1. Space is required to judge a competition
To start the process of sorting through a pile of competition entries, I generally start with a ‘yes’ pile and a ‘no’ pile, alongside the unread pile of course. Pretty soon, the ‘yes’ pile is bigger than the ‘no’ pile and I need to lay out a ‘definitely’ pile and sift through the ‘yes’ pile again for the ‘definitely’. Then the ‘definitely’ pile grows and I realise that the ‘yes’ pile is really a ‘maybe’ pile and the ‘definitely’ pile is the real ‘yes’ pile. Pretty soon I find that I need a ‘most-definitely’ pile. And so it goes, generally covering the whole of the floor in my study with affirmatives of some kind or another.
2. Memory is your best helper when judging a competition
The winners are always the stories that stay with me. After reading a fist-full of entries I will usually need a break and go for a walk by the river behind my house or pay a visit to my chickens. In those moments of solitude, scenes or characters or a line will come back to me and it is those that are the gold, emerging from the mass of reading. It’s not always the stories that are perfect, with elegant structure and careful words. The X-factor is narrative power in the story itself. Golden stories are usually ones that are told for their own sake rather than anything the author has tried to design into them. In those, the author is really the instrument through which a story can be told. I think, the trick of writing well is to surrender to that process and then be able to let it go enough to return with the scalpel and craft it into a professional form. Even a very inspired story requires polishing.
3. It takes as long as it takes and I don’t rush it
I’ve realised that judging will always take more time than I expect it to take and I owe it to the authors who have submitted their story to take my time and read their work properly. I know how I feel when I send my own stories off, and I hope the judges or editors who read my work take their time too.
4. Even without a theme, a theme will emerge in a competition
Over several years of being part of the panel who judge the Margaret River Short Story Competition, I’ve noticed a theme always emerges. It’s as if the writers are all tuned into the same frequency in a given year. One year it was all about old age, dementia and nursing homes and pretty soon I was going back to the entry form to see if there really was a secret theme. Violent relationships was a theme another year and one year there was a lot of beach. I love the mystery of this. It gives a sort of electricity to the process of creativity as though Edison and Bell are hovering overhead wondering whether this year’s light bulb moments should be all about refugees or sharks or dystopia.
5. Presentation matters
It is difficult to write a story that pops up above the crowd of entries and makes itself an obvious winner. As a judge I respond well to a story that is presented in a simple and clear way, with no busy or small fonts. Nothing fancy. That first image and what you create with your first sentences in a story is crucial to a competition story. Researching clean ways of presenting dialogue and stories for submission is worth a lot to a writer. A simple story told well and presented in a professional way is the best a writer can do to put themselves in a good position in a writing competition. I never underestimate how much work is involved in a beautiful, simple story.
Donna Mazza writes fiction and poetry and was this year’s recipient of the Mick Dark Flagship Fellowship for Environmental writing at Varuna Writers Centre. She lectures in Arts at Edith Cowan University South West and recently delivered the Randolph Stow Memorial Lecture on behalf of The Westerly Centre. She is author of ‘The Albanian’ (Fremantle Press), which received the TAG Hungerford Award.