I earn my living writing longish stories – my historical fantasy novels for adults usually come in at around 150,000 words. Perhaps because I’ve always loved traditional storytelling, including myths, legends and sagas, I do tend to think big, and it sits most comfortably with me to write fiction in the long form. I write short stories, too, but I find them more of a challenge. Every element must be refined and polished, the key message of the story must be conveyed perfectly within the limited word count, and the writer has a lot less space in which to connect with the reader. Because I find writing short fiction difficult, it was especially rewarding when one of my short stories, By Bone-Light, a contemporary version of the Baba Yaga fairy tale, recently won two awards and was short-listed for a third.
As an established writer I’m sometimes asked to sit on selection panels or judge writing competitions, and currently I’m sole judge for a short fiction competition that has drawn in entries from around Australia. This contest was for a short story in any genre with a 3000-word limit. I thought it might be useful for me to share my judging process here. Some of the WU community will be just starting out with writing short fiction, some will be improving their craft and some will be a lot better at it than I am. Some of you, like me, must periodically find yourselves needing to judge other writers’ work. You may be given established guidelines to work from, or you may set your own.
I had nearly 130 stories to read. As an experienced competition judge with a busy schedule of other tasks, I have a fairly ruthless approach in the early stages. For this contest, I read every story once and attached a post-it note with a 1, 2, or 3, plus a comment where required, eg, interesting concept but no proper ending; engaging but over-written. A number 1 was a story that impressed me and might be short-listed, number 2 deserved another read before being ruled out, and number 3 was a definite no. That first stage reduced the stories under consideration to around 60.
What ruled a story out after only one read-through?
– poor formatting (though if a story was exceptionally well written, I would be prepared to overlook this – none of these were.) Anyone entering a story in a competition should stick to the format required, which generally means double spacing, an easily read font in 12 point, decent margins, and proper indentations for paragraphs and direct speech. Basic! Also, if the guidelines tell you not to put your name and address on the story, don’t.
– errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar and/or syntax. Incorrect word use.
– overwrought language.
– inconsistency of tense or POV within a scene; clumsy head-hopping.
– typographical errors. (Again, if only one or two, and otherwise an excellent story, I’d overlook these)
– lots of telling, not much showing.
– lack of originality. There were many similar ideas and settings.
– dated, ponderous writing style.
Then came the second stage of judging, which brought 60 stories down to around 30. The 1s and 2s got another read, and I weeded more out on this basis:
Ruled out at stage 2: anything that was not a complete short story
– novel-sized plots squeezed into 3000 words
– chunks of history thinly disguised as historical fiction
– pieces that read like memoir (with some exceptions, where a great concept and skilful execution gave the piece the emotional depth and punch of a short story)
– pieces with no satisfactory story arc; in particular, stories without a proper ending. There’s no need for every loose thread to be tied up, but the story must feel complete in itself. It should not read like the first chapter of something bigger.
– stories that did not say anything. The best short stories touch the heart (make us laugh, make us cry, scare the pants off us) and stimulate the imagination/intellect. A story should make us feel and make us think. We should remember it long after we finish reading.
– stories that lacked an assured voice.
– characters who did not come alive for the reader.
When you’re getting to the pointy end of a competition, it’s hard to keep personal taste out of the selection process. Ask me what I like in a short story and my answer will be: a powerful story written simply and subtly, with excellent command of the writer’s craft and a compelling voice. If a story has a sad/tragic ending, I believe it should contain some note of hope or learning, even if it’s only the merest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The submissions contained a few well-written but unrelentingly bleak stories, and I did not select any of those for my short-list. I also considered whether the writers had taken some creative leaps, given themselves some challenges, been in some way adventurous. Several stories stood out for successfully pushing boundaries.
Stage 3: the short list
It was interesting, after working through the best of the bunch again, to take another look at the post-it notes I’d attached after the first read-through. On the eventual winner: VG prob winner. On the second place-getter: Love this, beautiful, top 3. On the third place-getter: Well written, original, second or third. I was pretty sure about these three right from the start – two packed a big emotional punch, one explored a highly original concept, all were written with assurance. That gave me renewed confidence in my selection method! Fortunately, the rules of the contest allowed me to award quite a few Highly Commended and Commended placings as well. There’s a lot of variety in my short list.
Judging this competition gave me a new window into the writer’s journey. Many of the entrants were still working on craft basics; some were gaining competency and starting to stretch their boundaries. A heartening number of writers had the lot: craft skills + originality + writing with emotional heft. This experience made me think hard about my own short fiction writing and how I could improve.
Have you judged a writing competition? Entered one? What did you think of the experience? Can judging creative writing ever be really fair?
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