

      I read almost all submissions for Mid-American Review electronically, and I still prefer the traditional serif fonts. When standard manuscript formatting comes into play (double spacing, etc.), the serif fonts aren’t hard to read. That’s my experience, anyway. I do think sans serif fonts look less professional for manuscripts.

      Whether I’m reading for Mid-American Review or a contest like this one, the font of course won’t be the deal breaker. But there is something to say for looking professional — and I’m just not convinced the sans serif fonts look as professional in manuscript form.

      Good question!

  • Rachel says:

    Very thoughtful two-part blog. Thanks, Laura.

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