by PD Martin
In my last blog I mentioned the complete chaos in my house at the moment. But I didn’t mention I had another factor compounding the chaos of a new toddler in the house…a big freelance job!
Back in February I was asked to judge the Short Story Competition of the Boroondara Literary Awards. I knew that in September I’d get a delivery of about 300 stories (1500-3000 words long) and that I’d have a month to read them and pick the winners. No problem. I estimated it would be about 40 hours work over four weeks. Piece of cake.
Then the exciting and unexpected call came…we could organise flights and pick up MinSeok (now Liam MinSeok).
For the first week of my four-week judging allocation, we were in Korea. Then in the second week I was reading during his naps and at night, but didn’t seem like I was getting very far. That’s when I found out that this year the competition had a staggering 611 entries. Ahhh!
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the experience of reading and judging these short stories. What makes a short story good? What separates the winners from those who don’t place?
My first pass of the 611 stories gave me a shortlist of 82 stories. Even this initial shortlist was hard to come up with, because there were many powerful stories that demonstrated the entrants’ strong grasp of the writing craft. In fact, I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but I was surprised at the quality. From there, I got it down to 36, then 26 and finally I was down to my top 12 stories, from which I chose the winners. Funnily enough, I actually culled the winning story at one point (yes, the one that got first prize), but then brought it back in because I kept thinking about it. You know those kind of stories? It stayed with me.
So, what does make a short story good? It’s difficult to describe the magic formula that makes a short story sing; however for me there are some essential elements. For a start, an opening sentence, paragraph and first page that grabs me. A short story doesn’t have much set-up time and a good short story, like any novel, will constantly drive the reader forward and take you on a journey. Sometimes the driving force is the plot. Sometimes it’s the characters. And sometimes it’s the pure beauty of the written word, the author’s grasp of the writing craft. Of course, ideally these three things come together on the page — a strong plot, intriguing characters and beautiful writing.
There’s still more to a short story than that…there’s the ending. Whether it’s resolution or a shocking twist, the story must feel complete. It was actually the endings of the stories that helped me narrow down the 611 entries to my first shortlist of 82. I found many stories started strong and kept me reading, only to disappoint me in those last few sentences.
One of the difficulties in judging a competition like this is that you’re not always comparing apples with apples. How do you compare a story that’s funny, to a story that’s tragic? Or a story that’s more literary and atmospheric to a murder mystery?
At first, I also found myself drawn to the more shocking, tragic and dramatic stories and I realised that while these stories did pack a punch, I shouldn’t automatically elevate them because they addressed horrific subject matter. These stories were often difficult to read because of their emotionally charged content, namely child abuse, domestic violence, rape and child abduction. In the end, I was mindful of giving these stories equal weighting with the other entries — not elevating them, but not dismissing them either.
Finally, to narrow down my final 12, I gave each story marks out of ten for:
- Voice and characterisation
- Narrative structure
- Show don’t tell
It ended up being a tight race. Unfortunately I can’t talk about the winners yet, because the official announcement isn’t until next month. But I will mention them in November.
In the meantime, questions for the Murderati gang. What makes a short story sing for you? Do you think you’d also initially feel drawn to the more tragic and perhaps impactful stories if you were the judge (or have been in the past)?