Every year, I seem to find myself reading several hundred flash fiction entries over a period of a week, as we head into the final rounds of judging our annual FF contest. I'm not sure quite how that happens, how the planning, and the arrangements with the other judges works out, but for whatever reason, it seems to be the normal pattern. It can be quite stressful (especially because this is not my day job...) but also very rewarding. As a writer, I find it fascinating to see the clusters of themes and styles that are in vogue each year (it really does change), but what I noticed most of all this year was what I learned about you, the writers.
You see, this year, I allowed myself the luxury of reading through the bios (after the judging was complete). That was fascinating. Some of the bio's were as interesting (OK, some were MORE interesting) than the short pieces they accompanied. A few were substantially longer than the pieces they accompanied. There were several heart-tugging profiles that made it clear where the fiction had emerged from, and how deeply connected you were to the piece. There were some that were so different from the protagonist in the fiction that I was impressed by the empathy and writing skills displayed. There were also some writer's names that came up repeatedly in our longlist; people like Mandy Huggins, Jude Higgins, Susan Howe, Carolyn Lenz, Victoria Hunter, and of course Ingrid - our winner. Regular readers may recognise some of these names from previous contests too. Yet as I have told these authors, our judges read the stories blind, and we also rotate the judges each year (although we do have a handful of steadfast experts that remain for consistency). Which tells me that these writers are regularly producing high quality material.
Sometimes, I find a bio from an author that has a terrific track record, but when I go back to re-read their piece (wondering why it didn't make the long or shortlist), I am disappointed. My suspicion though, is that these writers are constantly refining their work, and a rejection will only spur them on to edit, edit, edit, and enter the piece elsewhere. I know some of my own work surprises me, by how bad it actually is (!) when I look at it again after the first, or even third or fourth, rejection. I actually take it as a compliment that a writer sends a piece to our contest, and uses it to help improve their writing. I wish we could provide critiques, and we do get asked each year, but we simply don't have the time or resource - although there are some other contests that do this (typically for a substantial fee).
What else have I learned this year... well, I know this from every year, but it bears repeating. (Or does it bare repeating?! I'll leave that to the grammar police...) Here's the thing: the difference between a piece that makes the longlist and one that drops out can be very, very small. Which is the same sized gap between the long and the shortlist, or the short and the final winners. Now clearly, if I look at the winner and compare it to one of the first rejected stories, there is (as you would expect) a big difference in quality. However, along the way, I know for certain, that some very good stories just slipped out of one stage, and yet perhaps could have gone all the way if that judge had made a fractionally different decision (or eaten one more piece of chocolate before making a choice). I tell you this because there are a couple of inescapable truths in judging. 1) It is entirely subjective 2) Quality (like the aforementioned writers) do eventually rise to the top. If you are consistently doing well in our contest (or others - judges' tastes differ), then well done. You know you are a writer, and you probably know what you need to do to improve. If you haven't made it yet, then keep trying, because you may be much closer to success than you realise.