Summer Story Contest: Will I Sizzle or Fizzle?

I’m back in writing mode, having finally written a fourth chapter for my next novel in the Other Worldly series, Altogether Alien, and I’m participating in a writing contest this weekend, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on that. Because it unfortunately causes angst even as it challenges me.

First, some background. It’s a 24-hour short story contest held by, and it has a seasonal theme, which is perhaps what I like best. Each spring, summer, fall, and winter for the last three years (except for this past February when I was in the middle of a move), I have participated.

It only costs $5 to enter, a monumental plus. And one compelling reason to put myself through this every few months is the grand prize is a Book Locker publishing package, now worth almost a thousand bucks.

But, heavy sigh, I’ve never won, which is daunting. I have twice received an “honorable mention,” which I think means my story made it to the top 25, so there’s that.

To begin with, I don’t see myself as a short story writer. But the seemingly insurmountable task that I find myself lamenting every single time is an overwhelming list of things we’re not supposed to write about provided under contest rules and guidelines. Not to mention unlisted subjects like murder or marital infidelity one unfortunately discovers are no-no’s once contest results are revealed.

Every season I find myself asking, why can’t my story involve aliens? Or ghosts? Especially when a winning entry featured archangels. And if they eschew trite or overused themes (it was all just a dream) how is it that a story involving the junk psychology of multiple personalities ridiculously used in soap operas was a first-place winner?

If I can come up with something clever, original, or altogether different using a taboo subject, why shouldn’t I feel free to do so without knowing I will automatically be disqualified by judges who want you to think outside the box, but only within the tightly policed parameters they’ve placed around it?

Plus, if we’re not supposed to give our story a title using common phrases, would that not include “Dog Days of Summer”? I had a previous summer story featuring a dog and thought about using that but didn’t because of their guidelines. And what turned out to be the exact title of the winning story? Sheesh.

The other treacherous obstacle is that apparently once all contest participants read the prompt of several sentences that must be the focus of your story in some capacity, many of us immediately gravitate to the same idea. Because we’re repeatedly reminded of how that always happens.

The trick then becomes, how do I know what is percolating in my brain isn’t the very same thing everyone else is likely to write about? It gets maddening at times. Especially when we’re derided once winners are announced if we came up with a concept even remotely similar to others. As if we’re supposed to be psychic and instinctively know what hundreds of entrants are thinking.

We’re advised that contest judges love to laugh. Yet I’ve rarely seen humor in the winning stories, or perhaps I’ve simply lost my sense of humor while engaging in this competition. And contest judges favor surprise endings, as we are told ad nauseum. In all caps, as if it’s being shouted at us.

I don’t think I excel at surprises, or maybe it’s just that I’m not quite sure what their idea of a surprise ending is. Like, say, I don’t see someone who turns out to be talking not to another person, but to one of their alternate “personalities,” as an original “surprise.”

Worst of all, contest judges apparently don’t cotton to any sort of “moral of the story” or pointed message. Short stories are only supposed to be entertaining for them, so I suppose folks like Edgar Allen Poe, George Orwell, or Shirley Jackson would never make the cut. It could be why I never win, because I absolutely cannot and will not write irrelevant fluff. Not in my novels, not for this contest.

Besides, in my estimation, the best way to inform and/or inspire is to do so while entertaining. That’s what makes a tale resonate.

Hence, why do I put myself through the wringer to come up with a story in 24 hours (personally I wouldn’t mind if it were half that amount of time) and within the word count (usually 800-900 words, no problem) that focuses on the current sizzling season, but addresses absolutely no sociopolitical issues nor simmering current events, especially climate change?

Because it’s practically become a contest of wills.

Can I do this? Can I follow the tedious list of dos and don’ts and come up with something that is original, amusing, or compelling? Can I write eloquently and cleverly without being creatively suffocated by the resoundingly restrictive markers placed on subject matter?

Can I do this without becoming hampered by trying to figure out which of their no-no’s the judges will seemingly have flat-out ignored in the next winning story? Knowing that it will ultimately raise my blood pressure as high as current Vegas Valley temps.

Can I write something I’m proud of accomplishing regardless of how it is judged? Watch me. It’s going to be one hot summer night. I will sizzle or fizzle to the moon and back, come hell or highwater—and no, that won’t be the title of my story (even though religion is suspiciously missing from the list of prohibited subjects).

P.S. I have now submitted my 920-word story, just under the 925-word limit. And I am reminded that despite it all, I appreciate having this inexpensive contest as a distraction from the trials of the world. It gets my creative and competitive juices flowing, and I was challenged to write a happy surprise ending despite the sinister tone of the prompt. Which did, in fact, involve a body of water. Just like the fourth chapter of my next novel, but it has aliens swimming therein. A definite taboo for this contest.


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