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)?
Maybe I'm misunderstanding your question, but impact is what keeps a story with me, even years later. It can be the impact of the story itself or the characters, sometimes it's the way the story is told (voice, proce etc). I once did Alex's top 10 list for novels and just looking over my Fb movie list, hilights movies that I enjoyed, which is different at times from good movies. I once sat down and made a list of books I'd like my daughter to read while growing up and only two are left on her TBR! What they all had in common was: I remembered them fondly, they kept calling to me, and I returned to them in a second reading/viewing (movies) or in thoughts.
I find short stories harder to write than novels–almost impossible sometimes. I'm not sure what I like for short stories, so maybe that's why I have difficulty writing them. I used to have a THE NEW YORKER subscription so I'd at least read one short story per week…But you know what? I didn't get half the short stories that the magazine published. I'd finished some of them with a "WTF?"
I can't imagine judging a competition! Yow!
I'm so glad no one is likely to ask me to judge contests like this! I had trouble enough grading stories when I was teaching middle school (thank heavens for basic spelling and grammar requirements)!
But I do moderate a monthly short story club at the library and I'm learning a lot about how writers work within the shorter form and what readers expect from shorts. It's fascinating.
Personally, I enjoy twists and impacts, but I think what I enjoy most is being pulled into a story, whatever the genre or type. I want to have a stake in what happens and I want the ending to work, even if it's open-ended (though I prefer a resolution or final discovery).
For me, a short story has to move. I need action, not talk. I don't want the writer to tell me how to interpret. I just want to know as I experience the story.
But! More important: Congratulations on the new addition to your family. It is amazing how events seem to cluster in life… fortunate contestants to have you asked Judge…wonderful name, Liam– and lucky child.
Sorry, I'm still struggling with fitting normal day-to-day stuff around a toddler! Anyway…
Yes, Debbie, you're right – impact can be anything. But I think during my first pass, because of some of the strong (distressing) subjects those stories inherently had more impact. I guess that's what I was trying to get at. The story that I eventually awarded the first prize to had a much less obvious impact, but it stayed with me and called me back – basically insisting I put it back in my top list. And then when I worked out my marking system, it scored the highest!
Lisa, yes, I'm not fond of writing short stories, either! I agree they're hard to write. But I still feel they need some sense of closure, unless the 'WTF' propels you into a level of deeper thinking! I don't like that feeling either, unless it's done extremely well and purposefully 🙂
Sarah, isn't story-telling great!? As you say, it's about being pulled into the story, whether it's over 2,000 words or 100,000 words (or even in a song).
Reine, I agree action and movement is good in shorts! And thanks re Liam. It's a great time and he's so wonderful – but now I don't have much time to myself or to write. Funny that, huh?!