July 19, 2009

Judging stories

I recently finished a stint as one of several first-readers for a literary journal's fiction contest. I had a stack of 50 stories to read, which I had to whittle down to a top five that were sent on to the final judge(s). This was my first time on the other side of a literary journal, reading submissions instead of writing them, and though I was initially alarmed at what I foresaw as an agonizing slog of painful decision-making, it turned out to be easier than I thought.

There were a number of stories I set aside right at the beginning:

Genre stories: types of stories not published by the magazine in question, e.g. fantasy, horror, science fiction ---- I was surprised by how many of these there were. Probably at least a fifth of the pile I had, maybe more. Many of these were well-written, but didn't establish any kind of specialness outside of the traditions they were working in.

Stories with almost nothing at stake, e.g. twenty pages of how to get a kid to eat his vegetables. Ones that were boring from the first page. Again, many were technically well-written.

I was also surprised by the number of stories about someone on his/her deathbed, looking back on a life (a potential variation of nothing at stake, in a way, if there's no present conflict or narrative line through the reminiscences) or set in 50s-style small towns (nothing wrong with this -- I was just taken aback by how many there were).

At the end of this process of removal, my pile of still-viable stories was significantly smaller, and finally there were a few hard decisions, after all. But not as hard as I expected.

I don't know if I'll ever get the opportunity to try this experiment, but I think I could have sorted the stories into three piles (Yes, Maybe, and No) based on the titles and first sentences alone ---- and the piles would not have looked very different from the ones I ended up with after reading all of the stories. Well, perhaps the Maybe pile would be bigger if my selections were based on just the first sentence. But the No pile would be the same, I'm sure of it.

All in all, it reminded me that the short story is a difficult animal. It is not enough to be a good writer to win a story contest. You need to read a lot of short stories and try to understand how they work. And it REALLY helps if you read previous issues of whatever magazine you're trying to publish in. (Until this experience, I could never understand why so many writing resources harped on this point.)

In the course of reading the submissions, I happened upon this blog post on How Not To Write a Story (written by a writer judging a story contest) and it was an eerie echo of many of the things I saw. Good advice.

The most exciting part of the process, though, was finding the gems and being surprised by where they took me. All the best stories were surprising.

10 comments:

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

Man, it's nice to hear from someone in the same paper-mine! I'm judging my first contest for unpublished short stories and it's...tough to come across writers who have no respect for the genre (or the rules of the contest). The gems will eventually make up for it, I'm sure, but this morning was a little hard on me. So pleasant to read your post at exactly the right time!

Jonathan Ball said...

Saleema, you would not believe the shit that people used to send me at dandelion. We publish twice a year -- and I got proposals for weekly columns. We publish a magazine -- and I got entire book-length manuscripts. It saddens me because this is not the minority, this is the majority.

Jonathan Ball said...

Lots of stuff from prisoners too, with cover letters like this: "When I was eight I burned down my house with my family inside. Now I want to share my true story about Jesus."

B.Kienapple said...

How could anyone think 20 pages of vegetable eating could be interesting? Oh dear.

saleema said...

@Rebecca R - I'm glad I've offered a little solace. Now a Journey gig, that's where it's got to get a bit tougher --- and, presumably, more gratifying!

@Jonathan - Oh my lord, book-length manuscripts. You're right, I would never have guessed! Though I have a soft spot for correspondence from prisoners. So much so I'm working it into my next novel, I think.

@B.Kienapple - Okay, it wasn't actually vegetable-eating. I changed the details somewhat to protect the pride of the anonymous writer, should he or she ever end up here. But trust me, there were definitely stories analogous to this. I suspect that many of them were legitimately amusing, short real-life anecdotes before their terrible transformations.

Jonathan Ball said...

Prisoners, fine. But the ones who write are totally insane and fancy themselves the new Bukowski.

Laura® said...

"Nothing at stake" is a good way to describe most of the stories I've read and hated. I think it depends on the reader (though anyone writing about getting a kid to eat vegetables should be mommy-blogging and not writing fiction), but what's that old saying about if it bores you to write it, it'll bore people to read it?

saleema said...

@Jonathan The more insane the better.

@Laura I agree, it does depend on the reader to a certain extent. I actually do read a lot of personal blogs, all by mothers, but the best ones aren't writing 20 pages at a time of their battles with toddlers. But then, I think of personal blogs as something closer to a novel: a short entry about veggies is a scene creating a feeling for a life, and what's at stake is everything else I know about this woman and her family and her personal goals and, and...

Andrew M. said...

Brief stints at two publications taught me that, yes, the first paragraph will probably tell you all you need to know. Even though we didn't publish genre, I read about a bajillion drunken beheadings in a million orc-infested mead halls, and all the orcs had names like orfus and blitzcarn. sigh. keep on trucking.

saleema said...

@Andrew M. Orfus and Blitzcarn!! Excellent. Next time I think I'll take all the stories and go sit in a mead hall myself.