I've just finished reading and judging (ie. slushing) the Flash Fiction component of the Lane of Unusual Traders Part 2. The Lane is a part of a large collaborative world building project managed by the excellent Tiny Owl Workshop crew, based in sunny Brisbane, Australia. As part of reading through the submissions, I thought I would give some tips and observations to any potential submitters to the Short Story component of the submission window (due May 31, people). I'm judging for that too, so you probably should pay attention if you want a submitting edge.
If you don't know what I'm talking about at all, check out the market listing link above, or go here to the 'LoUT' homepage for a quick introduction: http://thelaneofunusualtraders.com/
Finished? Keen to submit? Cool, then read on!
Tip 1: Anonymity
All submissions are read blind. This means the judges don't know who submitted what. If you tell me your idea or identify yourself in some kind of way that lets me match the submission to you, I can't fairly judge your story anymore, so don't do it!
How would this work against you? Say I have 2 stories I love and can only keep one. And say one of those is yours and I think you are super awesome and great and everyone knows it. If I don't want to be accused of favoritism, it's probably safest for me to pick the other story, and since I was having a tough time picking which one to keep, I only needed a small nudge to help me come to a conclusion. So don't do it!
Tip 2: Familiarity with the Content
Firstly, I strongly urge you to read as much of the existing fiction as possible. This will give you a feeling for the world, and for the various styles of writing that have been published before.
Some flash stories are here: http://tinyowlworkshop.com/2015/03/29/stories-from-the-lane-of-unusual-traders/
The Midlfell Wiki, a constant work-in-progress, is here. Information in this Wiki is free to use and integrate and expand on in your stories, and is in fact encouraged. But don't get too greedy and lock down huge swathes of the empty world with detailed descriptions, because you're just taking away possibilities from other authors (eg. "Everything north of Lind was a giant nuclear wasteland, and no one could ever write in ... uh ... I mean nothing could ever live on those plains again.").
Tip 3: Some criteria we use to choose between stories
- We're trying to fill one of the lots on the Lane with a shop or feature, and so your story, though it might capture the interstitial atmosphere of the Lane perfectly, is more likely to be picked if you do fill one of the spaces with a 'thing' relevant to your story. There is always room for a tale that happens on and not in the Lane, but...well, the guidelines say we need to pick one of the lots! As a corollary to that, if you put a shop in your story, but in the course of your story remove the shop through explosion, accident or otherwise...well, we're still left with an empty lot. We're trying to fill in the physical space of the Lane with stories, don't leave the space empty.
- We want a cool shop idea or Midlfell contribution.
- We want a story, not merely a vignette show-casing your cool shop idea or Midlfell contribution.
- We like it when the elements you are adding to the Midlfell canon serve as stepping stones for future writers and Midlfell projects.
- We don't want you to create too much of the world in your story. If it's not relevant to the story but you want to expand on Midlfell, try to keep it vague (see the previous dot point) and not too broad (eg. don't say, all Javain have nightmares whenever they sleep).
- Personally, if your submission has a story, it has a cool shop idea, and then that shop idea is subverted somehow which then ties back into the story? You're probably onto a winner right there.
- Last but not least, you need to write well. There is a certain amount of leeway we will give a submission that ticks all the boxes but needs a little bit of editorialising, but again, if we're stuck between great story A and great story 1, things like 'I'm not going to have to spend several hours tweaking great story 1 with the author' will work against you.
Tip 4: Things We've Seen a Lot
This is not a criticism of any specific story, merely a comment of the types of special shops in the Lane that we've seen a lot of already, either published or submitted. All of these things we've seen at least twice in the last submissions pile, and sometimes up to four times! Although each story might have a specific take on the notion, they are similar enough that we could only ever pick one even if they were all great!
If you want to incorporate one of these ideas in your submission, do go ahead, just make sure to think well out of the box or surprise us in some way:
- A shop or person that extracts/resells memories or emotions (good/bad)
- A shop or person that sells dreams
- A shop whose primary purpose is spying for the revolution or Kraken (although this is a recurring and often unavoidable notion throughout all the Lane stories past and present, this should at most be an element of your story, not its primary reveal).
- A shop that has bugs in it (we get lots of these, because bugs are awesome, but there's only room for so many bug shops on the Lane)
- A story that doesn't fill one of the lots on the lane with a home, place, feature, shop, memorial, etc. Read the guidelines folks.
- Untitled stories. If your story is untitled, call it 'Lot [x]' where [x] is the Lot number that relates to your story. If you can't find a lot number that would be meaningful to your story, check out the previous dot point. Or pick several lots, that's cool too. We need a pin on the map, though!
Tip 5: Don't Fret Too Much
Writing is a lottery. Once you get good enough at it technically, you are allowed to enter that lottery. At that point, ideas, execution and style will win you lottery tickets. After that you're susceptible to any number of random events from 'the story I just read was a bit like yours, but I read it first, so I chose that one' to 'I have a headache today and I don't like the way you introduced this character'. The quality of submissions is so high that often small things make the difference, and these are things you simply cannot control.
For example, in the Flash round, there were only about 4 stories that overlapped in the top 10 of both judges. Some that I had pipped out of the top 10 but that my fellow judge really liked only required a little convincing from her to make it back in. And, once in, that new addition might easily knock another piece that is too similar back out of the top 10, since we have to choose stories that complement each other, too. It's all really ephemeral. Just focus on getting those lottery tickets.
Write well, write an idea that complements and extends the existing Mildfell canon, surprise the reader, then submit and hope!