Our Quartely Contest — How it Really Works & What You Need to Know to Gain an Advantage

by - Sunday, April 28, 2019

In every new issue of Blank Spaces we publish a write prompt image hoping to invoke some great creativity and inspire new voices to send us work. When the pressure of submission is taken away, it's sometimes easier to take that first plunge into magazine publication and we're happy to make that available to our readers. It's always fun to see the unique ideas spun out of one image.

Since it's inception, the contest has slowly gained entries. This is thrilling because it's a sign of growth. It has also forced us to amend the way we process these entries. Because our judges are volunteers and we need to honour and respect their time, we no longer send all entries their way. Instead, I personally read through all the entries myself, selecting a handful of my favourites — a short-list, if you will — and that is what's sent on to the judging team. The number varies as the quality of entries varies. We have had times when only four or five have been pushed on to judging, and times when as many as ten make it through.

Beginning with our June 2019 issue contest we would like to start posting our shortlist as a way to celebrate those who make it past the first level. This means we will slightly amend the submission requirements to include a brief bio and photo.

Tips for making it to the shortlist:

  • Don't be too literal. Don't describe the photo, allow it to stir up a story. Be inspired by it, but don't let it dictate the narrative. If the photo contains a person wearing a winter coat, don't tell me what the coat looks like — focus on what I don't know: the smell of the air, the dampness of their feet, the eeriness or magic of the forest around them, what's waiting for them at the end of the path...
  • Edit, edit, edit! Auto-correct and spell-check is not a reliable editor. Read your submission out loud to yourself - this will help you catch silly mistakes. Use commas appropriately. Properly punctuate dialogue. And please pay attention to your tense. Do not switch from past to present tense. This is disorienting.
  • Be unique. I want to read stories I don't expect! Take the image to new places. Avoid clichés and over-done tropes (see below).
  • You don't have to be dark to be effective. Yes, there are places for dark stories, and I'm not against them, but 'dark' isn't the only way to evoke emotion in a reader. I'm still waiting for a story to make me laugh out loud. Try to be that guy — I'd love a break from the shadows!
  • Drop in some Canadiana. Don't set your story in Philadelphia, set it in Vancouver! I want our pages to run with Canadian themes. Let a character drink a Tim Hortons coffee. Talk about the sunset in the prairies. Take a ferry across the St. Lawrence. I love seeing little glimpses of our country within contest entries (and regular submissions).

Let's talk about clichés and tropes.

Relying on an old standard theme isn't always the best way to get noticed. What you don't want is to have someone say they feel like they've read this tale a hundred times before.

While going through the entries to the latest contest (based on an image of a woman and her dog) I became highly suspicious that somewhere out there, an English teacher had used the prompt as an in-class exercise. If this is true, I LOVE that and would be thrilled if that teacher - or any other teacher who wanted to do the same - would reach out and let me know.

The tells:
  • A large number of entries read like they were written from a high schooler's perspective.
  • Tropes/themes were overused in such a way I could clearly imagine students chatting across tables from each other, sharing (and stealing) ideas — domestic abuse, alcoholism, death — a few of the narratives were so similar it seems impossible they didn't come out of the same exercise.
  • A class-size amount of entries came through within minutes of one another.
There were stand-outs in this selection of entries, of course, but those were the ones that veered away from standard teenaged angst and overdone motifs.

There is a time and place to use clichés and tropes are what they are because people want the timid girl to escape the abusive boyfriend. Used well, they can result in a powerful story that seems fresh — but this takes thought and care and a willingness to colour a little outside the lines.

My best advice:

Whether you're a student entering your first piece of writing or a seasoned author who just wanted a break from your current manuscript, tap into your creative community and have at least one other person read your story before you send it through. A well edited and strongly executed story resonates with us, not only as a contest entry, but as a reason we might take special care to examine submissions you send in the future.

Check out our new contest submission form HERE.

Good luck!

—Alanna Rusnak, Editor in Chief

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