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What Are Flash Fiction Contest Judges Looking For?

   
   

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ou peruse writing contest listings and find a challenge that piques your interest. After pondering reasons to enter, including practice, a critique, and publication, you write and polish a potential winner, hit the send button and wait.

But one question looms in your mind: What critique process does the person evaluating the piece use?

Using the WOW! contest critique rubric, we’ll define flash fiction, look at a flash piece that easily could be submitted to our quarterly flash fiction contest, explain each set of criteria, and show what works—and what’s missing—from a submission.

Entering the Flash Frey

Although no clear-cut definition of flash fiction exists, both classic authors and experimentalist newbies have used the form. Some flash purists believe a 75-word story best fits the definition. Most online flash magazines and editors feel flash is a complete story told in less than 1,000 words.

Ernest Hemingway comprised his best flash work using a slim count of six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” While a handful of words may tell a complete story, the quarterly WOW! Flash Fiction contest requires a minimum of 250 words. Stories may not exceed a 750 count.

The contest’s guest judge is featured on the WOW! website. Check out the judge’s editing and writing expertise before you begin writing. It may help you win! But remember, only the highest scoring entries advance to that level. 

Two options await submitting authors: contest entry or contest entry with critique. Once a writer submits a piece, one of our contest judges examines the entry and assigns it a score in each of three categories. Subject, content, and technical aspects are scrutinized.

The critique option gives writers a chance to have the scorer provide a thorough, written assessment in each of the scoring categories.

Marking the Critique (Sample Flash Fiction Contest Critique)

When you receive your critique, it may look something like this:

As she smiled and handed out cookies to the soldiers Amy wondered about their destination. Germany?  Italy?  Some island speck in the Pacific her little brother would look up on the map tacked to his wall?

“Could you get a few apples?” Mrs. Bursky murmured in her ear.

Outside the tiny wooden shack that was the Cookie Ladies Conteen, Amy bent down to grab a sack of apples Mr. Kendricks sent from his orchard each week.

“Need help?”

 She stood up, hugging her burlap sack and looked from him to the long line snaking out of the shack and down the wooden railroad platform.  “I can’t let you jump in front of the line.”

“I’m done..” He pulled one of Mrs. Bursky’s oatmeal cookies from his pocket.  “Just lending a hand...”  Shoving the cookie into the pocket, he grabbed a sack with each hand.  “…or two.”

With a tiny smile she led him back to the shack.  They poured the apples into the bushel baskets next to the tables.  “We-ll-ll” She looked over to her empty spot at the cookie table.

“Wait!”  He grabbed her wrist.  “Do you have a brother in the Army?”

She eased her hand away from his, “No.”  He looked down, playing with the buttons on his shirt. She relented, “I have two brothers who are Marines and one in the Army Air Corps.”

 “I bet they gets lots of mail—from you, your mother, everybody.”

Amy thought of all the letters on the hall table, waiting to go to the post office.  “I—I guess they do.”

His voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t get any,”  he told his buttons.  “My parents are great but, well they don’t read and write that much.  I do, and my brother.  But he’s in Europe so…”

He went back to pulling his buttons.  “I write good letters.  I write all the time to mom and our neighbor Mrs. Sullivan reads them to her.  She even helped mom send me a letter for my birthday last month, but she can’t be doing that all the time.  So…” He took a deep breath and looked up, “Will you write me?”

“But—what?”  Amy looked around the shack for someone who could help her.  Charlotte.  Charlotte would know what to do.  Charlotte was the one who had taught her how to smile at all the boys in the line and not look sad, even when she felt sad thinking about where they were going.  There were only moms and grandmoms in the shack right now.

Staring at the ground, Amy could see him shove his hands deep into his pockets.  “Forget it.”

“No wait.”  Amy reached out and grabbed his arm to stop his leaving then pulled her hand away as if she had touched an oven.  “It’s just that I don’t know you,” she tried to explain.  “What would I write?”

“It doesn’t matter.  Anything.  I’ll write you too.  I promise.”

Amy bit her lip, thinking.  “Well…”

The restless sergeants began roaming the platform yelling at the soldiers to get back on the train.  He pulled a tiny shred of paper out of his pocket and pushed it into her hand.  “Please.”  Then he was making his way out of the shack.  She unfolded the scrap and looked at the tiny name and address penciled on it.  Private James Connelly.  She went to the door and stared at the emptying platform.

Suddenly he jumped off a train car.  “I don’t know your name,” he yelled.

“Amy.”

“Bye, Amy,” he yelled.

She waved as he jumped back on the train slowly pulling out of the station.  “Bye James,” she whispered

Deciphering the Critic’s Code

The critique form is attached below the story. The first area shows the scores received in each judging area. Ratings range from 1 – 5, with 5 being the strongest.

  • Subject: 5
  • Content: 3
  • Technical: 3

Next, the panel critic evaluates each area and offers examples from the text.

Subject Selection

The reader considers the following criteria:

  • Is it fiction?
  • Is the story appropriate for WOW! readers?
  • Brief summary

The submitted piece receives a 5 for subject. The story is fiction, although the situation played out in American history during World War II. The topic is appropriate for WOW! readers. To summarize the story, a soldier asks a canteen worker to write him while he is overseas.

Content Components

Next, the critic considers content. The story scored a ‘3’ based on:

  • Is the story well developed?
  • Is there a plot/point to the story?
  • Is it compelling?
  • Are the characters well-drawn?

Story development missteps begin with storytelling. Elements of the universal story pattern—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution—must weave through a defined beginning, middle and end.

“Elements of the universal story pattern—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution—must weave through a defined beginning, middle and end.”

The submission contains all five elements; however, let’s look at the resolution. Readers will never know if Amy writes James. That’s okay! It doesn’t hurt to let readers contemplate the implications of the story’s action. In this case, story development feels complete. Proper pacing, achieved with rhythmic curvatures of words, gives the piece a feeling of completion.

But the resolution ties into the next point: the story’s plot. A strong storyline revolves around a sense of tension. An underlying current of conflict propels the story. This doesn’t mean the tension has to slap the reader in the face. But, readers should be able to feel the churn of emotion.

Conflict exists between or within characters. James wants Amy to write. He’s desperate for human connection, for someone close to his age to give him hope while he’s fighting for his country. Amy hesitates to answer James. What’s unclear is why she hesitates? What obstacles prevent Amy from honoring the request?

“Without consequences or an altering cause-effect, readers feel disconnected from the conflict.”

Without consequences or an altering cause-effect, readers feel disconnected from the conflict. In this instance, the writer may want to consider beefing up the tension. Adding an obstacle (or two) will improve the storytelling and enhance the overall dramatic appeal.

Speaking of appeal, constructing a compelling story that establishes a sense of empathy with readers takes work. The overall theme of this story generates empathy. Who doesn’t feel a tug on the heartstrings when James struggles to ask Amy to write him?

But a concern with writing historical fiction is accuracy, which boosts empathy. The first tip-off of inaccuracy is the misspelled word “conteen” that should be “canteen.” Granted, even New York Times bestselling authors misspell words, but for a critic who happens to be a history buff, it’s a glaring error. Proofread before hitting send.

The story refers to the canteen as a shack. Most canteens were set up in railroad depots, the most famous being in my home state and located in North Platte, Nebraska. The term “shack” sets a negative tone that doesn’t create an accurate portrait of the locations of the canteens and women who staffed them. Word choice plays a critical role in forming a sense of empathy, so make sure every word counts.

All of these factors build a compelling story. If it doesn’t make a connection with readers, the story will fade into a blurry line of all-too-similar narratives.

Characterization pulls every element together. This story makes a strong impression with its use of dialogue, especially with James’ character. Readers can feel his apprehension, his nervousness, the insecurity heard in his voice. How? Realistic dialogue.

“Readers need to be able to infer the intended tone without an explanation. Otherwise, dialogue fails.”

Luckily, the writer doesn’t add a deluge of dialogue tags. Readers need to be able to infer the intended tone without an explanation. Otherwise, dialogue fails.

Amy’s character needs additional development. What’s her motivation—or lack of—that causes her hesitation? Why does she pull away when he touches her arm? Why is there a stack of letters to her brothers that haven’t been mailed? How old is Amy? Too many unanswered questions lead to an underdeveloped character.

Finally, characters’ names tend to make an impression. “James” is a popular name for a young man born during the late 1920s. But Census Bureau records don’t even rank the name “Amy” as one of the top 50 baby names of the Roaring 20s or Dirty 30s, the time period “Amy” would have been born. Again, accuracy counts!

In my experience as a contest critic and former literary magazine editor, if I can close my eyes, visualize the action, and hear the ebb and flow of lifelike banter, the story’s content accomplishes its goal.

Technical Tactics

A great story not only flows when read. It is error free. The final category for critiques looks at the technical aspects.

  • Did they follow the rules? Is there a title and proper word count?
  • Proper spelling
  • Proper punctuation and grammar
  • Correct tense
  • Active not passive sentences
  • Adverb overdose
  • Use of “wrylies”

This story does not have a title. That’s unfortunate since it resulted in a point reduction. Authors, give attention to story titles. A dominant title combines backstory and subtext. It’s filled with implication. Some writers consider the title as part of the story so it needs careful deliberation.

Critics use Microsoft Word’s word-count feature for an accurate calculation. This submission weighs in with 607 words, falling into the required word limit. Great!

Now, the reviewer considers the mechanics. The story has one spelling error. “Conteen” should be “canteen.”

Grammar and punctuation errors present problems. WOW! uses the publishing style bible, a.k.a. the Chicago Manual of Style. Multiple comma errors (or lack of commas) plague the piece. In one spot, an extra period is added, while the last line of the story lacks end punctuation.

Let’s look at the dialogue with the extra period. Readers may be uncertain if this is a simple case of an extra punctuation mark or if it’s intended to be an ellipsis. An ellipsis may be used to imply faltering or fragmented speech, but in this instance, that rule (CMS 11.45) does not fit. “I’m done” has a finality to it so a single period should be used.

Writers also need to pay attention to the number of spaces between a period and the beginning of the next sentence. Only one space is required after a period.

The story is free of verb tense contradictions. I spied two instances of passive voice. Passive voice slows a story’s rhythm. These sentences can easily be rewritten in active voice and maintain the integrity of the sentences.

Sentence confusion sends readers scrambling back through material to see what they missed. Make sure details and dialogue are logical.

Many writers overuse adverbs. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary. Why? Many fail to add a precise definition. Words like “nice” or “pretty” don’t add a new detail to the storyline. When a writer works within a specified word limit, reducing the amount of adverbs is a no-brainer!

The story doesn’t overuse attributive clauses, or wrylies. A simple “said” goes a long way, especially in flash fiction. Kudos!

Repetition drives a point home, but too much of a good thing draws attention, ruining the effect. The word “shack” shows up six times in 600-some words. It may be too much, so the writer should consider alternatives.

Overview Opinions

Finally, the evaluator imparts an overview which looks at:

  • General impression about writing style
  • How the story affected the reader

Often, the reviewer may offer a personal glimpse into her own life and how the story correlates.

Reaping the Benefits

Sure, discovering a WOW! prize package at the front door is a pleasant surprise and a bonus for hard work and writing flair. But the long-term benefit of a written critique surpasses the tangible rewards.

Feedback aids a writer’s growth. The reaction causes action. It forces a writer to look at a piece’s weaknesses and strengths. It makes flash fiction stronger.

And, a critique will make you a more precise storyteller.

LuAnn Schindler is a full-time freelance journalist living on the eastern slope of the Nebraska Sandhills on a dairy farm with 200+ holsteins. She currently blogs for The Muffin, the WOW! Women On Writing daily blog, and is a columnist for Premium Green. Her work has appeared in the Pregnancy, 2: The Couples Magazine, Denver Post, Rural Electric Nebraskan, Absolute Write, in addition to other publications. LuAnn is a member of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. She won a 2010 Nebraska Press Award for feature writing.

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Want more on flash fiction? Check out these related articles on WOW!:

How to Cut Your Flash Fiction Contest Entry Down to Size

How to Write Flash Fiction

Enter WOW! Women On Writing’s quarterly flash fiction contest: http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/contest.php


 

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