A Competition Judge Spills the Beans
by Geoff Nelder – short fiction judge for Eros & Rust and The Whittaker Prize
Most writing competitions have experienced judges who rarely just read a piece and use their ‘feel’ for how good the story is. Yes, that’s a factor but to be as objective as possible we use a grid and award points weighted in favour of what the contestants are told are the most crucial. For example Voice is usually more heavily weighted than plot or the introduction. The following are what I am looking for in short fiction stories of any genre in order to award marks.
- Is there a hook in the first paragraph or two?
- Is the hook a conflict that piques interest, or a setting intriguingly portrayed that makes me read on?
- Are classic errors avoided? Eg Starting with unattributed dialogue, or starting with a dangling participle.
- Do I smile in appreciation at a strong verb instead of a passive one?
- Has a clever phrase set the scene or character already?
The mark depends on factors such as:
- How the characters relate to the story as a whole.
- Are the characters distinct in their behaviour, voice, appearance?
- Does the main character undergo a change in the course of the story?
- Is the character interesting?
- If the character is ‘nice’ does the writer go the extra mile necessary to make him or her convincing and worthy of the story?
- Does the writer make me feel that I know the characters?
- Do all the characters have a role in the story in that each moves the plot on?
- If a character is a cliché (and many may have to be) is there some quirk or trait to lift him or her off the page?
- It isn’t always necessary to describe a character, but is it well done if described? If not described is my own image consistent throughout the story?
- Do the characters’ habits reinforce their image I’ve formed?
- Do I care for the character?
- Then there’s factor X. Don’t ask. I just have to feel for that one.
- This is mostly self-explanatory.
- I look for novelty in all the other categories as well as in plotlines. Eg instead of a plot line that is A+B+C+D is there B+A+C+D? As Ali Smith once said as a Bridport judge: I am looking for a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.
- If aspects of the piece are clichéd is there a coruscating twist or quirkiness.
- Am I surprised, laughing, shocked, weeping unexpectedly?
- Factor X.
- Has the narrator (via a character, set of characters, or rarely successful an omniscient POV) a distinctive wordcraft: a sensibility, attitude that flavours the piece?
- Has the author avoided unwarranted narrative intrusion?
- Is the attitude of the story, whether exuberant, miserable, edgy, warm, cold, angry, spooky, etc) convincing and appropriate?
- Does the voice of each character, as shown by dialogue and behaviour, correspond with their roles, and work with the story as a whole?
- Is active rather than passive voice used? In some cases passive is appropriate: such as to control pace.
- Aspect of plot can influence the voice of a piece. For example a non-linear plot tends to be more interesting. On the other hand a linear one might be more appropriate if other aspects create a complex story.
- Is the writing tight with no pleonasms (words that if removed leave the sense unchanged – this can include tautologies but not always – just, still, even, actually, that). Sometimes, rarely, a looser style is appropriate for the feel and pace of a story.
- Is there good use of Show over Tell? Where appropriate, does the writer engage the reader’s senses such as smell, vision (including colours), sound in addition to dialogue, taste and touch? Avoided the dreaded nodding, shrugging, sighing?
- Avoid weak modifiers such as slightly, almost, nearly – most adverbs too.
- Is description just enough to stimulate the reader’s imagination and own experience, rather than so much it feels like a list?
- Most stories need conflict and resolution. If not, is there intrigue or mystery to drive the reader?
- Has the conflict in the hook been resolved?
- If not, has a twist created a satisfying conclusion?
- If a twist, does the whole story depend on it? – not a great idea.
- Does the end leave the reader with a warm glow, or annoyed?
- Endings do not have to explain everything, and could create more questions than answers.
- Has the main character(s) undergone a change revealed in the latter part of the piece?
- Has the writer adhered to the submission guidelines?
- SPAG – Spelling and Grammar.
- Plot / character errors – eg Jane becomes Janet, or changes physical appearance with no reason. A character killed on page one is alive on page three yet it isn’t a horror / fantasy.
NOTE: These are pointers rather than a rigid check list and are used to add rigour to the subjectivity of grading fiction. An outstanding story could flout these points and win.
How to Win Short Story Competitions – Dave Haslett & Geoff Nelder http://www.amazon.com/How-Short-Story-Competitions-ebook/dp/B0083YRFI0/
Alien Retrograde Infectious Amnesia
Today, Jack caught a bug at work. He catches a bus home. By the time he disembarks in the desert town of Rosamond, all the other passengers and the driver have fuzzy heads. Jack had caught an amnesia bug, and it’s infectious.
Imagine the ramifications:
The passengers arrive home, infecting family; some shop en route infecting everyone they meet. The bus driver receives more passengers giving them change for last week’s prices and today’s amnesia. Some passengers work at the power plant, the water treatment works, the hospital, fire station. All shut down in weeks.
One man, Ryder Nape, realizes what’s going on, but can he persuade friends to barricade themselves in a secluded valley, hiding from the amnesia bug?
“Geoff Nelder inhabits Science Fiction the way other people inhabit their clothes.” — Jon Courtenay Grimwood
“Geoff Nelder’s ARIA has the right stuff. He makes us ask the most important question in science fiction–the one about the true limits of personal responsibility.” —Brad Linaweaver
Robert J. Sawyer calls ARIA a “fascinating project.”
“ARIA has an intriguing premise, and is written in a very accessible style.” —Mike Resnick
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre – Science Fiction / Medical Mystery
Rating – PG
More details about the author