The judges and jurors quoted below won’t be evaluating your criminal activities. They’ll be evaluating your mastery of the writing craft, your interpretation of theme, your narrative voice, your ability to hook a reader with a well-crafted opening, your skill at creating an emotional connection with a character.
To round out this short series, I contacted people who read submissions and select stories for inclusion in a couple of regional anthologies. Most of the folks below are also writers, so they understand the joy of acceptance and the disappointment in rejection.
I requested quotes on what, as a judge or juror, they’d look for when reading through submissions for a contest or anthology.
The following judges are from the Rehoboth Beach Reads contest. For writing tips and more info on RBR, read yesterday’s post from Nancy Sakaduski. Here’s what the RBR judges past and present have to say:
“When I’m judging a short story, I’m always happy to meet interesting characters and to listen to zippy dialogue. It’s also nice to jump right into a story without having to sit through a lot of set-up. Some great advice I once got is that if you’re going to tell a story to one of your friends, you don’t say, “Hey, I’ve got a great story for you, but first I’m going to tell you a bunch of background information so that you understand what’s happening.” You just tell the story! Sure, sometimes you have to start with a little exposition and explanation to get things going. But then we should be off and running!” ~ Dennis Lawson
“The first thing I look for in a story is a strong voice in the narrator (memoir) or main character (fiction). I wish I could describe this voice, but the best I can say is I know it when I “hear” it. I think writers should always read their work aloud to hear how their voice is coming across and to ask themselves, “would I follow this person anywhere?” ~ Sarah Barnett
“The number one thing I am looking for is a creative take on the theme.” ~ Alex Colevas, Browseabout Books
“When evaluating a short story I look first for the basics: a strong hook that draws me in and a smooth setup that leads to a satisfying payoff. A good story will make me care about at least one strong character. A GREAT story will show me some character development. Being a genre writer, I’m also drawn more to a story with a clear conflict that needs to be resolved.” ~ Austin Camacho
“One of the first things I look for when reading someone else’s work is how the author approaches his/her reader. As writers, we all have that story bubbling around inside of our heads and we know what that story is, but that does not mean that the reader is reading the same story that the writer is writing. My first advice to a writer is to be sure that s/he understands the creative writing techniques that are stored in his/her toolkit and that s/he uses them correctly, to ensure that the story from the writer is the same story to the reader.” ~ Judy Reveal, Just Creative Writing & Indexing Service
“With stories that have a primarily true basis for being — writers seem to succeed most often when they find a way into their story that is somehow intriguing and even perhaps a little quirky. That first sentence and first paragraph need to set up the essence of the tale and imply that something needs resolution that is, for the moment, up in the air….How a writer does this depends upon how acutely he/she understands language — all the ways it can be used to create a fully developed world in a few thousand words. And while point of view, pacing, story arc, thematic integrity, and more are all very important in creating that illusion, for me at least, the most important part is how language is shaped and molded. Words are everything, in other words (!), and especially so in a small-form work.” ~ Laurel Marshfield, Blue Horizons Communications, Editorial Consultation for Authors, and Blue Horizon White Pages
“As a reader and writer of short fiction, I find the first paragraph (and the last) critical in keeping the reader interest, and the story flowing. Economy of language, control of the story, use metaphor and character development consistent with the theme of the piece are important and so is that exhalation of satisfaction at the end….A short story should culminate, and feel inevitable, not because the author wishes it to be so, but because character choices take the reader to the end.” – Mary Pauer
“I look for a story with a unique voice and an authentic Rehoboth Beach connection.” ~ Rich Barnett
The following quotes are from editors at Level Best Books, an independent publishing cooperative which produces an anthology of Crime Stories by New England Writers annually in November.
“We’re looking for what everyone is looking for–a distinctive voice, strong premise and a hook that grabs the reader from the beginning. And, maybe because our focus is crime fiction, we’re also looking for a surprise or a twist at the end. If we can see the ending coming from 5000 words away, chances are we won’t go with that story….We do no developmental editing and very little copy-editing. We don’t have time. We proofread like crazy and correct mistakes and typos that creep in during the production process, but that’s it. If you send us something, you better be prepared to see it that way on the page….Every year we reject dozens of stories that might be published in another year. “Not for us,” means just that. Don’t take it to mean we think your story is terrible.” – From Barbara Ross, co-editor/co-publisher at Level Best Books
“As the long-time judge of a mystery short story contest and now a co-editor of the anthology that publishes the winning story, I’m always looking for a fresh take on a familiar tale, a strong voice, and writing that either sends chills down my spine, or makes me smile and even laugh out loud, which is to say, I’m open to either light-hearted or noir stories. For the contest, longer is better (3000-5000 words), because we want a story with some substance and complexity rather than the “quick hit” of flash; for the anthology, on the other hand, we welcome shorter stories and flash in addition to longer ones, because we seek variety in length as well tone and subject matter. Although both the contest and the anthology call for crime stories, the crime does not have to be murder; it can be a trick someone plays on someone else, or a failed bank heist by a bunch of bumbling crooks.” – Leslie Wheeler, Chair, Al Blanchard Award Committee, and Co-Editor, Level Best Books
Many thanks to these judges and jurors for sharing their thoughts, for promoting short fiction and regional authors, and for fighting the good fight for quality writing.