Judging fiction is difficult. This observation comes from a woman who spent several hours reading through twenty-seven short stories, all submissions to a writing contest. That would be me.
Remember how I stressed, sweated, and trembled over submitting my resume to a literary journal? (And wrote multiple blog posts about it to bolster my courage.) I didn’t receive the position as blog editor, but they promised to keep me in mind for other volunteer positions.
I thought that was a nice line in a form rejection letter. They were serious, and offered me the chance to serve on the panel that selects the semi-finalists for their annual short story contest.
The semi-finalists will go to a different panel, and the finalists will be judged by a guest writer. I have to narrow down my “yes” selections to twenty.
Currently, I have eighty-five submissions to read, and the deadline isn’t until the end of October. (The journal editor expects around two hundred submissions.) So I’m pondering short stories now, not resumes, and the works in consideration are by anonymous writers, not me.
Years ago, one of my professors told the class that he knew what grade a paper would receive after the first paragraph. (Cue horrified gasps and protests.) He read all the paper through, of course, and on rare occasions, he was wrong.
Literary agents have said they know if the novel is strong by the end of the first page (often, the first few sentences). Ditto for the query letter. (Cue angry protests from writers.)
Let me be clear. I am reading each story.
Let me be equally clear. I know, within a paragraph, if the writer knows the writing craft. I’m not a professional anything, but I’ve read high quality fiction for decades. I recognize it. (I can’t necessarily write it, but I can recognize it.)
Let me be brutally honest. Most of the submissions are not winners. The stories aren’t ready for publication, and the writers aren’t mature enough in their craft development to realize it. This is clear within the first page, if not the first paragraph.
Let me be painfully honest. This hurts me. Each time I press the “no” button on a submission, I’m silently apologizing to the writer: Forgive me, I know this will hurt, but I have to do this.
I recognize the mistakes because I have made them, too.
Poor formatting. Stilted prose. Misuse of words. Grammatical, spelling, punctuation errors.
Melodrama, throwing rape or molestation or murder like Frisbees, when the subjects deserve serious exploration. A confusing plot. Or no plot at all, only a character lurching from one event to another, searching for a story.
The thinly disguised memoir pieces, usually from people who haven’t dealt with their past.
The young writer trying to write from the viewpoint of a middle aged or older person.
The highly educated trying to write like country hicks.
The middle class trying to write about the upper class or lower class, and unintentionally twisting the characters into caricatures, where the rich are all self-absorbed and drive flashy cars and the poor all have beer cans littered around the living room and the word “reckon” on their lips.
Trust me, I’ve made all these mistakes, and I still make these mistakes. That hurts.
Also trust me, as a judge, I hate knowing that each of these writers stressed over their stories, fussing like a new mama over her newborn, and believed that their story was ready for submission. Like hearing the declarations of a mama who believes her baby is the prettiest in the church nursery, it’s hard to shake my head and say, “No, it isn’t.”
I know that somewhere, these writers are sitting by their computers and anxiously waiting. Stressing, heart racing when they check their email accounts.
I also know the devastation when a form rejection arrives. No matter how kindly worded—and it will be kind from this particular journal—that rejection hurts. Why didn’t they say yes? the crushed writer wonders. Why can’t they tell me what I did wrong? A sentence or two, anything!
I wish I could tell you, dear writer. If I could, here’s what I would say:
It gives me no pleasure to vote “no” on your work.
But it isn’t ready. You aren’t ready. Your craft isn’t mature enough to write what you want to write, what you hunger to write.
This is about the writing, not you as a person. Always remember that.
I want to give you advice, from one growing writer to another.
I would tell you what I liked in your work. That turn of a phrase. That germ of a compelling conflict, the one that could grow into a strong story. That insight about your character, about humanity.
I would tell you what I think needs work.
I wouldn’t lie. Writing well is hard work. It is not without its pleasures and rewards, but it is difficult.
And most of all, I would tell you this:
If it is your passion, keep writing.
If you are willing to invest hours and years to learning your craft, keep writing.
If you feel God laying a hand of blessing upon your work, keep writing.
If it leaves you in tears and devastates you and rips your heart from your chest, wrestle that bloody, pulsing mess onto the paper and keep writing.
If you are willing to take that heart on paper, the pulpy, bleeding first draft, and cut it apart, dissecting and slicing and analyzing, only to hurt through the same painful procedure with each successive draft, keep writing.
Don’t ask me about talent. That has almost nothing to do with publishing success.
Talent is cheap.
Hard work is expensive.
But no one else can tell the story you can. No one else can do this hard work for you. You have to do it. You.
_____________________________________________________________(Updated on 11/14/14: I came across an excellent post by Josh Spilker on this subject. Writing Fiction? 21 (or 22) Things A 21-year-old Should Be Doing. It’s for all young writers, even if they are well over twenty one, and is filled with advice that I wish someone had given me earlier in life.)