On Judging and Good Stories

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been judging the SlingInk Scribbling Slam. A six round writing competition where, after each round, I provide feedback on all the entries in the hope that my suggestions will help the writers become better.

And it’s been difficult. I don’t mind admitting that. For one, I know some of the entrants so, even though the entries are anonymous and I have (honestly!) no idea who’s written what, I’m worried that I’ll upset people who I know are nice and good. And that’s not mentioning the people I don’t know, who are, I’m sure, nice and good too.

It’s time consuming (I want to do the job well) and I’m not being paid for it. But, as I said, my aim is to help each and every entrant improve. And, I must say, from what I’ve seen so far, they have been doing (I’ve been really impressed).

Writing stories is hard. Writing good, or great, stories is really, really hard. I suppose that’s why, out of all the books we read, there are only a small number we’d say we loved. Which is kinda another point: this is only my opinion.

Anyway. I’ve been writing for a number of years with considerable success, and I’ve been teaching writing for a fair old while too. And I thought it might be helpful for me to share some tips (never let it be said that this blog’s all about me!) and to point out where, in my experience and humble opinion, people tend to go wrong.

So, here goes (and you can see a full list of extra tips here)…

Start your story in the right place. Sometimes you’ll only see where that is once you’ve written a first draft. Often (and I do this) we can write ourselves into the story. We start off, get settled, get familiar with our characters, and THEN begin. What you need to do is identify that point of ACTUAL beginning and start your story there. Don’t be afraid of cutting out bits.

Focus on a moment. I’ve seen this a lot. Someone has had a brilliant idea for a setting or world or character and have thought about it a lot. The temptation then, is to include everything. That, usually, is a mistake. A story, often, is the telling of a moment. One moment. One scene. One point of conflict. What you need to do is find one and concentrate on that. Often, it doesn’t matter what’s happened before that point, or what will happen after it.

Make Sure Something’s At Stake. Again, I’ve seen this a lot. Great characters and great setting but there’s nothing, or not enough, at stake for the characters. Make your characters work for their ending. Don’t make it easy for them. Make the reader worry, care, get excited.

Make The Ending As Good As What’s Come Before. No point in having a great build-up and no punchline.

Don’t Be Afraid To Take Risks. I admire people being brave in their story telling. And that could take the form of characters, stories, layout, or any number of things. But remember: a great concept (like a great idea) won’t always make a good story. The story needs to be as good as the idea or concept. And remember too, there’s NOTHING at all wrong with something just not working. That happens to me all the time. Try to learn from it and to move on to the next.

This might be the most important tip and the only one specific to me judging.

Write Your Story The Way You Want. Folks, these are your stories. You should write them how you want to. Please don’t write them in a way that you think will impress me. Be true to yourself, be true to your idea and be true to your story. Do your best for your story. Treat it like it’s your child, or something! Or perhaps, treat the story as though you’re sending it on a date – you’d want the date to like the person for who (s)he was, wouldn’t you?

And also

Relax. Don’t try too hard. Be natural.

And most of all

ENJOY IT! This is supposed to be fun! (And, I can tell you with certainty from my experience – if you’re enjoying what you’re writing it’ll most likely be good.)

11 Comments on “On Judging and Good Stories

  1.  by  ratherlovely

    This is a great post. You've made some really good points. I'm having an issue with "Make The Ending As Good As What's Come Before" in one of my stories at the moment, as there's a massive tension build-up, and I have no idea how to resolve it without making the reader feel disappointed. Everything I do seems not quite enough… but it'll come to me one day.

  2.  by  miss-neat

    One thing is bugging me after reading your blog post, Nik (and finding your advice useful, as always): you are worried that you might upset people? By giving helpful feedback on what could be improved? I think you worry too much. I think the best way to set up someone for failure is to tell them that what they're doing is amazing, and encourage them to keep doing it. Except when you really really believe it.The way I see it, I'd rather go wrong amongst friends and be better prepared when I take things further into the big scary world.And yes, sometimes I feel protective about something, but I try to smile about it. Other times I just don't get it… and those are frustrating times. But I have a little gang of writerly friends who know me and help dissect that feedback, and when we get to the bottom of it it's a great learning experience. The remaining mysteries I try to stop questioning (so I can sleep) and let time do its bit…

  3.  by  miss-neat

    One thing is bugging me after reading your blog post, Nik (and finding your advice useful, as always): you are worried that you might upset people? By giving helpful feedback on what could be improved? I think you worry too much. I think the best way to set up someone for failure is to tell them that what they're doing is amazing, and encourage them to keep doing it. Except when you really really believe it.The way I see it, I'd rather go wrong amongst friends and be better prepared when I take things further into the big scary world.And yes, sometimes I feel protective about something, but I try to smile about it. Other times I just don't get it… and those are frustrating times. But I have a little gang of writerly friends who know me and help dissect that feedback, and when we get to the bottom of it it's a great learning experience. The remaining mysteries I try to stop questioning (so I can sleep) and let time do its bit…

  4.  by  miss-neat

    One thing is bugging me after reading your blog post, Nik (and finding your advice useful, as always): you are worried that you might upset people? By giving helpful feedback on what could be improved? I think you worry too much. I think the best way to set up someone for failure is to tell them that what they're doing is amazing, and encourage them to keep doing it. Except when you really really believe it.The way I see it, I'd rather go wrong amongst friends and be better prepared when I take things further into the big scary world.And yes, sometimes I feel protective about something, but I try to smile about it. Other times I just don't get it… and those are frustrating times. But I have a little gang of writerly friends who know me and help dissect that feedback, and when we get to the bottom of it it's a great learning experience. The remaining mysteries I try to stop questioning (so I can sleep) and let time do its bit…

  5.  by  Nik Perring

    Hi Miss-NeatYou're right of course! I think my problem is that, because of the time restrictions (and having paid work to do) the feedback I've been giving hasn't been as thorough as what you'd get if I was editing it, and I worry that, because I'm only giving a few lines and concentrating on the bits that I think could be improved, that I might be sounding more negative than I mean to! I just hope it's helping people. From what I've seen, it seems to be…

  6.  by  SARAH SALWAY

    Good advice, particularly thinking about what is at stake. Sometimes it can even be the reader's expectations!! Nothing better than being challenged.

  7.  by  Nik Perring

    Sarah – thanks! I'm glad you think so. And I agree – re the readers' expectations. And, being challenged – yes, as long as it's not ALL of the time. Even we need breaks!

  8.  by  brokenbiro

    You can't win being a judge – only one person's going to love you (two, itf you count whoever roped you in in the first place! I judged a poetry competition once and my co-judge was as mad as a balloon – never again!… did consider joining sling ink but down-loadable application form (WTF?) didn't work – took it as a sign from 'the muse' to go it alone!

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