I just judged a competition for flash fiction in the North East. It wasn't easy, the standard of entries was high and I could choose only 2 winners from each category.
I had my husband print out all the entries so I could read them on paper (personally,I read better this way.) I wanted to be sure any names left on had been taken off so I couldn't be influenced
if I happen to know the entrant. Since I live in Newcastle, and have been to loads of things over the years, its possible people I know entered - but fairness is a key value for me. I wanted neither to favour people I like, nor be influenced against someone who might been rude to me at an event or anything! What matters is the story, the best way to ensure this is not to know who wrote it.
Once the entries were printed I read them and made a long list pile. Then I read them again, sifting out ones I liked less on a second read. Then came the heartbreaking bit- I had a pile of 20 entries I liked very much. All of them were good enough to be published, but I could only pick two. I read them and wittled them down to 10, then 5.
If you didn't make it don't worry, many wonderful pieces didn't make the final two.
I wish i could have chosen more for publication in the paper.
Many pieces could do well in other places, and just weren't for me. Here's my thoughts from the judging end of things, I hope may be helpful in entering competitions.
1. Research Your Market
It's never possible to know what a judge will like. Even if you know who the judge is, they may actually enjoy work that is nothing like their own. But, one thing that may be useful is to think about, is who is running the competition? In this case, the work was to appear in a family newspaper. It may not be the best place to send a violent story, a story with sex in or one about self harm. It's just not suitable for a family paper. (There is a place in the world for darker stories, it might be worth looking up horror flash sites such as microhorror, etc.)
2. The I had the last laugh syndrome
Sometimes with flash fiction I read a story that has the, what i call, I had the last laugh syndrome.
Some people call it a twist in the tale. Stories like this tend to have a very joke like last line, or a new piece of information. (For example: the story may seem all the way through it's about a woman having an affair, then at the last minute we discover what we have been reading about isn't actually an affair but a secret new hobby like hang gliding or something.) It's a bit sit-com.
But, I have seen stories like this on some flash sites and in magazines, so there is a market for them out there. Personally, though, they're not for me. They are clever, but that doesn't impart wisdom, emotion or something that stays with me. Some otherwise enjoyable stories were spoilt for me by this.
3. Subject Matter
There are alot of stories throughout history about the death of a loved one, etc. It's a subject that means alot to people and can be brilliant reading when done in a unique way, but if you send a story on a subject twelve or so other people have it's going to have to really stand out in some other way. It's going to be up against stories with subjects or perspectives the judge hasn't seen, which will give them the edge.
I have read story tips that tell writers to set stories in unusual settings and countries - I'm not much of a fan on this bit of advise for the sake of it (it seems a little Mrs Bing in Friends.) Ordinary places are fine, if the voice and how it's done are good.
When it comes to competitions think about how you've dealt with your subject. It it's about death and the setting is a funeral you better be an exceptionally gifted writer to make it stand out against 7 others with the same scene.
I like to read dialogue in a story. It can do a lot and liven things up, but formal, or overly revealing dialogue can be distracting in a flash. So can dialgue where people say what they are thinking really- it's not that often as a species we act this way with eachother! In flash, keep dialogue brief (unless people are talking shite for a revealing reason.)
Personally, I didn't exclude anyone for wrong spellings or punctuation for this particular competition. Had it been a competition with a fee aimed at professional writers and advertised in journals, I might have though. I have read judges reprorts in the past by judges who sift out any entries with a typo (it seems harsh, and it may be, but if a judge has a 100 good stories on their desk it does make their job easier.) Likewise, many comps will disqualify you for having your name on the work. I didn't, I had someone else take them off, but not everyone will bother.
There was only one entry where punctuation really mattered this time. In this case, it was a story I loved, that made it to my top five. But the sentence structure was very very odd and interrupted the flow. I had four other entries I loved too, all print ready, so, sadly, this one got weeded out at the end stage.
I've read that unusual titles are the best and stand out more. Personally, I don't mind a one word title if it feels right. I don't even mind a boring title, if the piece isn't at all dull. Again, its the work that counts. Sometimes a plain title does it for me.
7. Wrapping things up
I like a point to a story, that whatever has happened means something. I like things to be clear, but I like some of the things that are at stake, what it means to us as a reader, to our society, to whatever, left for me to think about. As readers we all enjoy discovering secrets in books, interpreting what a character is feeling, or what a story means beyond what we know it means (see or are told.) A couple of good stories suffered from a cosy last line, a 'it all turned out well in the end' feeling. It's great stuff of anecdotes, but as a reader it can leave me empty.
The stories I picked, and, sadly, some that couldn't make it through, made me want to read them again. They had something stake, atmosphere and character, but still left little mysteries I wanted to think about. I could, and did, read them several times and they didn't suffer from it. A good question to ask ourself is this, will this story be better, or worse, on a second reading? Competitions mean pieces being read more than once. We have to try and give people a reason to want to read something again.
Congratulations to the winners of the competition, but also all those who entered. I really enjoyed reading your work.