The Joy of Being a Judge

I was one of the preliminary readers for the Amazing Stories magazine Hugo Gernsback short story contest. The idea was to rate the stories from best to worse with the best few going on to the finalist judges who are currently hard at work judging up a storm. Results will no doubt be announced soonest.

Why was I chosen to be one of the preliminary readers? A bit suspect you might think, given that I’ve never been paid for anything I’ve published. But I’ve run the Writers Workshops at VCON for five years in a row, I publish an (almost) weekly column for Amazing, and I produceĀ OBIR. In short, I am in the habit of reviewing writing and, especially where a contest is concerned, take my responsibility as a reviewer rather seriously.

I’m not supposed to reveal anything concerning the entries. The preliminary judging, and probably the finalist judging, is meant to be completely anonymous. The contest is not a writers workshop. It’s a contest.

That said, I think I can briefly discuss my task in general terms without giving anything away.

The first thing I did, once I’d been sent PDFs of all the entries I was responsible for, was read through them all quickly in search of general impressions and a rough idea how they compared to each other.

To my astonishment the best two stood out immediately, as did the worst two. It was the ones in-between I had to think long and hard to assign them a place on the list.

The two worst had silly premises that were internally inconsistent, nonexistent characters, plot points which lead nowhere, were overcomplicated and, in general, read like a first draft by someone who had never written fiction before.

The two best had engaging characters, featured an appropriate level of technology which was subordinate to the plot and did not overwhelm it, a simple but well thought out premise with some of the more intriguing implications explored, evocative description, and contained nothing which interrupted the narrative or kicked me out of the story. Thoroughly professional in other words.

The two worst reminded me of the stuff I wrote as a young teenager. The two best reminded me of what I aspire to and hope someday to achieve.

How I placed the in-betweeners depended largely on how needlessly complicated and confusing they were. The more they equaled the clarity and simplicity of the two best, the higher I placed them on the list.

Or, to put it another way, the more complete and whole the story as an entertaining and/or intriguing entity in itself, without anything needing to be edited out, the higher the rating.

One of my dreams is one day to publish an online SF&F fiction zine which pays contributors. Pretending for a moment I am an editor of such, I have to say that I would have bought the two best entries in the contest immediately and been proud to publish them. At least two or three of the remainder would have been sort of acceptable, though I probably would have channelled J.W. Campbell and suggested a rewrite. The rest I would simply have rejected.

In general, still in fantasy mode as editor, I would say to aspiring writers that less is more, clarity and precision important, and above all, a short story is not a miniature novel. Keep it simple. Make it vivid. Make the reader care. Or, at least, fascinate, amuse or intrigue the hell out of the reader. Don’t be dull. Don’t be ordinary.

Such is my advice.

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