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: