by Laura Michelle Thomas
Below are my judging notes from the 6th Annual International Junior Authors Short Story Contest. They are grouped by age category, but I would highly recommend reading all of the notes if you are thinking about entering next year and want to have a good shot at making it to the finals. If you want more than this, please visit the jaBlog! archives and review sample short stories with feedback.
As you will see, I’m not sugarcoating the weaknesses I saw when judging. But do keep in mind that while most stories were weak in some aspects, they were very strong in others. (Recall that we judged: plot structure, description, style, grammar, and unity. We did not judge your choice of subject matter, just how well you told your story.) Unfortunately, the weaknesses tended to pull the overall score down. None of the stories received a perfect score, so there is lots of work yet to be done by all. Every single story submitted could benefit from another revision round or two. But that’s okay. This is why were are doing this. It’s a learning experience.
The purpose of this contest is to give young writers a reasonable writing goal and then help them understand how to make that giant leap from being a wannabe to a published writer. Publishing is a tough, competitive business and writing is a difficult art form to pursue. It takes a tiny amount of talent and a ton of practice and discipline. So please accept these notes as my gift to you. I hope they will help you take your writing to the next level.
Comments for Category 4 – Age 9 to 11
Overall, I was very impressed with the writing in this age group. You are on your way!
Conflict. Make sure your story has a problem which the main character has to solve, a description of something is not a short story, we need a plot with a beginning, middle and end, not just an ending of a story we’re not clear about.
Drop us right into the action and story problem in the first paragraph.
Try to keep your number of characters down to 2 – 3 named characters.
One or two settings at the most.
Don’t be afraid to include some dialogue.
Don’t start your story with “my name is…” or “her name was…” just tell the story.
Try telling your story in the past tense and stay with it. Present tense storytelling is best left to scriptwriting or only used when it can truly reinforce theme and tone. Don’t switch tenses mid-story.
When you change scenes (another time or place) use a * (hiatus).
Break your story into paragraphs.
Only describe the elements of your story that matter to the plot – not hair and eye colour. Tell us something that makes your character special.
Don’t get carried away with onomatopoeia (sound words).
Fantasy worlds are tough to create in 1000 words. You run out of space to tell your story.
If your story is less than 400 words you don’t really have a chance when you consider that other writers have used the entire word count to go deeper into their stories.
Chapters don’t work very well in a story this short. Try focusing on one episode.
Don’t center your story on the page. Justify to the left margin.
A series of actions by a character is not a story. There needs to be opposition to those actions. We need conflict and tension.
Waking up from a dream is an okay ending, but try for something more creative.
Don’t be afraid to repeat an important fact in your story – be nice to your readers. Don’t make us work too hard.
Comments for Category 3 – Ages 12 to 14
A nice job done by all. We have some stars in the making.
Your characters deserve names. They really do.
A series of loosely connected events does not make a plot.
You don’t have time to introduce a whole new fantasy world in 1000 words.
Internal monologues are not stories.
Dialogue. Start a new speaker on new line otherwise the reader can get lost or confused.
Avoid writing huge paragraphs. Try to break up the action. And don’t write in a series of one-sentence paragraphs either.
Don’t try to cover too much time in a character’s life in 1000 words.
A moment in time with no problem is not a story. A story needs tension, a plot, a beginning, middle, and end.
Avoid speaking directly to the reader, it can break the spell of the story.
What is your story about? Theme? What is the one thing you want me to take away from it? What do you want me to feel? Give it some thought and then use your theme to unify your story.
Even with a great story, you won’t make the finals if your style is sloppy or you don’t proofread.
Don’t mention the name of a city, unless the city matters to the story.
Write what you mean, don’t try to be writerly with your sentence structures. Speak plainly.
Avoid copying someone else’s plot and characters or rewriting fairly tales. Try to come up with your own story.
Don’t touch the thesaurus.
Develop your protagonist. Don’t assume I will care, make me care.
Make your introduction significant to the story.
Avoid clichés like “piercing blue eyes.”
I suggest telling your story the past tense unless the present tense really improves your story. This is not a scriptwriting contest.
Don’t tell me your character is desperate, show me.
You don’t need to tell me this is your last day or that something strange is about to happen. Just dive in.
You don’t have to tell us the age of your character.
Try using the third person point of view. Get away from “me and I” storytelling unless it truly adds to tone and theme. It’s not wrong to use the first person, just make sure you put some thought into it. Ask yourself which point of view would really work best for your story.
Comments for Category 2 – Ages 15 to 17
You guys blew me away. The submissions in this category were really good.
Time, Death, and other figurative characters…not as enjoyable as ordinary ones. Try to be more subtle.
Show me don’t tell me your philosophy.
Losing marks on a good story because you didn’t bother proofreading is never a good thing.
Interior monologue interspersed with dialogue can be confusing. Make sure you have someone read it over for you for clarity.
First drafts are never good. Revise. Revise. Revise.
Don’t get too carried away with sound effects.
Incomplete endings bring your plot structure score down. Remember the 1000 word limit and make sure to save yourself room for a satisfying ending, usually right after the climax.
Don’t make us work too hard to know who is speaking in dialogue.
Comments for Category 1 – Ages 18 to 21
Very high quality stories. Great story ideas and passion. You made me think. Well done.
Don’t try to sound like a writer by using big words. Ditch the thesaurus.
Make sure you can see your story clearly in your imagination. I can tell when it’s fuzzy in your mind.
Good endings (resolution of conflict and tension) get you a good score for plot.
Avoid over-the-top description, use clear concise words.
Get someone to read it for you and ask them to make sure the story is easy to follow.
Everything on the page must serve plot or characterization. Do not throw in random information.
Make sure the average reader can understand your similes and metaphors.
He and she conversations with no names are very hard to follow.
Description shouldn’t feel random and overdone.
If your title is vague, too general, or does not fit what you have written, you have very little chance of making it to the finals.
Final Message: Write, get feedback, and keep writing!