I've finished the judging for the Sean O'Faolain short story competition, sent my decision in on Monday. The longlist will be announced next week, I'll let you know when it's posted. In the meantime, I thought I'd reflect on how it was for me, what I learned as a reader and as a writer.
849 stories. No sifters, no first readers. Just me. I'd heard from previous judges that I should pace myself otherwise I could be overwhelmed! So I did. And although I was getting 100 or so stories at a time - and two large parcels in the post of about 100 printed stories each - I remained mostly calm. It's a joy and a privilege, first to be asked to pick only what I love, and second to have hundreds of writers entrust me with your stories. I don't take that lightly. I've done it myself, many times. You do send out a small piece of you whenever you submit anything. I took that responsibility very seriously.
I am not, of course, going to mention individual stories, nothing like that. But I thought it might be useful - for me and for others - to talk about what it was like to be the sole judge. Of course, each judge is different, each short story competition is different, and most will have readers and only pass on a long- or short-list to the final judge.
What I tried to do when opening or picking up each new story for the first read was to say to the story: "Wow me. Show me what you've got!" and be completely open. At the beginning, as I read the first 100, I was quite nervous. What if I didn't find a single story that I liked? I mean, really, I'm very picky, I read lots and lots of short stories, all the time, and I know what a great story feels like, what it does to you. I was going to settle for nothing less than that physical jolt of a fantastic short story, that slap in the face, that sensation that you simply can't read anything else, you have to stop and digest what you've just read.
As I read, stories started making it into the Maybe pile. These were stories that stood out for various reasons: beautiful use of language, strong character voices that I could hear as I read, unique settings or situations, utterly bizarre plots I felt I had to read again!
The ones that didn't make it into the Maybe pile were those that tended to take a long time to get to any action, to explain too much to me, to overdo it on the background information, to not have a "voice" so that I couldn't hear the character, or to use very flowery language which I felt got in the way rather than enhanced the story. Stories that didn't make the Maybe pile were those that felt as though I'd read them before, somewhere, that they were familiar, too familiar, in terms of storyline or characters.
Very very few stories made it straight into the Yes pile, and those were the ones that on first read gave me that jolt. No doubt about it. They shook me up. They had everything that, for this reader, makes a great and winning story.
After reading a few hundred of the earliest entries, I had quite a few Maybes and one or two Yesses and so I was feeling far less nervous. I had stories I liked, loved even, and from that point on, while also saying to each story "Wow me", I was also reading with a slightly different eye. As more stories went into the Maybe pile and I realised I had "enough" stories that I liked, I think that I was tougher on the later stories. I asked slightly more of them, I said to them "So, how are you better than the ones I already like?" And as I got closer and closer to the last of the entries, this probably became more exacerbated, as I imagine it would for anybody.
I don't believe that this meant I gave less consideration to the later-submitted entries. Every story got equal consideration. But it is an inevitable part of a process like this. One way to completely avoid this might have been to wait until all the entries were in and then read them in random order, unrelated to when they were submitted. But that would have meant reading 849 stories in one week - and that would have been impossible!
However, on second read, things changed. I was going back and re-reading the Maybes, and the earlier entries were now being read in light of the later entries! So the process was balanced out. Several Maybes were moved to the No pile, and then I had my longlist, and it includes stories that were sent all throughout the entry period.
I then began the next stage, reading the few Yesses and the Maybes again and assigning each a score. This seemed to me to be the only way to try and narrow the list down. I didn't have a very elaborate scoring system, it was more of a gut reaction to each story. And on second read, not all the Yesses stayed in the Yes pile. I was looking for a story that gave up more of itself with every read - a story that has layers, that remains fabulous even when you know how it ends. This, for me, is the mark of a great story. There were several I had adored on first read but on second read, the magic, the jolt, just wasn't there.
Anyway, narrowing it down was incredibly hard. All the longlisted stories wowed and delighted me in some way. All of them. Really, getting onto my longlist was the major achievement because it meant that a story leapt out at me from amongst hundreds.
So, what made the move from longlist to shortlist? Much of it was down to those extremely difficult aspects of a story: beginnings and endings. In a few instances, stories had quite slow beginnings, they took too long, in my opinion, to get to the action. Once they got there, the story was great, but they needed a bit more revision. In other cases, endings let a story down. The story had gripped me, the voice was great, but I'd felt that the ending didn't satisfy me, didn't give me any kind of jolt.
And what of the winners? Well, that was really really hard. In the end, all I could do was go with my gut feeling. It was so close, between all of the top stories. But the 1st and 2nd placed stories were the ones that brought me to tears as I read them again and again, they just had that power. I felt that they addressed so many themes so well and concisely, without labouring a point, and there was really nothing in there that wasn't in the service of the story, nothing extraneous. They both used language beautifully, with rhythm. And they had an oddness that I found very appealing but they were completely consistent within the odd worlds they created.
I am sure that a different judge would have picked different winners. Maybe a similar longlist, I don't know, but I chose a winner that I felt really reflected my personal short story tastes, what I love to read. You'll get to read all six top stories in the next issue of Southword, so you can judge for yourself!
Is there anything you - and I - can take from this as writers? Well, here's the big one: to catch the eye of a judge - or a sifter - you have to do just that. Be eye-catching. Be DIFFERENT. But, and here's the hard thing, not gratuitously different. Not whizz-bang-let-off-fireworks different. Being different can be very very quiet. Being different can mean tackling the same theme - love and relationships, family dynamics, etc... - in a way that only you can do in your writing. Catch the judge's eye with your love for language. Or with a character who has such a distinctive voice from the first line that the reader is dying to find out more about him and what happens to him.
Does a story submitted to a competition have to be different from one submitted to a literary journal? Now that's a very good question. It's been floated that there are "winning stories", that a competition winner is somehow more polished, better crafted. Well, I can only speak for myself but in the three comps I've judged this year, I wasn't interested in polish and craft. I'd far rather read a slightly messy and somewhat confusing story that took risks than a very neat story that plays it safe.
I think, reading back over this blog post, that in fact none of it is very useful! I can't generalise much about anything. I still know what I love to read and what I don't. But there is never any way of knowing what a competition judge loves to read. As I mentioned a few months ago, I definitely don't love only the kinds of stories I write.
So, in conclusion: write only what you want to write. Write only what you have to write. If you get longlisted, well that means you caught the judge's eye. If you don't that means that the judge liked other kinds of stories. Don't be disheartened. Send it out again. I'm happy to be back to doing that myself. I just sent 6 stories in to 2 flash fiction competitions. Will my experience as a judge help when they fail to get anywhere? I'm not sure, it will still sting. But I'll just send them out again.