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