Helen M Hunt interviewed me recently about the process of judging short story competitions.
Tell us about the short story competition you are judging at the moment. How many entries have you had to read, and how did you find the process?
I am currently judging the 2014 Bedford Short Story competition. There were several hundred submissions, but I am not reading them all. A panel of readers chose a short list of ten entries from which I will select a winner. This is not the first short story competition I have been invited to judge. The process is always interesting, because I get to read some brilliant stories!
For the CWA Debut Dagger Competition, I sit on a panel of judges. We read a shortlist of around a dozen entries chosen from hundreds of submissions by a large panel of readers. Last year's judges were two senior editors from major publishing houses, a leading literary agent, an independent publisher, along with myself as a bestselling author. We compared our opinions over lunch and reached a consensus. The discussion was fascinating, as we approached the reading from different viewpoints.
What appeals to you about the stories you think are worthy of winning, or being short listed? What sort of things are you looking for?
First of all, the writing has to communicate clearly, and have an impact right from the start. That is a prerequisite for consideration. After that, there has to be a hook. This could be an intriguing plot premise, an engaging character, or the lucidity of the prose. Any of these could draw me in and make me want to read on.
Is there anything that really turns you off a story? What should people avoid doing?
As with any reading experience, if the writing is confused, repetitive or poorly expressed, that would put me off. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to communicate well and engage your readers. Avoid cliches in your style, and stereotypes in characters. Plots should not stretch the reader's credulity too far, but nor should they be too predictable. It is a fine balance, and not easy to achieve.
Do you feel you can tell in the first few paragraphs whether a story will be any good?
What would your main advice be to people entering writing competitions, either for short stories, or any other sort of writing?
Enjoy the writing process for its own sake. If you don't love it, find something else to do. It's great to win a competition, better to be published, and even better to earn a comfortable living from writing fiction, but best of all is the experience of writing itself.
Have you ever entered any writing competitions yourself, or would you want to?
I have not entered any writing competitions, although my publisher did ask me to write a short story for him to submit to a competition. We are waiting to hear how my story did. Since I am used to writing novels, I found the short story a challenge!