Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What I love to read is not always the same as what I love to write

When I'm thinking about submitting a short story to a competition, I always try and find something the judge of the competition has written, as if that will give me an idea whether she or he will choose my story for glory! However, now that I'm honoured to be on the other "side" as one of the final judges for the Brit Awards (now closed), the Bristol Short Story Prize (get your entry in before March 31st!), and the sole judge reading all the entries for the Sean O'Faolain prize (just opened), I realised something: what I love to read is often very different from the sorts of things I love to write. I thought this might be useful for those of you who are entering.

I read a short story collection per month for review for The Short Review, and, after 2 1/2 years, I can see that if you look at my reviews, you would have a hard time pinpointing what exactly it is in a short story that thrills me. I have been bowled over by science fiction and thrilled by the highly experimental, deeply moved by realist stories, and blown away by tiny flash fictions and much longer stories. If you really want to get an idea of what I love to read, check out my latest review, of Janice Galloway's extraordinary and category-defying Collected Stories, and at the bottom is a list of all the reviews I have written.

So, to sum up: I can't sum up, and I am very glad about that. Yes, I love the very short, but I will also gladly be won over by a short story nudging the word limit if it justifies its length and each word is necessary. I am grabbed by characters with strong voices that jump off the page, but also by much quieter stories. Not much has to happen to impress me. It's not about plot. It's not about sudden twists, the dead rising, major revalations.

So, this is probably singularly unhelpful if you thought I might give you a hint as to what you "should" submit. My one criteria is this: I want to read a story that only you could write. All the story collections I have loved have struck me hard as being something that, yes, may have originally taken inspiration from previous greats, as we all do, but this author told their stories the only way they could. So here's my Great Advice: just send me a story only you could have written. No more and no less than that.


Tim Love said...

I agree it's not always easy to guess a person's reading tastes from what they write. It might not be a good idea anyway - I know there are judges who are allergic to entries that seem designed with them in mind.
It's sometimes easier to guess their blind-spots (which is what I'm more interested in) by reading interviews with them.

Tania Hershman said...

Excellent point about the blind spot, Tim! I guess it won't tell you much if I say that adverbs set my teeth on edge and that lazy writing is my blindspot. I am turned off by a story that begins by setting the scene and explaining who everyone is - but then again, if done well, it might just win me over. Very hard to pinpoint. The delight of being the sole judge is that I get to pick exactly what I love. I will have to explain it at the awards ceremony!

Diane Becker said...

I found this post very reassuring once I'd got over the reality check that some writers 'gear' their stories to fit a particular market/competition. Duh (slaps own head) of course people do that. It's just that I don't and couldn't even if I tried. The down side of that of course is that what I write sometimes 'doesn't fit', but occasionally it does and when it does it makes me very happy. You give great advice to 'submit only what you could have written'. I have scrawled that across my own forehead (oh and have responded to it on my blog!). Thanks Tania :)

Tania Hershman said...

D - it's not that I think people write stories specifically to please a judge (well, I don't anyway) but if it's a judge whose writing isn't to my taste, I automatically assume she/he won't like my writing, and vice versa. Whereas that may not be true at all! And you know me, I love writing that doesn't necessarily "fit", I like the ugly ducklings, I think they're beautiful.

PS Have added both your blogs to my blogroll on the right, it got corrupted last week, have had to do it again and missed off loads!

Diane Becker said...

I know you don't think like that but realise that some writers do work in precisely that way. And like you I've been put off submitting because of the judges - my fault - like, why wouldn't John Hegley enjoy my stories?! Thanks for adding blogs too by the way :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, so much for the advice. I don't write short stories as of yet, poetry and working on a Novel only, but the advice is uniform and relevant. I just hope this slam against women writers and domestication is not blown out of perspective.–nuttgill

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Unknown said...

I like this post very much Tania.

I couldn't attempt to write a story that I thought would please a particular judge, it would feel way too forced I imagine. Besides which, sometimes I have written a story that I imagine will fit with a certain judge and feel a little optimistic, and I am always wrong!

The way a story works on our minds is a mystery to me, but one story will chime within and another will clang.

(Goes off to write short science inspired flash fiction piece!)

; )

Tania Hershman said...

Sara - you know how any mention of quarks makes me tingle! And yes, me too, every time I thought I had a story that the judge would, of course, adore, I bombed. It is a mystery. Best way to be.

Lauri said...

This post is infuriating and freeing at the same time. I am currently sitting in short story purgatory and wish-oh-wish someone would hand me a recipe book. "10 easy Ways to Know You've Written a Keeper".

As you know my confidence recently got a serious slapdown from an editor and now I just feel like I don't know what a short story is. I'm finding refuge in books where I at least have a game plan thanks to my tendency to write genre. I'm wondering if I'll ever find my way back to short stories. I feel so sad thinking the answer might be no.

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Anon/Michelle/Nutgill - so sorry, I wasn't ignoring you! But yes, I think this applies to any and all writing. Do what you do, don't try and shape it for a particular judge/editor. Not sure what you mean about women writers and domestication, not run into any of those issues myself!

Lauri, darling, so sorry not to have a recipe for you, because you know how much I'd love one of those too. I recommend you write some flash fiction in the meantime, it's wonderful - as Sara will concur - for given an energy boost and restoring your faith! Am happy to help at any point.

Anonymous said...

THis is a more general question about competitions. How strict is the word count?
Do people go beyond the limit? If beyond is acceptable how far beyond? Any replies competition entrants as well as esteemed judges would be interesting.