I'm in the middle of judging the entries for the Malvern Writers' Circle Young Writer of the Year competition. It's the first time I've been asked to do anything like this, and I was very honoured to be invited to choose the winners. I'm determined to do a good job of it: to be an open-minded, fair and objective reader, and make the 'right' decision.
The youngest age category is 13-15 years. I can't help wondering about the kind of stories I would have been writing at the time I did my GCSEs. I also think how difficult it would have been at that age to pluck up the courage to enter a competition, to brave the scrutiny of a judge and hope that my work makes the grade. I think that's why I feel a responsibility to pick a story that works as the best example of what I think makes a good story, an example from which the other entrants can learn something about 'the craft'. It will only ever be my own interpretation, of course, but in the judge's report I write I will aim to make it clear why one succeeds and the others fall short of the mark. I want to encourage these young writers to try again, and keep trying, not make them feel like failures because their story didn't win.
Maybe I'm more sensitive to this kind of thing at the moment due to my story, "Just Jeff", going live on Every Day Fiction recently. EDF are one of a handful of markets that leave the stories they publish open to comment from their readers. It's a great feature... as long as people like your story. Just Jeff seems to have gone down pretty well - there are some fairly mild criticisms, but most people seem to 'get' the idea behind the story, and say they enjoyed reading it. But, the readers aren't always so docile, and I've seen some harsh criticism that was in some cases warranted, in others not. Either way, there's a level of tact and diplomacy that should be applied when responding to an author's work, particularly considering these are stories that have already been approved by EDF's slush readers and editors. They've already cleared the most significant hurdles, so in some ways it seems odd to then invite further criticism.
It's interesting to get a glimpse into the 'other side' of a competition. I have already learned the absolute necessity of numbering your pages - and not just putting the numbers on, but using the format Page X of Y. Seriously. Even if you take nothing else from this post, adopt this habit, pronto! It's something I've got into the habit of doing, but now I understand how much hassle it can avoid I will never send a competition entry without it.
Sometimes, though, you can get too much of an insight. A couple of days ago, the Willesden Herald posted a photo on their Facebook page of the folders used for the stories rejected from their competition. You can see it for yourself, HERE. Depending on the size of your screen, you might struggle to read some of the folder titles but, basically, there are thirty or so of them, titled with descriptions such as "boring", "cliched", "hopeless science fiction", "nauseating", and so on.
I'm not sure if this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and it's entertaining for a while thinking of all the dross the poor Willesden readers are having to wade through - but then it dawns on me that if the story I submitted to the competition doesn't make the shortlist, then it's because it's in one of those folders. It doesn't do much for your confidence to try to work out whether your story might be languishing in "dull", or "mawkish" or whether you really missed the mark and ended up in "hopeless in every way". Or, for that matter, "laughably horrendous" - I'm not sure which is worse.
The problem is that pigeonholing stories in this way gives the impression the categories are indisputable, when most of them are deeply subjective and personal. What's boring for one reader might be fascinating for another; what one finds mawkish, another may find charming. There are no folders entitled "just not my cup of tea", "I've read three like this today already", or "the main character is called Mildred and that's my awful ex-wife's name". With the current arrangement, it seems if your story doesn't make the shortlist, the best you can hope for is that you accidentally broke one of the rules and joined the ranks of the "disqualified".
Whether or not this really is how the WH team filter their entries, it isn't a system I'm planning to adopt. I'm working towards having two piles of manuscripts - "prizewinners" and "not prizewinners this time". Because those are the only truly indisputable categories there can possibly be.