I get to smack my gavel again soon as I become a judge for short stories for a well known magazine. This is my third year as judge. I’ve received notification that the first batch of manuscripts are on their way. The thought of it fills me with excitement and trepidation. Excitement at reading some really great stories and trepidation at reading some not so great stories.
The joy has been that I’ve been lucky to have encountered someone’s work with real promise and it was great to reward that person for it. The pain comes from deciding who wins and who doesn’t. I can’t believe the crush of responsibility pressing down on me when I’m short listing the pieces. Who am I to say what is good and what isn’t? The question keeps revolving around inside my head. At the end of the day, I take pride in what I do and I don’t want people thinking I’m a crappy judge, so I take the decision very seriously.
I look for style, structure, prose, originality and a certain indefinable quality that makes me curse and say, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.” It’s at this point that I pray that this represents the best of their work because I don’t need the competition out there.
I have to admit I have a selfish reason for being a judge.
Who said money? Fess up. Who said that? Don’t make me come back there.
Yes, the money is much appreciated, but that’s not the selfish reason. Being the judge makes me a better writer. I get to review work that isn’t my own. This is very liberating. I get quite protective of my own work, whereas I can be very callous of others. It’s easy for me to say this one doesn’t cut the mustard and move on. It’s said with a frog in my throat when I recognize something lacking in someone else’s rejected manuscript similar to my own work. I think every writer should take a stint as an editor for this reason. This little wakeup call helps me to be very critical of my work. I use the stories I’ve rejected as a check sheet to use against my own pieces. I must admit I turn a little green when I find screw-ups in my own work. Professional writer, my arse.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Bad stories are just as instructive as the best ones. You can learn just as much from those that grate as from those that are great.
However, I’m not opposed to a fabulous story. I look at stories with a mechanical eye. I break them down into their component parts so I can understand how they tick and hopefully I can use that knowledge to build a better story.
Yours presiding over all,
PS: One of my own favorite short stories, Acceptable Losses, received an honorable mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
PPS: I’m moderating a panel at Clayton Books on Saturday at 2pm. If you’re anywhere close, please drop by.
PPPS: Thanks to Fran and everyone at Seattle Mystery Bookstore for treating me like a king last Saturday. If you’re resident of the Emerald City, please support them.
Simon,Congrats on your OWN short story nod. Wow.
RE: JudgingI’ve been hired to read some manuscripts for UNM Press. At first, I read every word — even the awful stuff — because, as a writer, I’d want the same consideration.
The director of the Press told me NOT to do that, that my time was too valuable.
Still, I’ve learned from those few manuscripts. Like you said, reading the good AND the bad makes us better.
Short story writing is a true art, Simon. I’m glad they included a judge who knew so much about it.
And oh yeah, all hail the Seattle Mystery Bookstore! Where else could you find a staff willing to accomodate a customer who comes in saying, “I’m looking for mysteries with suitcases or travel trunks on the cover.”
$$$??? Dang, that’s almost enticing. NOT!
Have fun with it. I’ve always said I think writers should have to do a stint as reviewers, I think it would have the same result. You truly get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
Thanks. I really like the story that got the nod. I want to turn it into a novel as it’s quite a gut wrenching tale of sacrifice and it’s WWII story.
Louise: I’m hoping people are going to go into Seattle Mystery Books and ask for a book with a teddy bear on the front…
You’re quite welcome, both of you! Louise isn’t exaggerating – we got that question once. It’s harder than it sounds. It’s right up there with wanting books with accordions on the cover, another question we had once.
It’s much easier when people say, “I’m looking for a new author.” And you guys keep giving me good things to put in people’s hands, so thank you!
Judging short stories is a difficult and humbling experience. I’ve only had to do something similar with a high school compliation, and we had the luxury of coaching kids to improve. Good luck, Simon! You’ll do brilliantly, I have no doubt!