It’s an exciting time in literary combat circles. Tomorrow (May 18) is the first bout of WRiTE CLUB 2015 hosted by D.L. Hammons. For the past couple of weeks, a team of slush readers whittled down the 170 submissions to just 40.
Today I’m sharing my impressions from slush reading with Tex Thompson, who was the 2013 champion. She’s also the published author of the rural fantasy series Children of the Drought.
What were your general impressions of the WC submissions?
Dan: I was amazed at the diversity of characters, settings, and writing styles that came into the slush. At least a dozen genres were represented across most of the age category spectrum (MG to adult). I’ve never done so much reading outside of my wheelhouse. I enjoy the anonymity of the pen names, too, because I knew I wouldn’t go in with any biases.
Tex: Absolutely! And I was pleased to see so much variety even within genres. When you have the luxury of reading within your own tastes, it’s easy to generalize everything else – to think that fantasy is dragons and princes, and YA is all angsty high-school drama, and thrillers are about murders and spies and sometimes murdered spies. The Write Club entries this year smashed a whole lot of stereotypes.
How did age categories and genres break down?
Dan: I’d guess that the most common age categories were YA and adult. We also had MG and new adult, though those were less prevalent. As far as genre goes, I saw a lot of fantasy, contemporary, romance, and thriller pieces, but we had all kinds of other stuff, too: memoir, mystery, even a few classified as erotica.
Tex: Some were definitely more common than others, but I was glad to see that no one genre or age category totally eclipsed the others. And again, there was a handsome variety even within those ranges: I don’t think there was a single plotline that made me roll my eyes and think “oh cheese, not this again.”
D.L. allowed up to 3 entries per writer this year. Do you think that helped any writers make the cut? Are there lessons to be learned there?
Dan: I like the new rule, even though it meant more reading for me. About half of entrants submitted multiple pieces. On the surface, it seems like that’s a no-brainer. Why not double or triple your odds of getting in. But multiple submissions could be a double-edged sword: I read in mostly alphabetical order, and if I wasn’t wowed by your first piece, I had a slight bias against the second. I wish this weren’t the case, but the reality is that with 85,000 words to read and the knowledge that I have to reject 75% of entries, I’m looking for reasons to move on.
Tex: Yeah, me too – especially if I saw that the second piece was from the same story as the first one. The multi-subs that really impressed me were the writers who submitted not just from different stories, but from wildly different genres. Speaking as something of a one-trick pony myself, that kind of breadth of talent is something I envy – and diversifying your portfolio is always a smart move.
Dan: On the other hand, if I read your first entry and liked it, I was that much more excited about the others. If I crunch the numbers, multiple-submitters made up 49.5% of the entrant pool, but represented 52.5% of my nominations. So there was an advantage to multiple subs, just not a considerable one.
Tex: Thanks, Poindexter. Way to make the rest of us look bad!
How did you go about making your selections?
Dan: I read every single entry from start to finish. The first thing I saw was the pen name, followed by age category and genre. I skimmed these, generally, and just read the piece. I categorized every entry as Yes, No, or Maybe. In the end, I was able to take everything that made the Yes or Maybe cut. Usually, my mind was nearly made up (one way or another) after the first paragraph. I wanted a hook, of course, but I really wanted something that was readable. I’m talking mostly about style and voice here, things that generally come from experience. By the end of the piece, I wanted to be interested, entertained, or otherwise affected by it.
Tex: Yeah, I was likewise more focused on the content than the labels. I read each entry, and asked myself “if this were a book, would I keep reading?” All the “yeses” went into a new folder. When I was done, I had 57 yeses, so then I read back through them and asked myself “would I be completely outraged if this entry didn’t compete?” There were a couple of heartbreakers, but I managed to whittle it down to 40. And they had better compete, or else…!
What were some common weak points of submissions?
Dan: Many entrants didn’t correctly specify ONE age category and a correct literary genre. YA/A is not an age category; it’s an indecision. These things didn’t affect my decision at all (they just annoyed me) but they could hurt an entry come voting time.
Often the prose just needed work: it came across as awkward or wordy. Some entrants had trouble with convincing dialogue, a problem I know too well. Adverbs and cliches were another common issue. Occasionally I’d see a piece with typos and grammar or punctuation issues. That didn’t happen a lot but it really hurt a piece’s chances.
Beyond the prose level, one of the biggest challenges was making the 500 words stand on their own. A lot of submissions were clearly excerpts from longer works, and I often didn’t have the context to know or care what was going on. There were also some well-written pieces where nothing really happened. Those were the hardest to turn down.
Tex: Amen! 500 words is not a lot. You have room to do one thing exceptionally well. You can establish a mystery, develop a character, set up a conflict, or any number of things – but nine times out of ten, that has to be your exclusive focus. Most of the entries that fell flat for me either had too much going on (too many characters, conflicts, confusion), or else not enough for me to wonder about. In a very small canvas like this one, the traditional high-stakes attention-grabbers don’t work as well: it’s not enough to have a body drop from the ceiling or somebody with a gun to their head or a big “CGI”-heavy magical spell on the verge of destroying the universe, because we aren’t invested in the characters yet.
Dan: A number of submissions wasted words, which bothers me. I remember when I was writing my own submissions for this contest, and I really tried to make every word count. Some pieces had a lot of that that could have been cut, leaving more room for characters, goals, stakes, and/or snappy dialogue. Occasionally I saw a piece that was only 350 or 400 words long. I really don’t understand that.
Tex: If you really want to become an expert at what makes small-canvas fiction work, think of Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The punch lies in what’s NOT said. The majority of my favorite Write Club entries were ones that did this exceptionally well: they didn’t connect all the dots right there on the page, but let me-the-reader participate in the story somehow – by giving me something to do, something to realize or discover or wonder about (beyond just “what’s going to happen next”). To me, that’s the heart of great fiction, whether it’s six words or 600,000.
Can you hint at any pieces that really stood out?
Dan: There was a funny YA contemporary that had me laughing from the pen name. A couple of dark YA pieces wowed me. But the one that was most striking stood out because of a non-traditional form. You probably know which one I’m talking about, Tex. I don’t know about you, but I thought it was spectacular.
Tex: I know the one! And I didn’t plan it this way, but several of my favorites were ones that used ordinary objects and situations – a bag of peaches, a rake, a gas station pit-stop, going to feed the ducks – to surprising effect. A few others cover what the *character* thinks is an ordinary moment, which the reader slowly realizes is actually something profoundly bizarre, supernatural, or horrifying. That’s a tough trick, but so satisfying when it works!
WRiTE CLUB Starts Tomorrow
Head on over to the blog of D.L. Hammons to vote for your favorite submissions. Also, if you like rural fantasy, be sure to check out Tex’s books: One Night in Sixes (2014) and Medicine for the Dead (2015). Her epic fantasy series tears the covers off the Western and Fantasy genres and turns them into something that will grip you from the first page to the last.
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DL Hammons says
WOW…you two did an awesome job of breaking it down. Next year this should be mandatory reading before anyone contemplates submitting an entry!
Thank you for this! 🙂