Judging the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize

photo (6)I spent last weekend in a pleasant farmhouse in Devon with a bunch of other writers, editors and publishers, judging the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize.

It was the first time I have been involved in judging a competition – though over the years I have entered many of them and won some. I agreed happily when I was asked to be involved as I saw competitions as an important part in my development as a writer and was delighted to support other writers in the same way I received support.

It was a lot of fun to do and, as a fantastic bonus, the organisers are planting a tree for every entry in Bore, Kenya and working to provide a schoolhouse for Kundeni school.

I understand there were around 800 or so entries across the categories for short stories and poetry. That’s a lot to get through, even with a fairly large panel of judges. There was an initial round of judging in which some entries fell by the wayside but there were still many hundreds of poems and stories in the final round of judging when each one was read and marked from zero to five by four different judges.

photo (4)It was hard work I suppose but not like being down a coal mine or anything. We had meal breaks to put the world to rights, a nice glass of wine in the evening and even a little jaunt to Lyme Regis, over the border in Dorset.

The rest of the time we sat around on sofas and read, and read, and then read some more. I judged some of the poetry but mainly I stuck to short stories, there was no way I could have sight of all of them but I read as many as I possibly could in the time available.

As a result I have a few observations I’d like to share about the stories I read. We found some fantastic, high quality winners you can be sure but I would like to talk about the general mass of entries because I know that‘s where my stories sat when I first started entering competitions and because I would have liked to have the feedback. You can be sure I’m not talking about anybody’s story in particular here – all the work we judged was anonymous and these are just general impressions I got from reading them overall. They are points which might help you if you are entering other competitions.

Generally speaking a lot of what I read could be described as ‘okay‘. It wasn’t terrible, nor was it great – it was a two or three out of five. That’s a decent place to start as a writer, but it isn’t going to win you any prizes. There were some common problems I found with these stories which were just okay.

Don’t forget the plot
An issue which cropped up all too often was that there was just not enough plot in the story to make you want to commit to it as a reader. These were supposed to be short stories – yet sometimes there was no story. Instead we were offered a monologue or a think-piece or a ramble. Often, in the last few pars, there was an attempt at a conclusion, as if to try to convince the reader that what they had read was a narrative. It wasn’t. A lot more discipline should have been brought to bear in the planning stage.

photo (5)Porridge prose
Another common theme was that many of these stories could have done with a good edit. The style was regularly stodgy, lacking in bite or focus. These were supposed to be short stories yet many weren’t short enough. Yes, they fell within the 4,000 limit but that’s supposed to be a maximum, not a target to aim for. There were too many words doing too little work. This is partly a rewriting issue. Put your piece aside for a while after writing it, then take an honest red pen to it. Think of it as a long poem, make every word count.

Take risks
I was a little disappointed to find the writing style of many of the stories was quite conservative. I was expecting to find flights of fancy and metaphors which stretched themselves to breaking point. These are the mistakes young writers sometimes make but at least it shows they are trying. So many of the stories here refused to take risks with the language – they were plain almost to a fault.
So there we go, those were my personal opinions of course, not those of the judges overall. A final point – I learned a lot from not winning competitions, it led me to improve and up my game until eventually I did start winning some, so if you entered Magic Oxygen but didn’t get among the prizes don’t despair – just write another story or poem, and have a go at another competition!

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

33 thoughts on “Judging the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize

  1. My novel is currently being marked by Mcr Met Uni’s Creative Writing MA team. I’ve been expecting a bit of a panning, but there’s certainly a plot and I certainly took risks with the prose. So maybe not as bad as I thought 🙂 We’ll see. Nice piece Chris, all the best,


  2. “Don’t forget the plot” – I very much agree with this. One thing I’ve noticed though is something I’ve frequently read in many articles, essays, anthology intros, and competition summing-up notes about the short story: a complaint that many writers try to pack too much into a limited word count. In other words, that the very “essence” of the short story form is that it be as pared-back and stripped down as possible, otherwise it’s not a “proper” short story. (One renowned short story writer even loathes the very idea of “plot” so much, she spits it out as a dirty word!)

    As a result I think we’re seeing rather a lot of short stories where “nothing happens” (or if something does happen, it’s very very subtle), because taking it to this extreme is in many cases preferred. Instead of short stories, I regard them as character sketches, vignettes, even a short “back story” – but it’s all down to personal taste I suppose.

    Me – whether it’s a piece of short fiction or an epic novel, I like things to actually happen, and for it to be shown to happen, and for me to want to keep turning the page. Subtext is all very well, but not when that’s all the story is!

    I think your blog here is definitely a good lesson for a writer to check out the kind of thing that competition judges, editors etc actually like before they submit.

    • Thanks Mike – this is what I like of course, rather than judges generally. Yes, there can be stories with too much plot but I didn’t read Any among the hundreds I read last week. I think if you start with getting the basics right it’s a good place to build from.

  3. As the technical person who didn’t get to do any judging in the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize I saw all of the entries and read quite a lot of them. I agree with all that Chris said in this; winning entries have a really good story, paint high definition technicolour pictures in your mind and leave you breathless wanting more, punching the air and saying “YES!”, or in floods of tears saying “Nooooo!!!”. What they don’t do is leave you saying “That was quite nice.”

    We will be running the competition again next year so keep an eye open for the opening date and start writing now. The rules for length will almost certainly be the same and if we did change to a lower or higher limit that would just alter the parameters for the final edit.

    • Thanks Simon, I very much enjoyed the judging weekend and I think running a competition like this is a great help to writers starting out – it’s fantastic to have something to aim for and work towards to give your writing purpose and a competitive element of excitement.

  4. It’s interesting to hear what goes on on the ‘other side’. I don’t enter many competitions, but I did do some a couple of years ago. This sort of feedback would have really helped me.

    • Thanks Nicola, it was an interesting experience for me given it’s the first one I’ve done. When entering competitions I would also have benefitted from some general feedback on the type of stories which did or didn’t do well.

  5. All the advice you give is sound. I read lots of okayish stories for ABCtales. Sometimes I even write them and it’s like chewing cardboard. But sometimes, just sometimes, the glories in words shine and that makes it worthwhile.

  6. Pingback: Friday Fiction – A Tavola (Part 3) | Nikki Young Writes

  7. Hi Chris

    I don’t think I realised you were a judge in MOLP until my anthology arrived yesterday, prompting me to check out this post of yours. It’s always interesting to read how competitions are managed, and you and the folks at MO have done a good job of keeping things transparent. As a writer I find it really useful and open when competitions do this (Bath are good at it, too), especially when your work isn’t selected. Anyhow I was lucky enough in this case to be selected – well my story was – so it’s pretty nice but odd to imagine you reading it in the farmhouse, maybe talking about it, marking it etc. Thanks for the post, and hope your latest book is doing well.

    • Thanks Teresa, it was great fun to do and I think I learned from being involved as a judge as well. I would say all the stories and poems in the anthology are really good all all worthy winners – so congratulations! And many thanks re my book, it’s early days – less than a week since it came out, but we are hoping it does well 🙂

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