Posted on: 4th June 2014

Aspiring writers who join competitions should know that aside from creating a good story, they should also know what exactly the editors want. A great opening is one of the few things that would an editor’s heart skip a beat.

Successful writers have one thing in common: they know how to hook the readers immediately. They make readers feel like it is a cult that they cannot stay away from. Good stories make readers deal with emotions that they think they cannot feel.

What separates winning literary pieces is its ability to dramatize complex ideas and make seemingly ordinary people have larger than life personas. Excellent writers know how to create tension and then maintain its momentum – which is why there are books that are hard to put down and there’s nothing to do but just turn to the next page over and over again.

More than 90% of stories are rejected right away even before the editor finishes the first page. Why? According to the Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae, “One can tell a lot from a first page.” There really is no fixed formula for editors when deciding to publish a manuscript or not. But if the editor cannot find the desire to flip to the next page, the writer is into a lot of trouble.

It is not just about bad opening pages. Clichés are oftentimes the downfall of aspiring writers as well as clunky sentences, too many adjectives and lack of an element of surprise – all makes for an insurmountable dullness of a junk.

But sometimes, the more a writer force to add the element of surprise, the more it becomes too obvious that it was just forced in it. Editors know when you’re desperately straining to impress.

Here’s a quick guideline to help you make great stories that editors would like:

  • Originality, freshness of ideas and confidence are something that your writing voice must exude.
  • The opening must be powerful enough to hook the reader and hold his or her interest.
  • You must have the ability to awaken the curiosity of the reader as soon as he or she reads the first page.
  • Give meaning, depth and realism to the conflict in the story.
  • Make sure that your ideas are not only captivating and complex but also fully developed – not leaving the reader hanging or in a state of confusion.
  • Concrete sensory details abound in your storyline – not abstract summaries.
  • There is something crisp, detailed and unforgettable about the characters. They should come alive and dynamic in the plot.
  • Strive simplicity with diction – tight and fluid yet effortlessly elegant.
  • Authenticity should be felt in all dialogues. It must feel natural, not constricted or forced.
  • Long after the first few pages, the theme must be easily understood
  • Make sure that the characters have found resolution to all the conflicts and the climax is satisfying.
  • The story resonates with power, refinement, and good craftsmanship.

The Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, founded by Lorian Hemingway, the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, said that stories should “provide meaningful connections with readers through wise, graceful, unforgettable prose”. This is what she reminded the editors and the jurors.

It helps a lot if you get feedback, opinion and honest criticisms from those who work in the industry or at least knowledgeable about good story writing. It can actually save you a lot of money. Do not regret spending on editing and analysis. It could teach you a lot on the do’s and dont’s of writing. Submission fees are not cheap, either. You might as well ensure that you have a well-crafted story that judges would like even if it would mean repeated revisions for you. Perseverance and practice are the perfect combination for a successful literary piece.

And don’t think it is a waste of time if you get feedback, opinion and honest criticisms from those who work in the industry or at least knowledgeable about good story writing. Before you break the rules of writing, make sure you already know the going ins and outs of the techniques. If you cannot properly execute basic rules, you have no right to break even just one of them.

And you have to believe that there is no shortcut to success. Investing in qualified feedback, opinion and honest criticisms would bring you closer to your long term goals, even if you have to take the less travelled and longer route. You spot the issues head-on and find realistic solutions to them. As your writing skills mature, you would eventually have the confidence that your manuscript will get the attention and recognition it deserves. Happy writing!

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