Judge’s Report – September 2015 – Young Adult Fiction

SAWC – September 2015 Competition: Young Adult story about ‘Survival’. (2500 words)

Firstly, thanks again to SAWC for hosting this competition and for giving me the opportunity to judge once more.
At only eight entries this time around the field was fairly small, with the top three all jockeying for pole position. Intriguingly, and no doubt driven largely by the topic of “Survival”, the types of story were all relatively similar. Most focussed on real world scenarios in a contemporary setting. And so we had stories of kidnapping and plane crashes; schoolyard bullying and juvenile detention centres;  game reserves and home invasions. The Fantasies and Dystopias and Sci-Fi were conspicuously absent. All, bar one, were set within South Africa. Most stories also seemed to have a more melancholy flavour this time around with many of the protagonists being introspective and ‘different’ from the crowd.
A good story, in my view, rests on two perfectly balanced pillars: imagination (in other words the tale itself) and accuracy (in other words the precision with which it is told). Neither of these pillars is more important, yet all of us tend to favour one over the other.
To use a cycling analogy, a flat, straight road is very easy to cycle on, but after 10 kays it gets mind-numbingly boring. By contrast a rugged goat track zigzagging through the Drakensberg makes for spectacular scenery but bloody hard pedalling, coupled with frequent dismounts, punctures and wipe-outs. Our reader is the cyclist and our job, as writers, is to give them the best possible cycling experience. The best of both worlds: a smooth fast-flowing track through spectacular scenery that delights. Every rock or log we leave along that path has the potential to rattle our cyclist. Our cyclist may forgive some bumps along the path, but at some point they will dismount and walk home.
All of the entries this year featured one pillar that was significantly stronger than the other. In judging, I looked at the overall picture: i.e. which stories delighted the most, and which held the most potential. The podium positioning reflects this thinking.
The winners are as follows:
FIRST PLACE – Survival
This was a very colourful piece about a young boy’s dream of flying a hang-glider type contraption and the resulting panic and desperation that ensues when it all goes awry and he crashes in mountainous terrain. Technically this story had quite a few bumps and lumps in the reader’s path but it was carried by vivid writing that was exciting, highly visual and immediate! And I could easily see this story appealing to a young adult audience, given a bit more polishing.
SECOND PLACE – Welcome To The Real World
This story centred around a staged kidnapping attempt where a love-struck young boy gets duped by the object of his affection. He ends up in the boot of the ‘kidnapper’s’ car and has to use his ingenuity to get free and save the girl. This story had a great theme, good writing and a nice twist at the end. Although it also struggled a little with the technical sides of writing.
THIRD PLACE goes to Hippocampus
Technically this story was well written and was the most complex of all the tales. It centred around a young man’s reminiscing and inner turmoil around coping with his father’s passing, and his subsequent struggle to fit in. It was a very thoughtful piece but it suffered in two main areas. Firstly, it had no clear protagonist. Secondly the bulk of it was composed of Backstory (i.e. events that have already happened). The onstage action, when it happened was very good, but in a short story format, and a young adult one at that, too much Backstory slows the pace right down and the reader’s attention wanders.
A HIGHLY COMMENDED award is given to Full Moon

In terms of common trends, as far as improving the craft of the entrants goes, the following stood out:
    There were far fewer POINT OF VIEW (POV) issues this time round which is great! Most of the entrants seemed to have a good handle on whose point of view the story was being told from. Head-hopping was thus minimal.

    WEAK OPENING SENTENCES. I can’t stress this enough. Your opening sentence is the doorway to your story. It needs to be the strongest one you have. It doesn’t need to be pretty. It does need to hook your reader. It should offer your reader a “promise”. A promise that the rest of your story delivers on!
Take particular care with word order here. The most important words should go either at the beginning or the end of the sentence for maximum impact. Never in the middle. Readers cling to beginnings and endings of sentences far more than to what happens in the middle. Take this one for example:
“She feels her stomach muscles tighten hearing his voice following her down the passage.”
The most important word here is “tighten.” Tighten gives us tension… I would suggest moving it.
“Hearing his voice following her down the passage she feels her stomach muscles tighten.”

    OVERUSE of what I like to call, STACCATO sentences.
This surprised me, but quite a few entrants used short disjointed sentences where the conjunctions (joining words) were simply left out. I would caution against doing this. This is the domain of experienced writers. Until you have mastered the basics, don’t go here. I’ll concede, it can work, especially in scenes of high tension or lots of movement, but when these sentences are piled on top of each other it creates a very unwelcome rhythm in the text. Like all areas of rule breaking, the key here is CONTROL. If you are not doing this deliberately, if this is merely a part of your writing style, then you don’t have control and it comes through very strongly in the writing and unsettles the reader.
Some examples from a scattering of entrants:

I slowed as I approached Melissa’s, drove past the tall gates at a crawl, dead on time.
The delta-wing glider shuddered, reared like a horse spurred.
I took the keys out of the ignition, ran around the car to open the door for her.
He waited till they demolished the bread, laughing as they squabbled, jumped onto each other.

Each of these sentences snags the reader’s eye. Each of them could use an “and” in a strategic place.

    DIALOGUE STRUCTURE. This came up last time round as well. It tripped up a number of entrants again. A couple of entrants laid their paragraphs out (including dialogue) almost like newspaper text. Blocks of text are boring to the reader. They are a strain on the eye. It’s easy to lose your place. Dialogue structure exists for a reason: to avoid confusion. Moreover, readers are used to the correct structure. Anything out of the ordinary is hard to digest. So make sure you stick to the tried and tested structure, the most important element of which is that each speaker/actor in the dialogue gets a new line. Don’t let your dialogue run-on concurrently. Space it out for ease of understanding.

    PASSIVE voice…Beware the word “had”. It is not your friend. Use it sparingly! “Had” is extremely passive. It immediately takes the action off stage. Remember, the reader wants visual stories and the word “had” dims the lights. In a story of 2500 words, one entrant featured the word “had” 68 times. Another, 37. The average across the stories was probably about 12.

    FORMATTING.  Poor formatting took the shine off several entrants. With writing competitions, formatting is more important than you think. It’s the equivalent of ironing your clothes before going for a job interview. Don’t pitch up wearing baggies and slops. You will not get the job.
Examples here ranged from double spacing at the end of each sentence to presenting the entire text in bold 16 point font. Stick to a 12 point seraph font like Times New Roman or Garamond. This is convention.

    GRAMMAR. You don’t have to be an English professor to write a good story but you do need to get the basics right: full stops and commas go at the end of a word, not at the beginning of the next word.
I hope the comments I’ve made in the individual critiques serve to assist and encourage the writers. As per last time I have kept my comments practical rather than theoretical, as far as possible, and given examples to explain what I mean. Again, I’ve focussed more on improving story-telling technique rather than improving pure grammar, since grammar can largely be learned from a good high school text book, whereas story telling techniques are more hard to come by.

Congratulations again to the winners!

Warmest regards,
Ian Tennent