I stumbled upon the judge’s report of a 2005 writing contest, and a couple things caught my eye, which should prove helpful to any writer:
THE USUAL SUSPECTS � Themes and genres.
These included: Romance, with extremely variable results; Lust, generally more boring than revealing or even arousing, though there were a very few rare and powerful exceptions; Mystery, from the bizarre to the banal; Murder, both highly ingenious and gratuitously gory; Medical, including a surprising number of detailed minute-by-minute accounts of prolonged labours; Historical Romance, sadly mostly hysterically clich�d and determinedly predictable; Fairy Stories, veering from the Blytonesque to something suggestive of a Photon Faery computer game, with unexplained power shields and mega-potent spells, which could have been spelt out to add some verbal interest; Swords and Sorcery, mercifully few examples; Death, dancing with or simply a terminal plot device; Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, but a good story helps; Horror/Paranormal, shock and strangeness also need a good story; Time Travel, variably successful, as this frequently explored theme demands ingenuity of concept or freshness of voice.
THE REAL McCOY � What stood out.
The best entries combined good writing with a striking story. No matter how well-crafted the writing may be, unless it is used to tell a good story, it is only half-way there � a pretty ornament with no purpose other than decoration. Unique stories that defy the genre they may fall into are gems to be treasured. A good story is memorable, once read, never forgotten and even pondered over. Good writing may be unpretentious, direct and seamless, or � conversely � highly stylistic and experimental, wringing new meanings and perceptions from unexpected expressions or juxtapositions. Expressive, authentic-sounding dialogue that fleshes out, differentiates and defines characters as they speak is a rare pleasure, to be savoured by the reader, or judge. Writing that makes the reader think, feel and experience � or re-experience � is engaging and compelling.
NOT A GOOD IDEA � What got in the way.
Apart from poor writing or non-stories, the greatest weakness in story-telling was overly obvious conclusions and tales that just petered out. Unfunny attempts at humour � especially involving large casts of freakish characters, each continually trying to outdo the other with repartee � invariably fall flat. Ditto dialogue in which all the speakers sound alike. A bland title is a lost opportunity to intrigue and engage readers and heighten their expectations � a really good title is worth at least 1,000 words. “The Story of Joe Bloggs” or “To a New Land” have none of the “come hither and listen” of, say, “Handcarved Coffins” (Truman Capote), “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” (J.D. Salinger), or “The Wer-Trout” (E. Annie Proulx). A device that was less prevalent than previously � thankfully so � was the use of numerous quotations of the author�s favourite song lyrics, scattered through the text. While this shows the writer�s musical/lyrical taste, it often provides a humbling comparison with the story writer�s own less-than-memorable prose. Except where one can claim licence for creative effect, blatantly wrong details presented as fact or background are simply irritating � no the Zulus of South Africa do not, generally, speak Swahili; their language is Zulu. And clich�s, clich�s, clich�s � both in language and narrative.