This is a short version of guidelines I came up with for submitting to Rattle Tales. I think it works for most short story submissions be it competitions or readings.
1. It has to be a story. It has to have a resolution; even if it is open-ended something has to have happened. This does not mean that it should be a conventional beginning, middle and end tale. Surprise works. But not too much. There is a tendency to simply build up to a punch-line but you’re not doing stand-up here, try and introduce a few hints early on in the story otherwise you’ll end up like Bobby Ewing in the shower. It was all a dream scenarios just don’t cut it. Likewise don’t just write pages and pages of philosophy, show what you think of the world by telling a story, readers don’t need a lecture.
2. Watch the similes. The biggest mistake made by new writers is the over use of the word like. Use similes sparingly (if at all), reading a piece with ‘like’ or ‘as if’ in every other sentence, sometimes two or three times in a sentence, it’s like being stung by angry wasps as you try to eat an ice-cream (see what I did there?). You may think you are being clever and imaginative but it actually constant comparison really grates. In this case, less is definitely more. Consider this sentence;
‘Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.’
Cormac McCarthy – The Road
The light is not ‘like’ gun metal it is gun-metal light, they don’t shuffle through ash ‘like’ dirty water or some such, it’s just ash, it is not ‘as if’ each is the other’s world entire, they just are. The sentence is so much more powerful because it is not diluted by comparisons. Simple descriptions often work best. Simple doesn’t mean your writing is boring; ‘gun-metal light’ is wonderfully evocative and it certainly isn’t ordinary.
The only exception is if it is in a character’s nature to use simile in direct speech or thought. You can use one or two in a piece but not one or two in every paragraph.
3. Don’t try to shock. Extreme use of profanity, drugs, sex, violence etc. only works if it’s essential for the story. Edgy is fine but these days most readers can tell if it’s authentic or gratuitous.
4. Cliché sucks.
5. Plagiarism sucks. Use your own ideas. If it’s too much like something else then it’s copying. Of course, there is a difference between theft and influence and most art resembles art that has gone before it, but an overt rip-off won’t do, you have to bring something new to the table.
6. Keep it simple. Particularly if it’s for a live reading. If it’s too complicated you will lose your audience. If people can’t keep up easily they may not try. Don’t have too many characters and don’t have too many backstories.