Short Story Collection Contests, Part I: The Reading and Judging Process
Posted on 12 May 2014
I recently served as a reader for a short story collection contest. That means I was responsible for evaluating between three and four dozen book-length manuscripts – only a small portion of the contest’s entire entry pool – and sending my top picks on to the final judge, who would choose a winner to receive publication and prize money.
While Living Arrangements won a collection contest back in 2010, this was my first time on the other side of the fence. I thought I’d share my process for reading/judging these manuscripts as well as some tips for anyone planning to enter a collection contest in the future.
First, I’d like to stress that there’s no universal process for judging writing contests. I wasn’t given any strict guidelines for how to proceed, and every contest reader probably has her own method for sorting through the vast number of entries these contests attract. Based on a very rough estimate, I was responsible for upwards of 8,000 pages of fiction, which again represents only a fraction of the contest’s overall entries. (The photo I’ve included here shows many, but not all, of the collections I read.) That’s a lot of pages. So how did I do it?
I started by logging each submission into my own spreadsheet. For the record, this contest used anonymous submissions, which meant I did not know the writers’ identities. Next, I quickly read the first and final stories in each collection. That’s right – only the first and last story, nothing in the middle (except for a few special cases that made for trickier decisions). Then I separated the collections into three piles: yes, no, and maybe. I was fairly conservative in my decision-making process. If I truly couldn’t decide between a “yes” and a “maybe,” I moved that collection into the yes pile. If I couldn’t decide between “no” and “maybe,” it went into the maybe pile. Here’s a breakdown of how I made decisions for each category:
Yes: I moved a collection into the “yes” pile when it contained strong writing, imagination, storytelling, technique, etc., so I could later give it a full, careful reading. Putting collections in this pile didn’t necessarily mean they would end up among my final picks, of course; it only meant that they needed a more complete reading so I could make the best decision possible. Usually, designating a manuscript as a “yes” was a fast and easy decision – a strong submission came across that way from the start. Roughly 22% of all entries ended up in my “yes” pile.
No: Making a decision to move something to the “no” pile was also usually a quick and dirty decision. Maybe the writing wasn’t strong, maybe the stories were cliché or contained glaring flaws, maybe the submission wasn’t appropriate for the contest, or maybe I simply knew there was no chance I’d rank that submission among my top choices. I placed 58% of submissions in this category.
Maybe: I moved a story in the “maybe” pile when I didn’t see enough that warranted either a “yes” or a flat-out “no.” By far, making the call to put a collection in this pile took the most time and created some of my most difficult decisions. This was the only category in which I might dip into other stories besides the first and the last to get a more comprehensive view. Unfortunately, in reality, the “maybe” pile was really more of an extension of the “no” category. I considered the maybes something of a backup in case my “yes” pile wasn’t as strong as I’d expected once I completed full readings. Roughly 20% ended up in this pile.
On Time, Instinct, and Fairness
That was the first round. From there, I spent more than a month reading the “yes” pile. In most cases, I read each manuscript in its entirety, from the first page to the last. (A few times, however, I stopped reading early when it became clear the collection wasn’t strong enough to make it as one of my top picks.) Sometimes I grew frustrated with a collection that started out strong but started to waver later on, but at other times, I was so engrossed in the manuscript that I didn’t want it to end.
At every step of the way, I was aware of my own biases, preferences, and the very subjective nature of this entire process. Above all, I wanted to be fair. I didn’t want to discount a collection just because it wasn’t the type of book I’d usually pick up. I remained open to different voices and styles and subject matters. Mostly, though, I simply wanted to find really good submissions that deserved to win the prize.
This process also took a lot of time. I couldn’t exactly blaze through an entire stack of book-length story collections in one weekend, after all. And while I worried over the rankings at first (“Does this collection really deserve to be in my #3 spot? What makes it better than the manuscript in the #4 slot?”), my decisions became easier with time. I took notes on each submission, and soon a natural ranking emerged. The standout manuscripts made themselves known and quickly rose to the top. Of my group, I had two manuscripts that were very, very strong – collections I hope to see published sometime in the near future, even if they don’t end up winning this contest – and several others that were so good I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up winning.
But remember, I wasn’t the final judge, and I also didn’t have the benefit of seeing all the contest entries. If my portion contained that many potential winners, then there were probably a lot more strong submissions out there in other readers’ hands.
Tomorrow, I’ll post some of the common pitfalls I observed among submissions as well as tips for entering collection contests. Stayed tuned!