by Camille Griep
Love them, hate them, love to hate them, The Literary Contest is a near constant feature of a writer’s world. Here at Easy Street, we just wrapped up our first contest, awarding $10 per word for the best sentence.
Though this was not our first contest rodeo (we are contest veterans at our sister publication The Lascaux Review), we’d never judged anything as short as a sentence, an assignment fraught with complexity. Was the best sentence an amalgamation of beautiful metaphor? Perhaps one that told a complete story? Or was economy key? In a perfect world, all three exist—exquisite prose where every word works two or three shifts.
Due to the number of entries, we began to notice some patterns where folks’ entries commonly went awry. This led to discussions between the judges, and those discussions led me to share them with you, in hopes it might shine a light on the mystery of what a good entry looked like for us—from the submission to the sentence itself.
Observation #1: The shorter the required length, the quicker writers tend to be on the submit button.
Mere minutes after we announced our contest online, entries started to appear. Some of those entries seemed as if the writer had simply been waiting for a sentence competition, having all the ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed. Others were less so.
For whatever reason, we’ve noticed time editing is in inverse proportion to the submission’s word count. The tendency is prevalent in flash fiction and was even more so in our one sentence contest. The trouble is, of course, that the opposite is true: the fewer words we have to work with, the greater the importance of each and every one of them.
Quality control is important in any submission. For contests—which typically place work into a more intense, comparative crucible—quality control is imperative. While we can forgive a misspelled word in a 5,000-word submission, it is much harder to grant the same concession to a 20-word submission—particularly when that 20-word submission came in on the first day of the contest. Which leads me to…
Observation #2: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Withdrawing and resubmitting is frowned upon (if not prohibited outright) at many publications. It’s a simple matter of fairness: if everyone gets one shot at the target, then, as a magazine, we have offered a level playing field.
When writers ask to re-submit, it also makes some inadvertent assertions about how much they value the time of the magazine’s editors. When writers submit thoughtfully—following the market’s parameters—they’ve already surpassed a good half of their competition. Even if the market doesn’t use that particular work, you’ve still made a good impression and are far more likely to be invited to submit work again or be called upon in some other capacity.
Word count and form are important too. We received a not insignificant amount of poetry. We had sentences missing definitive variables such as subjects, verbs, punctuation, and sometimes all three.
The point is not to scold anyone, but to encourage writers to grant themselves the permission to take all the time they need to select and send their best. It should not be a point of pride to tell us “I whipped this up in 15 minutes.” The best advice we can give to submitters is: take a deep breath, sleep on it, give it a minute. Good work is worth the time invested.
Observation #3: There can be too much of a good thing, even with words.
We saw so many great sentences that had been padded with extraneous words—bloated, lofty prose that works well during an adjectives and adverbs exam in grammar school, but not well at actually communicating ideas. Words are small building blocks and writers can use them to build imagery and/or ideas.
One of our favorite examples of an economic sentence was Finalist Rose Jakubaszek’s entry:
My father raked the leaves for four days straight when Michael came out.
With just thirteen hardworking words, we are given the perspective of three characters, backstory, time, place, and atmosphere.
These same building blocks can also clutter up the works with logs and doors and windows, the narrative thread gets lost and results in a pile of words instead of the original intent. Though our contest directions cautioned entrants to avoid run-on sentences, we saw a good deal of promising work scuttled by filler of both grammatically correct and incorrect varieties.
Our judges were particularly frustrated when we’d find an entry with a perfectly lovely sentence for the first twenty words or so, but then a lack of self-editing led the sentence down a meandering path of twenty or so more words that added nothing to the original thought. While the $10/word prize may have exacerbated the problem, knowing how and when to tighten up a sentence can transfer to any writing format from poetry to journalism.
Observation #4: Build your word house in the right order.
Similarly, creative license does allow a writer to arrange your words in whatever order they wish. Let’s pretend we received the following: Michelle ran down the stairs and out the front door after she opened the closet.
As a visual reader, I watch Michelle run down the stairs and out her front door, then I have to erase both of those images, go back to her opening the closet and then do it all over again. Good prose uses word order to enhance itself, not distract. It’s good to vary cadence, but ensure it doesn’t come at the expense of readability.
Observation #5: Be unique.
Active avoidance of clichés will also give writers a leg up in the submissions queue. The well-read submitter will try to understand how overused some words and concepts are, and only use them when there is no other choice.
We see all sorts of words dripping from all sorts of lips—which is, for some, a disgusting image rather than an erotic one. Rare is the sentence that doesn’t use the word belly, even when stomach more accurately applies. We—along with scads other magazines—are uninterested in skin tones of any ethnicity being described by food (chocolate skin, almond eyes, Chiclet teeth—really, we see this last one over and over. Please stop.).
On Being Yourself:
Observation #6: Find your market.
You write what you write, and that’s okay. But know your audience. If you’re going to send tales about massacred bunnies, or intimations of child abuse, or adages filled with age-old misogyny, we are not the correct market. That said, a market for your work likely exists and you’ll have more success if you find them instead of throwing shit blindly against a wall (and ending up with, surprise, shit on a wall).
Observation #7: Be you and believe in you.
It’s important to come into the submissions pool with the minimum amount of required information. A short bio is never amiss, but no one wants to know how many twitter followers you have or your favorite flower or why you need money more than other writers.
If you take nothing else away from this list of observations, take this: Submit with confidence.
Don’t ever apologize for your work. Don’t self-reject.
Even when you’re not sure the story is finished. Even if you aren’t sure it’s the right market. Even when self-deprecation is supposed to be a funny joke. Imagine instead you’re submitting to The Paris Review or The Atlantic. Do you think they’d be interested in how unworthy you are? Neither are we. We can’t help you succeed if you don’t believe in your work. So, believe in you.