Judging a Short Story Competition

Many apologies for my absence from the blog in recent weeks. I know you were all pining for me! No seriously, I’ve missed my postings, but I suddenly hit a vein of gold when it came to work and mining it took all my time. Now the madness has passed and I’m back in the land of the living.

So for this blog, I’m going to fill you in on one of the things I’ve been doing in my absence – judging a short story competition. I know some of you readers are keen entrants in short story competitions, so I thought I’d share with you what goes through the mind of a competition judge. The first thing to tell you is, if you don’t win, take heart. It’s not you. A winning entry has an alchemy about it that can’t be defined. It takes the basic ingredients of a story and turns them into gold.

Will You Judge Our Competition

I was enjoying a coffee in my local cafe when I got a friendly phone call from a librarian who worked for the Tipperary Library service in South East Ireland. I’d been expecting the call – she’d been trying valiantly to get hold of me while I was out of the country – but I wasn’t expecting the request that came as part of the call. ‘Will you judge our annual Premier Short Story Competition?’ she asked. With my ego nicely stroked, I was happy to oblige.

Writing ImageA couple of weeks went by, then five emails popped into my inbox in quick succession. They were the five stories that the librarians had chosen for the shortlist, which I would then judge. A nice bit of weekend reading, I thought to myself, as I printed them out on some fancy cream paper which had magically appeared on my shelves.

This is the point where I tell you that I used a highly scientific system for judging the stories, involving pie charts and psychometric tests. But instead, I used instinct. I should also tell you that the result was incredibly close and I had awful difficulty picking a winner. But I knew who the winner would be as soon as I read it.

Reading the Shortlist

The five shortlisted stories all had merit. All the writers showed an ability to write and an understanding of writing techniques. And most importantly, all the stories had heart – you could tell that the writers believed in their stories and their characters. I wished I could have commented on them individually. With one story in particular, I felt that a simple change would have turned a good story into a great story.

Another interesting element was that even though there was no official theme for the competition, three of the five shortlisted stories were concerned with time and time travel. I’ve seen this happen before and find it fascinating that a natural theme arises as if by mutual agreement.

I had planned to pick two or three of the five stories to fight it out for the winning place. Certainly, there was a story which would have merited second place if there had been one. But when I read the winning story, I felt that tug in my belly that tells you when a story is in a class of its own.

What Makes a Winning Story

Yes, it had all the ingredients of good storytelling, a tight, compelling plot, well drawn characters and a fascinating world for those characters to live in. The author used language effectively, and he came at the story sideways, dropping hints rather than spelling out what was happening.

But there was an extra ingredient, which I like to call the crackle. The story had a pulse, an energy to it, that pulled you along. And at the end, it packed a strong emotional punch. It was a story told with passion, a story where all the ingredients came together to make a pleasing whole, a science fiction story with heart.

That’s why you mustn’t curl up and die if you don’t win a short story competition. The elements of a winning story are hard to define. When you next enter a short story competition, choose a story that represents the best you have to offer: your passion for writing, your mastery of writing techniques and your unique voice. This will make a judge pick your story out of the pile.