Wednesday, February 1, 2012

3 Things That Happen When I Judge For a Contest

Over here at the Literary Lab, we've been publishing anthologies for two years now. This will be our third year and third anthology. Sometimes I've wondered why we do this, but it's really not that big of a mystery! We do it because we adore fiction. We adore writing it. We adore reading it. We adore showing it off - especially your fiction. Getting my own work published is a huge mixed bag of trinkets, but publishing other writer's work...that's magic. It's nothing but exciting.

As I've been reading through the entries for the 2011 anthology contest we held last year, I find myself smiling a lot. There's some really great stuff in there. Here are the three main things that happen in my head as I'm reading along.

As much as I hate to say that everything rests on the beginning of your story, I do have to admit that as a reader who is looking for stories to publish, the beginning is essential. And it's not just what is happening in your story. It's everything combined. Your prose, your sentence structure, your word choice, whether you start it with dialogue or not, point-of-view, cliches, tense shifts, etc. If your beginning doesn't work for me, I lose faith in the story. I tend to read the rest of it with less interest, and that can affect how I feel about the story as a whole.


I have read many stories in my lifetime where the beginning doesn't work, and the rest of the story redeemed itself by the end. That's always surprising and happy. It's why I read through an entire piece before making a decision. Sadly, many agents do not do this with manuscripts, and many literary journals probably don't, either. So your beginning? Yes, it's important.

Since we love all genres here at the Lit Lab, our anthologies are usually open to all genres for the entries. This has become a bit of an issue for me as I read through entries because there are some genres the really do turn me off. However, this is something I'm learning to look past.

I've been reading more and more genres, and as is obvious to many readers, genres have specific rules most of them follow. I hate rules, but they are something many of us must play by if we're going to stay believable in a genre. So what I do when I run into a story that is in a genre I don't particularly enjoy, is look at it as objectively as possible. Is the writer following rules or cleverly breaking them? How well are they following the rules? Are the cliches in here working or hindering the story?

In the end, genre never makes or breaks my decision to choose a story for publication. It's simply one element of many that I use to judge the story's success. 

Okay, I'll admit right here and now that since we have a moderator who makes it possible for us to read the story entries completely anonymous, that I find myself wondering who sent in certain stories. We are familiar with many readers here over at the Literary Lab, and so I naturally want to know who wrote what. Too bad! I have to read without knowing, and therefore judge the fiction on its own merit. Knowing the author would weigh too heavily into my decisions, as sad as that is.

Still, it's fun to try and guess. I have found in the past that I am 99% of the time WRONG. Dead wrong. It's a fun element for me to try and guess, at least, but as with the previous to points I've made above, I don't let the basis of this enter into my decision-making.

So after those three points, you may be asking yourself how I pick a particular piece for publication. Honestly, it's so many elements combined that I couldn't possibly discuss it all in one post. It's based on what I like, but not what I like, how well the prose is written, how much line-editing I think a piece needs (if it's publishable in that sense or if the piece needs more work and time than we have to put into it), how much the story surprises me (that one his huge for me), etc.

A great story, for me, must leave me smiling - and as odd as it may sound, even tragic stories leave me smiling, especially if the tragic ending was unexpected. I know that when I read the last sentence of a story, if I let out this little sigh and feel my lips turn upward, that I have a winner on my hands. This may all be subjective, but it's a thousand little elements going into that reaction, and many of those elements are as objective as I can possibly make them. But I have to argue that subjectivity is also a key element to judging a piece of fiction. I'll save that for another post.


  1. I still remember how my understanding grew for the romance genre when we judged the first anthology. As I read through the stories in that section, I really felt like I learned something new that I had never seen before in my attempts to read romance novels. It was so cool to see how many great romance short stories were submitted!

    1. I remember that too! And wasn't our first winner in the romance category? Love it. :)

  2. Yeah, the whole Genre Wars project was a great eye-opener for me, because I was reading in genres I'd ignored for decades. It reminded me what I liked about genre fiction when I was a kid and now I read more of it.

    I don't try to guess who wrote what submissions, though. Sometimes I get an inkling, but I'm always wrong.

    When I'm reading the submissions, my first question is Do I want to keep reading this? Even if the answer is no, I keep reading because, as Michelle points out, some stories with rough starts have excellent development. The next thing I ask myself is Am I enjoying reading this? What that means has to do with the story being told, the characters used to tell it, and the prose. I can look past some clunky prose if the writer has a real understanding of the characters.

    The real killers, for me, are stories that never turn into stories (which is hard to define because I can't say what the word "story" means) and the use of cliche. Cliche is the big bad. Have I read this story a hundred times before? Why am I reading it again now? Cliche language can be fixed in editing, but cliche storytelling generally dies on the table.

    1. Scott, I agree about the cliche stuff, for sure. I think that's what I mean by being surprised by the story. If I'm being surprised, it's definitely not cliched storytelling.

  3. Enjoy the entries, I'm eager to read the compilation when it's published. It will be neat to see where each entrant was influenced by the source material and where the variations take over. This was a great concept!

    1. I think that'll be a big part of the fun, trying to figure out the connection to the theme story. Sometimes it's pretty tenuous. Mine actually refers to the source stories as works of fiction with which the characters are familiar. It's a hoot.

    2. I think organizing the anthology based on the connections will also be fun and interesting. My only story is very loosely connected to the source. Very. Loosely.



    3. We should organize the book alphabetically by title. It should be like Elgar's "Enigma Variations" where the original theme is never played by the orchestra.

    4. Or...what if we go to the other extreme and bold all of the sections that are directly related to the stories!

      Yes, this is a joke.

    5. We'll put in footnotes! An annotated anthology!

  4. Rick, it has been fun reading them so far! I've only seen a few where I can really tell where they got their ideas from. Some seem to have nothing to do with the two stories. Very interesting!

    My story is loosely based on the two stories. Like Davin's, I guess, which I have yet to read.

  5. This contest affected me in a marvelous way. When it was first announced, I read the two "should be inspired by" stories, but I was not inspired. So, I pushed it aside. Then, as the deadline approached, I reread the two stories. This time, while I read the second story, an idea leaped from my subconscious in a great soaring arc and lit a path to a new story. An Idea gushed forth flowing from my fingertips to my computer screen as a roiling rush of emotions. I cried as I wrote.

    Between reading the "should be inspired by" stories the first and second times, things in my life had changed. My mind had been primed for a new story and that second reading ignited the idea, releasing it explosively. However, events in the real world had not set me up for the inspiration. What provided the key was a scene I had written for my current work-in-progress. That story event had nurtured an idea in my subconscious, setting the stage for its release when the right inspiration came along.

    The little story I wrote planted a seed that is now growing into a new legend whose working title is "Utopia." This new tale is one thread of a tapestry of several books I plan, each book a strand that is weaved into the others. The inspiration for this new legend is the reward I received for having participated in this contest.

    So many legends. So little time.

    I wish I had known Michelle's "3 Things That Happen..." before I wrote my submission. :-)

    1. Wow, Lester! That's pretty impressive. My whole Bonded collection (the three fairy tale novellas that will be published in a collection) was inspired by one tiny idea. It literally came out of nowhere. I love it when that happens. :)

    2. Lester, what an awesome comment!

  6. I kept looking for that "lip twitch" upward in my critique partners as they read it aloud. I'd never seen so many straight lines on mouths - except in cartoons.

    Now I'm grimacing; wondering if I somehow brought a smile to your lips anywhere in the reading, let alone the end. *big sigh* Ah well, it was fun writing to the theme anyway.

    And it was pretty cool getting to know what influences each of you as judges. I read both the prior anthologies and the quality of writing was excellent. I think I enjoyed the stories in Notes best though. I'm sure this collection will be as awesome as the others.

    Good luck picking just a few. I don't envy you guys at all.


  7. Michelle, thanks for the info, but I feel like a university student and the professor just walked in, decked, of course, in tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. He sits down on his desk and says, "I just finished reading all your papers. I was pleasantly surprised." Then the professor leaves to go have a smoke 35' from the entrance to the building and leaves all the students in the room wondering how we did.

    Okay, maybe I don't feel exactly like that. And maybe that's never happened to me, but I guess I'm just interested to see how we all did and if we'll be included in the project. Good luck with the judging.

  8. I love that you judge the pieces blind. I love reading works when I know the people who wrote them, but it DOES color my reaction.


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