Recently I had the honour to be a judge in Engen Books monthly flash fiction contest (Engen Books/Kit Sora: Flash Fiction/Flash Photography), and this led me to thinking of the process I go through when judging other authors.
Judging fellow authors is both a privilege and a chore, and not one to be taken lightly.
Reading the creative work of others is always exciting, seeing how a group of writers using the same photo prompt in different ways can open your eyes and lead you down roads you didn’t know existed. The flip side is reading stories you know someone has put their heart and soul into, but didn’t grab you in the same way, and you are contributing to their sting of rejection.
Saying all that, would I do it again? Absolutely, and for one simple reason, judging a writing contest makes YOU a better writer. It forces you out of your little bubble and opens new vistas that until now you didn’t know you were missing.
So, if someone gives you the chance to judge a writing contest, how do you go about it? Well, all I can do is tell you the way I do it, what I look for, what I hope NOT to see, and how to keep an open mind.
One of the nice things about judging the Engen Books Flash Fiction contest is that the same photo prompt created by the talented Kit Sora is used by all the authors. If a contest doesn’t have a photo prompt, they usually have a theme/setting/word to guide the creations. Whatever the prompt is, make sure you have it firmly in your mind when reading the submissions. One of my favourite stories I read for this contest had only the tiniest connection to the prompt, and I didn’t rank it as high because of that reason.
As a writer, I love a good title. I’d like to think its something I’m good at, that’s why I was disappointed when I realized a handful of the submissions for this contest had no title whatever. While I didn’t penalize for lack of title, authors are missing an excellent chance to grab their reader, and set the tone for their story.
I prefer contest such as this that have the author’s name scrubbed from the stories, that way there is no chance for unconscious bias to creep in, thankfully Engen Books did all that hard work for me.
I’m a tactile reader, so I printed out all the submissions, got comfortable and read each piece of flash fiction start to finish keeping the photo prompt firmly in my mind. Since this contest had a 250 word limit, it didn’t take long to read each story. For me, first impressions are important, so each story went into one of three piles, Yes/No/Maybe, as soon as I finished it. Once all the stories were read, I walked away from them and let them stew in my hindbrain for a while. When I came back to the stories, I read them all again, and some stories ended up in a different pile.
Things I look for:
Strong title, this is the first thing your reader sees.
A complete story, I want a beginning/middle/end.
I like strong action and/or dialogue, so stories with that ranked higher than others.
Did the story fit the photo prompt? If so, did the author do it in a way I won’t have thought of?
Story mechanics, how was the sentence structure/spelling/grammar? Since all writers make mistakes, and I know my own weaknesses, I don’t judge this harshly, though I look for “filler words”. Every “seems, like, that, very” takes away from your valuable word count when writing flash fiction.
The last thing I do is ask myself if I enjoyed the story? For me, a flawed story I enjoy, ranks higher than a perfectly crafted one that didn’t grip me. The author and/or publisher can polish a gem, but it’s not as easy to light a fire without a spark.
When I was all said and done, I had read each of the submissions at least three times before I ranked them from my most favourite to least. Then I sent them back to the publisher for their consideration and final verdict. I’d read stories that touched and moved me, ones who had gone in a direction I’d never of thought of, and consider myself lucky for the opportunity.