Friday, November 24, 2006

judging

Tomorrow, I'm meeting with the other judges to deliberate over the stories entered for an annual competition (sorry, can't reveal what it is yet).

A pile of stories was delivered to my office some time ago and naturally I had to make time to read all of them. It's a good thing I had finished most of the other readings I needed to do because reading for a competition is serious work.

I gave everything a first pass - which is a quick read to see if there was anything that immediately stood out - and began making my piles: a) looks good; b) consider; and c) wtf?. Then I read each pile again, closer and more concentrated this time, reassessed my piles and moved stories around. Then I put away pile c forever, reviewed pile b again and moved a story up to pile a. Then I rested, did other things not related to reading.

Before I started reading again, I sat down with a piece of paper and tried to write the titles (or my code names for the titles I forgot) of three stories in pile a that stuck with me the most. This was my first short list.

Going back to pile a, I armed myself with a pen and went through each story, making comments, correcting grammar, marking excellently or poorly written passages. Then I sat back and considered the stories again.

What am I looking for?

Contrary to what some people might think, it's is not speculative fiction. At least not necessarily. I am looking for a well-written story that pays as much attention to the discourse elements as to its ideas. I'm looking for characterization as much as intellectual stimulation. I am looking for craft. If the best story happens to be speculative fiction, then fantastic! If not, no issue. At the end of the day what matters is story.

It is obvious that all of the writers are young (and I say that with no snootiness) in that there is still much of the writing craft that needs to be developed by majority of the entrants - but their combined potential is enormous.

However, one particular story stood head and shoulders above the others from the get-go. It is well-written in terms of craft, has interesting characters that sound convincing in a fictive sense, and offered insight into aspects of the human condition in a manner that was not trite but rather quite engaging. Whoever wrote this story understands the structure of a short story and the elements that a short story requires to be successful.

I will champion this story - author of which I have no clue - tomorrow. I am curious to see which stories the other two judges will hold close to their hearts.

The deliberations are always interesting. This reminds me of when I judged for the Palancas last time(and man, the reading load was almost overwhelming), I sat down to deliberate with a short list of 4 (the other judges had 5 or 3) - and we agreed only on one entry. The rest of evening was spent arguing the merits of the other entries and what position (1st, 2nd, 3rd, Honorable Mention, or no awards) to give them. I argued for giving all prizes and recognizing at least 3 stories. One of the judges suggested giving only a 2nd or a 3rd prize, I think (unless I misremember). But more amazing (and amusing) is how we became advocates of particular entries, like lawyers fighting for our clients (each entry was blind - we didn't know the real names of the authors), championing particular entries because of a variety of reasons (including "emotional impact") and dissing each other's favorites ("how can you like that one when the grammatical errors are stunning - this is the Palancas!).

Well, I don't expect to fight that hard tomorrow (unless either of the other two judges champion one particular story that I found very awkward, contrived and poorly written). I'll try to enjoy dinner instead.

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