I’m a judge for the wonderful Mash Stories, a keyword-based flash fiction competition that focuses on showcasing new talent, and I love it. The ideas, the language, the brilliant pieces — I’m honoured to read our submissions, let alone help decide the winner.
But it’s not all good news and happy faces. I’m a judge, and that title comes with a horrible responsibility: rejecting stories. As I said in my last post, I hate rejecting stories — I’ve been there before myself — but I have to say ‘no’ sometimes. And after six months of dishing out my ‘no’s and ‘yes’es, I’ve got a pretty firm idea of what makes — in my opinion — a good piece of flash fiction. I know what I want to see in a winning story.
And what’s the point of keeping that information to myself?
From titles and last lines to when to submit, I’ve got an insider’s opinion on what makes a short story great. So whether you’re thinking of submitting to Mash or another competition, you were rejected and don’t know why, or you’re just looking for some general writing advice, here are my top tips for snagging a spot on that coveted shortlist — and possibly winning the grand prize, too.
Let’s do this!
(TL;DR? Check the bullet point summary at the end.)
1. Write Well.
There’s no getting around this one. The single most important thing about flash fiction is that you have to be a good writer. Now, that doesn’t mean cramming in metaphors until they’re spilling onto the keyboard, or describing in minute and lyric detail what the cornflake on a character’s spoon looks like. It’s about having a good command of the English language, knowing how to craft a sentence, getting your grammar right.
Take a look at the advice articles on my blog. If you don’t know what filter words are, how to show rather than tell, or what the different types of dialogue tags are, learn this stuff. Understand it. Better it. You have one chance to impress the judges, so impress them with the very best story you can write.
Think you’re a writer? Prove it.
2. Write. Edit. Revise.
Following on from the above: send in your absolute best work. Don’t rattle off a first draft and submit it that same day. Let it rest for a day or two. Rewrite. Edit. Take your time with it. Polish it until it shines.
I forgive the odd typo or two, but I won’t lie — a misplaced apostrophe in the first line or a forgotten speech mark doesn’t make me eager to read the rest of the story. It puts me on the lookout for your next mistake.
Don’t make me wary of your next paragraph. Make me excited for it!
3. Tell a Great Story.
Of course, it’s not just about how you write, but what you write. You must keep the reader entertained at all costs. That’s the aim.
And an “entertaining” story doesn’t have to be funny or adventurous or anything like that. It just has to make us feel something: happy, sad, angry, excited, amused, regretful, tense, lonely, loved.
Even for a 500-word piece, try to stick to normal storytelling rules and advice. Give your story a beginning, a middle, and an end. Make your dialogue realistic. Use as much voice (that elusive, hard-to-describe creative essential) as possible. Get inside your characters’ heads and use shortcuts to help us get there, too. Keep the reader engaged, interested, and entertained from the first word to the very last.
Your 500 words could be like a single scene from a book or an encapsulation/reworking of an entire book’s plot. It’s up to you. But make sure that story can stand alone and — most importantly — that it’s worth reading.
4. Make Something Happen.
Just like writers and readers, the Mash judges have very different opinions about what makes a story great. Something I enjoy might be passed over by others, or a piece I found dull is loved by everyone else. It’s a lottery. But to impress me, I need your story to be interesting. I need something to happen.
It’s hard to pinpoint what constitutes ‘something happening’ in a story, because a 500-word story is tiny. It’s roughly a page-and-a-bit of text. Two pages at most. But trust me, you can do so much with those 500 words. You can do anything.
Think of it as a snapshot: a quick, fleeting moment that you want to linger in the reader’s mind, to be studied and fleshed-out and puzzled over later. If you can write a murder mystery in 500 words, fan-bloody-tastic, send it in! But not all plot is “active”. Your story could be two characters having a chat over coffee, or a woman’s mind wandering while she’s on a blustery walk.
The trick is to show a change from that first paragraph to the last. Take the woman on a walk. Maybe she’s morose, she feels useless, she’s walking along a clifftop and she’s going to hurl herself over the edge. In the last line, she doesn’t. Or maybe she seems like she’s coping, making the best of it, and suddenly flings herself over as a shock to the reader. Or maybe you don’t show that she’s on a clifftop until the very last moment: you don’t reveal the danger, the reality of her feelings, until it’s too late to save her. She’s already falling. Or maybe she isn’t on a walk at all: she’s at home, surrounded by steaming pans and unwashed plates and crying babies and stress, stress, stress, but in her mind she’s escaped — and the reader escaped with her.
A story about a woman on a walk is boring — unless you make it not boring. Show change. Raise tension. Shock. Surprise. Mess with the reader’s head. Make them sad. Happy. Relieved. Disappointed.
Make something happen.
5. Nail the Last Line.
In a similar vein, I want a great last line. Some stories just peter out into nothingness and it’s really, really disappointing. The story just sort of… ends. Don’t be that writer, okay?
Just as the story as a whole should show change from the first paragraph to the last, your final line should cement this. It’s the final flourish of your piece; the firm swipe of your pen underlining your signature.
The last line should encapsulate or highlight the “something happening” in your story: its theme/plot. If it’s about a woman with an abusive partner, it could be her starting up the engine of her car and not looking back — or, depending on the outcome you’re going for, the woman trapped at home, stuck on the other side of a locked front door she threw away the key to. To end with her getting the celery out of the fridge or flipping through a magazine is a waste.
So think carefully about that last line. I’ve rejected good stories for having a disappointing one.
6. Pick a Good Title.
Similarly many stories are let down by a throw-away title, one that either says too much or too little about the piece. It’s not a deal-breaker, but the title is the reader’s first impression of a story, so it’s a good opportunity to hook them and set the tone. Let’s take Harry Potter as an example: how can changing the title change the reader’s expectations of the content? The Orphan. Harry. Harry Goes to School. First Year at Hogwarts. Harry the Wizard. The Boy Who Lived. Harry Does Hogwarts. (Okay, that last one was a joke…)
Think carefully about your title. Trust me, it’s more important than you realise.
7. Don’t Throw in a Plot Twist Just Because.
I love plot twists! I’m a mystery writer, so they’re kind of my thing. The whole ‘that’s not your real dad’/’I was born male’/’I’ve been murdering electricians in the basement all this time’ thing is so much fun to read — when it’s done well. But it isn’t always.
You can’t have a character pull out a gun and shoot someone in the last line and call that a plot. It isn’t. Especially if you’ve spent 490 words establishing a perfect Austen-style Regency romance, or faffed around with describing what a lovely sunny day it is in the park and how much fun your character is having.
The reader is there for 500 words, not 400+ of filler until you reach the twist and the “real” story. Twists — even the unpredictable ones — have to make sense. You have to foreshadow them, leave clues, match the tone and tension. A twist should leave the reader saying, ‘Ahhh! Of course!’ not ‘Oh… Okay?’
Think about the twists at the end of Fight Club, The Prestige, and The Sixth Sense. They’re awesome because all the clues were there for you from the very beginning: they make sense. They add to the story that came before the reveal rather than undermining it.
So do do a twist, but make sure you do it right.
8. Think Outside the Theme or Keywords.
If you’re writing a piece that has to include a few keywords (we use three at Mash) or a specific theme, you have to be clever about it. If the words javelin, bottle, and shame conjure up a doping scandal at the Olympics, great! But how many other people might think of exactly the same thing?
There will always be repetition and overlap in contests of this kind, but it’s your job to try to be as original as possible. Whatever the obvious story is, don’t do it — unless you KNOW you can trump every other person’s version of it.
There are three main ways to approach keywords. 1) Use them as plot points. You write a story about a carpenter drinking vinegar and doing his taxes. You take the words as prompts for the content of the story and go from there. 2) Mention them in passing. You weave the words into the story, but the story isn’t about the words. Eg. ‘He had the hands of a carpenter‘; ‘I darted between the tables, smoothing tablecloths and straightening vinegar bottles‘; ‘This was the life I’d chosen: book clubs, early bedtimes, paying the taxes on time.‘ 3. Take them out of context. This won’t work for every word, but some will have a different use or meaning you can experiment with. Eg. Carpenter ants, Karen Carpenter, John Carpenter; vinegar as a name for a street, a pet, a nickname for nasty Vinnie; taxes as in taxing: ‘talking taxes me these days‘.
Sometimes a story will be about a carpenter and it’ll be brilliant, and other times I won’t even have noticed where the keywords were used. Both approaches can be stunning or disappointing — so don’t force the story to revolve around a keyword if it really shouldn’t, but also don’t be scared to go literal with the words, either. Decide what works best for your story and stick to it.
But always think of the judges when you’re creating your piece: show us something new.
9. Time Your Submission Right.
I can’t speak for all competitions, but Mash gets the majority of its submissions right at the end of the deadline. I used to do this for novel competitions as well, sending my stuff out at 11:58pm the night of the deadline. What’s the harm in that, right? It’ll still be read.
But don’t do it!
I try to approach every story with an open mind and a positive attitude, but it’s hard to stay 100% objective when you’re wading through dozens of submissions at the end of the contest and it feels like you’ll never get through them all. If a story is fantastic then we will find it and shortlist it, even if it was the last submission we received. But you’re not giving yourself the best possible shot by waiting until the last minute.
Why? Well, for one thing, if you get shortlisted your story will only be showcased on the main part of the website for a few weeks before the next competition entries replace it, so you’re missing valuable exposure. You also run the risk of your story being very similar to something we’ve already shortlisted or read just a few entries before. That might take away some of its sparkle. And the judges will be tired, stressed, and utterly sick of those bloody keywords. We cannot be held accountable for our cranky finger slips…
Definitely, definitely, definitely take your time with your story, but try not to submit it right at the end of the submission window — or right at the start, either. We always have a judging hangover for the first few weeks of the new quarter as we decide on the previous winner, so it’s a few weeks before we read anything new. So really, there’s no rush.
If you want to submit early, do. But don’t compromise on editing and redrafting just to hear back from us sooner, because you won’t.
10. Be a Reader, Not Just a Writer.
There are hundreds of brilliant stories archived on the Mash Stories website, and plenty more on other competition sites, too. Read them. You can’t rattle off a tale and hope to be shortlisted if you’re not familiar with flash fiction or short stories in general. And besides, they’re a treat to read. Writers submit stories in the hope of being shortlisted, of being read, of gaining exposure — but if you won’t read anyone else’s stories, why should anyone read yours?
Mash isn’t just a competition, it’s a community. Read the stories, find your favourite, and send in your own story to rival or complement it. Have fun. Not everyone can be shortlisted every quarter and some of you will be disappointed, but whoever said it was all about winning? Learn from the published stories, your own drafts, your mistakes.
Read, write, and enjoy it. Whatever happens.
- Be a good writer: show, don’t tell; don’t filter; know your spelling and grammar; write something to be proud of.
- No first drafts: don’t hammer out a story and send it off in the same day. Wait, re-read, revise, edit, share with friends, then submit.
- Always entertain: don’t forget that you’re telling a story for the enjoyment of others. Give them something fun, moving, or sad. Make them feel.
- Be interesting: make things happen in your story. 500 words is a snapshot, a fragment of time: make it an impressive one!
- Include a great last line: don’t trail off with something boring, hit the judge over the head with a lasting image. Link it to your story’s overall plot or theme. Finish on a high.
- Pick a fitting title: your title is the reader’s first impression of a story, so don’t waste it on a throw-away word or phrase. Use it to set the tone or foreshadow the ending.
- No crazy plot twists: all twists and surprises should make sense with what came before it. Don’t try to liven up a dull picnic by having your character pull out a gun in the last line. Build up to it. Foreshadow it. Create tension. Readers want an ‘Aha!’ moment, not an ‘Oh…’ one.
- Be original with the keywords: judges get loads of submissions, so for themed contents try to avoid the obvious avenues and word associations.
- Submit at the right time: try not to submit at the very end of the competition window or at the very very beginning.
- Read other stories: get a feel for flash fiction and short stories by looking at the competition and past winners. Use them for inspiration, comparison, and — of course! — fun.
If you managed to make it right to the end of this post without falling asleep or setting your computer on fire, congrats and thank you! For a post about flash fiction, this was embarrassingly long. Your reward is a picture of my little mini dachshund nephew Bruno doing his best “Blue Steel” in a rock pool in Cornwall. Because why not?
I hope this was helpful to any Mashers or flashers (ha!) out there. If you have any questions, worries, or tips of your own, please feel free to leave a comment or get in touch with me on Twitter.
Thanks for reading, and I wish you all the best of luck with your submissions!