Recently, I finished judging manuscripts for the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. It was an eye-opening experience and showed me just how much good unpublished writing is out there. In the past, I’ve read for literary journals, but I’ve never read this volume of short stories in the span of a few months. I was impressed by the quality of the manuscripts I read. When I’ve read fiction for journals, there were often stories that could be easily weeded out. Some writers never bothered to learn to punctuate dialogue, some manuscripts were filled with run-on sentences and comma splices, some completely ignored the submission guidelines, some had unfinished sentences or a character’s name changing from page to page. All of these issues indicated that the stories simply weren’t ready to be submitted yet. I expected to see many of these problems when I read for Flannery O’Connor Award, and I was surprised at how few of these issues I encountered. I think this is because the process of putting a collection of stories together requires so much more energy, patience, and dedication than writing and submitting a single story. I’d guess that most people who have a collection of stories ready to submit have been working on their writing for years. The collection is probably a grouping of that writer’s best stories. Almost every collection I read was, at the very least, proficient. Overall, I was impressed with what I read, and it hammered home the point that there’s so much fine writing out there that either ends up unpublished or takes years, if not decades, to get published.
Before I talk more specifically about the choices I made as a judge, I want to explain how the judging process works for this award because each book-length contest out there has different methods of judging. For the Flannery O’Connor Award, there are usually four to five judges, who each read up to one hundred manuscripts. These manuscripts are anonymous, with no identifying information about the authors. Each judge selects ten finalists from his or her manuscripts and passes them along to Nancy Zafris, who is the series editor. From these forty to fifty finalists, Nancy will choose the two winners each year. Here’s more on the selection process and Nancy’s thoughts on the contest.
So why did I pass along the collections that I chose? Well, on the macro level, they told what I considered to be good stories (I should say here that what I consider to be a good story might be completely different from what the next reader seeks out; this is what makes contest judging such a subjective process). In the strongest collections, I was interested in the characters and I wanted to keep flipping the pages (or, to be more accurate, scrolling through the pages since I read everything on a screen) to find out what would happen to the protagonists. In general, I was most drawn to stories that depicted not just an ordinary day (or days) for the characters but rather a day or a stretch of time during which something different or transformative happened for the protagonist. In the fiction writing classes I teach, I always begin the semester with a very short story, “The Flowers,” by Alice Walker and an accompanying essay about the story by Edward P. Jones (you can find both in You’ve Got to Read This). In his essay, Jones praises how Walker manages to capture a life-changing moment in a very small story and states, “In the end, I say simply, a story should be about some change, large or small, in the universe of a person or people in a story. Generally, there is no story for me if all there is is another day in the life of a character, a day like all the others. To use a simple example, the whole point of something like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is that one day he falls off that wall and falls to pieces, after perhaps days or months or years of sitting there with nothing happening except time passing. He falls and all the powers of the king and his kingdom cannot put the thing together again.” I read many stories that had strengths in terms of characterization and description but depicted a character going about an ordinary day, one of those days where Humpty Dumpty is just calmly sitting on the wall, observing everything around him. To me, those pieces felt more like character sketches than stories. I got to know the characters, I got to observe their ordinary routines, but I didn’t get to see them act in interesting ways or see pressure put on them in scenes.
I found myself also drawn to stories that either began in scene or got quickly into scene. I’ve heard scenes called “the lifeblood of fiction,” and for me as a reader this is true. Summary, exposition, and backstory (either summarized or in scene) can be important, but too much of these things can run the risk of bogging down stories. I like this essay, “The Yellow Test,” by Lee Gutkind a lot. Gutkind writes, “There’s been a lot of research published about the effectiveness of stories. Readers remember information longer—and are more likely to be persuaded by ideas and opinions—when it’s presented to them in scenes. This is why so many TV commercials are narrative. Think of parents’ angsting over how to pay for their children’s college tuition in the Gerber Life College Plan ad or the famous ‘I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up’ spot, campy, but so successful that the phrase itself has been copyrighted by the sponsor.” He then goes on to describe “The Yellow Test,” which is an exercise he assigns his students. He tells them to take a yellow highlighter and to highlight the scenes in a book by a writer they admire (he assigns this to nonfiction students, but I think it’s equally relevant to fiction writers). He tells students that when they’re done, they’ll find that they’ve highlighted a majority of the text. (Not everyone agrees with Gutkind’s idea that narrative writing should be scene-heavy; just look at the comments on his article. This is fine; again, it shows how different readers want different things.)
This isn’t to say that stories can’t have exposition and summary, but I think that oftentimes writers include too much. I found myself reading a lot of life stories and complicated histories for characters that I never got a chance to see acting or interacting in scenes. Along with a lot of summary and exposition, I also read a great deal of backstory. I found this frustrating because I wanted to know what the characters would do in a present-day scene. Sometimes exposition and summary and backstory felt like throat-clearing, like the writer was writing their way toward the actual story. Or maybe the writer was trying to figure out a character, and writing about the character’s past was a way of figuring this out. But, ultimately, much of the backstory ended up being unnecessary first-draft material that could have been cut away in a revision.
A few weeks ago I was at a writers’ conference, and during a craft talk, someone told a story about a Very Famous Writer. In the story, a student went up to the Very Famous Writer and said, “Do you think I can make it as a writer?” And the Very Famous Writer said, “I don’t know. Do you love sentences?” That anecdote stuck in my head as I read the Flannery O’Connor entries. I don’t think there’s one kind of sentence that’s the best, but I do think it’s easy to differentiate between writers who pay attention to sentences and writers who don’t. A sentence can be plain and unadorned or long and lyrical, but what it needs to ultimately do is communicate clearly. As I mentioned, I found very few submissions that had sentence-level errors, but a grammatically correct sentence wasn’t always a good sentence. Sometimes I read stories in which the language was clunky. Sometimes similes or metaphors were used (or overused) and ended up muddling instead of clarifying. An issue that I saw again and again was sentences that tried to pack too much information into a small space; this especially seemed to happen at the beginnings of stories. Here’s an example of this (a made-up example): “Leroy, who had red hair cut in a hipster style with the sides shaved off and long on top, and was five foot eleven, got into his car, an old green Toyota Tacoma with one window that just wouldn’t roll up so he had to tape a plastic bag over it because he couldn’t afford to fix it yet, got onto the highway heading to his grandmother’s house in Philadelphia, which was ninety-seven miles away from where he lived.” In this fake example, how much of the information that we’re given is necessary information?
Ultimately, what I found the most interesting were stories that balanced scene and summary well, that included only necessary backstory, that had characters I wanted to follow from page to page, that had something at stake for the characters, and that paid attention to the way language was used. I was pleased to find quite a few collections that did this kind of work, and I was happy to be able to pass these along to the series editor. I tried to take this job as seriously as I could and to be as fair as I could possibly be as a reader. However, reading for contests is subjective, not objective, and there’s a huge difference between objective and fair. Over the years, I’ve submitted a lot to contests (both for single short stories and for entire collections), and this process made me realize that it’s important that the stories are written clearly and well and have compelling plots (but, again, what’s compelling to one reader isn’t to another), but a lot of it is about luck. Once the stories reach a certain degree of proficiency, it’s about getting your work into the right reader’s hands; it’s about getting your work into the hands of a reader for whom your stories resonate.