What I learned from judging a flash fiction competition

Zeroflash blog

A few weeks ago I received an email with the subject ‘WINNER!’. Like any  intelligent email user, I immediately dismissed this as spam until… I noticed the sender: Zeroflash. It turned out I had been selected as the winner of September’s Zeroflash competition. What!? And they wanted me to judge next month’s competition. What what!?

I felt like a fraudster. I couldn’t judge a competition. I’ve just been muddling along with writing myself, how could I possibly judge other people’s work?

But in the spirit of the flash community I just replied saying yes, I’d love to.

There were 42 entries to October’s competition, which was aptly Halloween themed with a nature-related twist. Here’s a few things I learned from my first foray into comp judging.

They were genuinely all good

I was expecting to be able to whittle the entries down easily by crossing out the badly written, typo-riddled, head-hopping, tense-switching pieces. But actually, there weren’t any. Each and every one had real merit. It was actually really hard to whittle them down to a shortlist (which was 16 pieces at first).

People have similar ideas. Don’t always go for your first one.

I was however quite surprised at the number of similar entries. The theme was Halloween and nature. A few people stuck to this quite literally with a ‘Trick or Treat’/ fancy dress-based story and there seemed to be a few about storms. The entry I selected as the winner (Scavenger by Patrick Widdess) was completely original. I have never read anything like it and it really stood out from the pile.

This has got me thinking about my own competition entries, particularly those based on a theme. The first idea might be similar to other writers’. Perhaps I should keep digging and go for the seventh or tenth idea.

It’s about the writing AND the story

I’m a big fan of lyrical writing, so I was drawn to some of the pieces immediately due to the beautiful poetic language. But actually, some of those didn’t have the strongest plots. And vice versa. Some had great plots that made me want to whizz through and read very quickly, but the writers could have spent more time polishing the words.

In flash fiction, concise, powerful writing and tight plot arcs are so important. I’m going to be extra critical of my own work now and make sure I’m nailing both so it’s not style over substance.

It genuinely is subjective. It’s luck!

Like I said earlier, I felt like a bit of a fraudster. Don’t you need some sort of qualifications to be a judge or something? I was basically judging the entries on whether I like them or not, bringing my own tastes and biases to the table. I tried not to, really, but it’s pretty impossible.

This made me think about all the times I’ve entered something and been disappointed. The chances are, it wasn’t because the writing wasn’t very good, but that someone else’s work ‘spoke’ to the judges more than mine did.  A piece that didn’t make the longlist in one competition, could be a winner somewhere else. There’s a lot of skill and hard work that goes into our writing, but lots of luck too!

It was a great experience. Thanks David at Zeroflash for the opportunity. It’s definitely something I’d like to do again. I learned loads and all I can say is, I have a newfound respect for competition judges!

Details of November’s Zeroflash competition can be found here. It’s all about laughs. Good luck!

Published by JanelleHAuthor

I’m currently writing my debut novel, ‘Up to the Stars’ (working title). If you love the work of Rachel Joyce, Mike Gayle, Kit de Wall, Beth O’Leary and Lia Louis, then I’m writing my book for you. What else might you like to know? I’m a Yorkshire lass in Manchester. I married my childhood sweetheart. I regularly engage in tsundoku – apparently it’s a Japanese word which means buying lots of books that you’ll never get round to reading. I also sing.

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