What a judge looks for in a short story

Sally

Last August I was invited to the awards ceremony for the Jane Austen Short Story Competition. The event also marked the opening of a Jane Austen exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre, visited by Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. I’m not much* of a royalist but it was fascinating to see how these visits work (men in suits and wearing ear-pieces patrolling the library, lots of waiting and chatting with tea and cake, forming a literary ‘horse-shoe’ so the Prince could meet us all easily).

But the real event for me was announcing Sally Tissington as the winner of the short Ingrid HCT_RV_009story competition, and David Constantine announcing Ingrid Jendrzejewski as the runner-up.

In April this year that we got to see the longlist of 25 entries. (There were almost 300 in total from around the world.) I read the hard-copies I’d been sent many times, each re-read whittling the list down further until I had six that I liked the best. Luckily David had a similar number on his shortlist, and we crossed over with a few. We met (in a stationary cupboard, but with coffee, grapes, and biscuits) IMG_5675to argue our case for those stories we liked best, while understanding that we had to be willing to let some go. It was a difficult decision.

This was my first taste of being a judge and on the other side of the fence (I have won both the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines short story competition, and the Royal Academy / Pin Drop competition), and I enjoyed it so much I’ve agreed to do it again for another short story competition run by Rye Literature Festival.

While I was reading the 25, I jotted down some of the things that made me put a story on the reject pile. This is not a definitive list of what to avoid when writing a short story (even our winners may include some things that made me reject others) – it’s just some subjective observations from those I read, which might be helpful:

  • Many stories were lacking enough forward motion (too much internal thought), especially at the start.
  • Many stories began with an event in the future and then spooled back, resulting in a pluperfect tense (eg – she had arrived), which meant that the forward motion of the story wasn’t as strong.
  • Lots spent too long on the backstory and justifying the actions of the characters. Have I mentioned forward motion?
  • Some stories were too big for the word limit, which meant characters, plot and location were skimmed. (Although our runner-up breaks this ‘rule’ to great effect.) Covering a lifetime in 2000 words is tricky to pull off well.
  • Nearly all the stories had a cliché or two (or a few more).
  • Sometimes the characters didn’t feel real. (This also comes back to avoiding clichés.) Real people have quirks, and ticks, and odd thoughts and mannerisms. I wanted to see these.
  • Too many stories had too many typos.
  • There were quite a few exclamation marks. And adverbs.
  • The majority of the stories were written in the first person. (Third person will open up more possibilities.) But if the writer had decided first person was best, it was those with a really strong narrative voice that worked well for me.
  • Many stories didn’t have a powerful enough opening. They lacked the ‘story questions’ I was looking for. I wanted to be intrigued, beguiled, puzzled and above all to have to read on.
  • Some endings were lacklustre. I wasn’t looking for things to be tied up neatly, but I wanted some logic and satisfaction.
  • A few stories started in the middle of a scene or with dialogue, and this is difficult to get right. It made me think, ‘who are these people, where are they, what’s their relationship?’ rather than paying attention to what was being said.
  • And finally – this didn’t make me discard a story but it did niggle – even if the competition didn’t specify layout requirements I saw too many stories with a confusing layout. I would have liked: double-spaced, no extra gaps between paragraphs unless it’s a change of scene, Courier, 12 point, first lines indented unless they were the very beginning or the start of a new section, etc.

Both the winning story, and the runner-up are available to read online here.

I hope this post has been helpful if you write short stories and enter competitions. Do let me know in the comments below.

(*Not a royalist at all in fact.)