The Kenyon Review has re-opened its annual short fiction contest. It looks good: emerging writers only (you can’t have published a book), 1,200 words maximum, March 1st deadline, an 18 dollar entry fee which grants you a year’s subscription to the journal. If you’ve got eighteen dollars and a very short story you can finish this month, give it a shot.
What’s also interesting is that the contest page displays the winners and runners up from the past five years. Because the entries are so short, the winning pieces can all be read in a morning (I did this yesterday), and so it’s theoretically possible to see if there’s a certain type of story that tends to win.
There’s two ways to think about such a test: one is the mechanical option–literally creating a set rubric of story qualities, then trying to write something to match it. That’s probably impossible for most people’s creative facilities.
The other option, instead, is to let a sense of the various stories build up in your head, and use that inchoate feeling to inspire you. Or to focus on the stories that impress you the most, and try to write something similar. I was really impressed by “The Boy in the Lake,” for instance, and “Death Threat.” The first, for its suspenseful build up, and the second for its atmosphere and language.
But if I were actually to attempt to produce a list of qualities the contest seems to like, I’d firstly note how few characters appear in most of the stories. It’s usually one character thinking about another. There’s a compression of character and setting that, I think, helps to increase the emotional impact of such short pieces. Lacking time for a full scale plot or a sequence of dramatic scenes, most of these writers get up close to their protagonist, and use a lot of summary and exposition to make the situation seem real. “Home,” for instance, very skillfully blends one continuous scene (a bomb has gone off in Karachi) with sections of exposition.
Secondly, several end in a kind of epiphanic surrender, with the protagonists disappearing into water or sand, giving up to their situation and thus seeming to achieve a kind of unity with it. I think this technique appears so often, in these entries, because it lets the writer move from the initial portion of reflection and exposition to an act, by the protagonist, which feels final or summational. “Sculptures” is perhaps the most distinctive example of this move.
But these may just have been the noticeable qualities in the stories I liked. Have a look! If you do write a piece for the contest, I’d love to run a blog post on your creative process.