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Getting to the Top of the Pile

Seven months ago, I took over the judging of Eerie River’s monthly contests. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some truly spectacular pieces of fiction, and been forced to make some tough decisions when it came time to pick the winners.

The truth is that some stories stand out. I know, from the very moment I read them, that they are destined to sit at the top of the pile, and they will most likely win.

Eerie River’s new quarterly contests are looming. There are more opportunities to win than ever and this year we’ll be producing a collection of the winners from each of the four contests, so I thought I’d unpack my best advice for those of you wanting to enter this, or any other, writing contest.

1) Adherence to genre. This is a horror contest. We need horror stories. Even if you’re dipping into sub-genres—horror romance, anyone?—the horror should always be the focus. Keep the tension high throughout, shock us and creep us out to the very best of your ability. And if you’re using humour, don’t let the humour undermine the horror. A horror story that starts to feel more like a joke loses its visceral impact.

2) Adherence to theme. I’m quite permissive of entries that try to find interesting and oblique ways to utilise the contest theme, but caveat emptor, I do use adherence to theme as a judging criteria. If I’m stuck between two excellent pieces and need to make a judgement call, I’ll pick the one that most clearly exemplifies the theme. For example, it’s the difference between a story about a werewolf and a story that just has a werewolf in it. Our quarterly contests are themed around ‘elements’, and that’s quite a broad remit, so make sure you’re picking your subject matter with the theme in mind.

3) Strong subject matter. Which brings me to my next point. Characters, setting, plot. All of these elements are vital to bringing your concept to life. Characters need to have purpose and strength; settings need to be interesting and act almost like characters themselves; plot needs to build to something dramatic and conclusive and satisfying (though not necessarily happy). Emotion is also very important in a horror story. Fear is always a good place to start, but sometimes horror can come from an emotion manifesting inappropriately to a situation. What do you find fascinating?

4) Style. Substance is vital to ensuring that your entry satisfies the criteria for the contest. But, once your genre, theme and subject matter are all set, you need to put these elements forward in the most attractive and appealing way. This isn’t academic writing; remember that you are trying to be entertaining. Cheat sentence structure. Focus on dialogue. Try not to lean too much on narration unless you’re setting a scene. Let characters’ motivations and feelings express themselves in action and speech. Something that is interestingly written will be interesting to read.

5) Clean editing. In Robert McKee’s Story, a book about screenplay writing, McKee mentions that he would never reject a screenplay with a spectacular plot and characters, even if it was riddled with grammar errors and spelling mistakes. And, in truth, I agree with this mentality. I edit every contest entry I select and I would rather have a compelling and captivating plot full of errors than a dull and grammatically perfect manuscript. However, an unclean edit will make your work harder to read and your point more difficult to get across. And, when it comes down to it, in a tie-break situation, I will lean towards a more cleanly edited piece. So maybe it’s not the most important part of my personal judging criteria; it’s just about giving yourself every advantage to come out as a winner.

Working as Eerie River’s contest judge has given me a brilliant insight into what it’s like behind the scenes, and the writer in me wanted to provide some of that insight to entrants for this year’s contests. Hopefully, this advice will help you get ready for other contests you might be interested in entering, not just this one.

Throughout February, we will be accepting entries for the ‘Earth’ contest. It’s a nice, broad theme with a lot of potential. Subterranean creatures, haunted caves and tunnels, graves and burials, malignant trees and cursed land and desecrated ground. Plant a seed and see what grows.

We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

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