"How come my stories aren't scoring routine HM/semi/Finalist the way others' stories are?"
To quote one of my favorite old movies from the 80's:
Charles De Mar wrote:I've been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I'm no dummy.
Put more plainly, I think I've been doing this enough -- writing fiction at an aspirant level, that is -- and getting enough regular action at WOTF in particular -- in the form of HM and Finalist notices -- to have my finger (somewhat, perhaps) on the pulse of things.
1) Your SF or F element is probably not apparent enough, early enough in the story. Granted, the WOTF books run the gammut. But contemporary stories where the SF or F element is very subtle, or very abstract, or very under-the-radar, might still be good stories, they're just not wearing their SF and F credentials on their sleeves enough to make the cut. I've never gotten a rejection, but then the six stories I've sent to the contest have all had very, very apparent SF or F elements -- settings, characters, language, story title, etc. Not much subtlety, in that regard.
2) Your SF or F story might be too much of a "downer" story. We all know it's become chic in the literary field to write "down" fiction, because "downer" stories are basically code for realism, because as every good emo knows, life is pain and suffering and you can't write real fiction and be a real writer if you don't write about pain and suffering. Especially on a quasi-existential level. I say, pain and suffering are fine, but they must serve a purpose in the story. A positive purpose. They must either drive your character towards a more positive outcome, or they must be crucibles that transform your character into a better person(s) than they were before. Pain and suffering -- for their own sake -- aren't what WOTF is interested in. So have your story and your protag(s) follow a more or less positive arc, or at least end up somewhere that, when you read between the lines, appears to be taking them in a positive direction.
3) Your story might be bashing religion, or possibly lacks a religious element altogether. It's my inexpert opinion that you hurt yourself not at all by making your story religious. Now, I don't mean bible-thumpin'. I mean, explore a religious theme, make a character or characters sympathetically religious, etc. Religion, as an artifact of human behavior and society, can be endlessly fascinating. It can also be a tremendous informant of a protag's ideals, thoughts, motivations, etc. Doesn't even have to be a religion we'd recognize from modern day. Make it up! But make it relevant. Delve into what it means to Believe. Or, have your character torn between the secular and the theological. Make this part of the character's inner journey, either away from an incorrect spiritual perception of the universe, or towards something that seems more consonant with a fundamental truth or otherwise defining aspect of the character's perception.
4) On that note, your protag might not be taking enough of a voyage. Again, literaristicaliciousness dictates that Good Fiction is a talking-heads, painfully self-absorbed thing. Grand journey's are soooooooo passÃƒÂ©. Everything has to be angsty and happen inside the protag's head, or it's no good. I say, PHHHBTBTBTBT! Take the reader -- and your protag -- on a grand ride. Go places! At the risk of sounding corny, dig that box of SENS-O-WUNDAÃ¢â€žÂ¢ that you put in the closet long ago, and shovel a few scoops into your next WOTF entry. Grand vistas. Big places, with big people and big ideas. Get ***LARGE*** with your perspective and your characters. Then, dovetail this Big Adventure ThingÃ‚Â® with an inner voyage (see #3 and #5.)
5) Your character isn't going on an internal quest at the same time he or she is going on an external quest. And no, angsty navel-gazing is NOT a substitute for personal evolution. Have the events and the travels and the exploits of the story CHANGE the protag(s) on some level, so that they're not the same at the end of the story than when they set off. This might actually be the most important part of all, beyond everything else I've already mentioned earlier. Because this is where you're liable to Hook The ReaderÃ‚Â© with the emotional and psychological and spiritual development of the protag(s) as they surmount or face down the external challenges you set before them. In the end, your story won't matter to the readers if your story doesn't eventually matter to the character(s) in the damn story.
Again, I am not an expert, and these are just my theories. If you have been struggling with rejections and rare HM, but no semis or Finalist stories, then give my advice a shot. Try it out. See if it makes a difference. It might.
Of course, if you're so brand new -- meaning you're truly a Fresh Aspirant with very limited experience writing anything at all -- there is no replacement for homework. You'll have to write a LOT of words to improve, and probably none of them will score you a win -- or a sale. Do them anyway, enjoy the teaching and the exploration of the words. Don't fret, just work.
Otherwise, if you think you're at a Certain Level and you're scratching your head over why this isn't registering with the contest, re-read above, and ponder it a little. Use what seems workable. Throw away the rest.
In the end, don't stop submitting. You can't hit the moon if you don't launch your rockets.
And if I can steal a bit from the Army's Soldier's Creed:
Never Quit. Never accept defeat.
That is all. Carry on.