Today I am very pleased to introduce David Vernon, judge and editor at Stringybark Stories. Stringybark hosts a number of short story competitions each year in an attempt to find the new voices of Australian writing. If you’ve ever been curious about how writing competitions are judged and what people are looking for, then this is for you.
Tell me about Stringybark Stories. What makes you different from other writing competitions?
I established Stringybark Stories in 2010 after I became disillusioned at what was available for Australian writers. There seemed to be (and in fact still are) two tiers of competitions — the big ones with big prizes and a myriad of little ones with tiny prizes. Both have problems. The big ones are bureaucratic, monolithic and unfriendly. Once you have submitted your story that’s it. Unless you win something you never hear again from them — they rarely even acknowledge your submission. The small ones are bureaucratic in another way — they often require paper-based submission, cheques and once again you never hear anything until the results are announced — and when they are announced it is in the local newspaper and not even on a website.
The other issue is that even if you win a writing competition your story goes into limbo. You may receive cash, a glow of satisfaction and then that is it. With Stringybark we publish (in paperback and as an e-book) the winning entries and the highly commended stories. Hence we support the author by saying categorically, “Your writing is good enough to be published.”
In short, I created Stringybark Stories to encourage short story writing by:
- being friendly and easy to interact with;
- being contemporary (we have a large website that is easy to navigate and all entries are accepted electronically);
- being transparent — all our judging criteria are clear, easy to understand and available and perhaps most importantly we offer the option of receiving feedback on every story entered. Each entrant can see exactly what each judge thought of their story. Continuing the transparency theme — we publish the names of all our judges and small biographies about them, so once again writers can see who is judging their work;
- having more than one judge (quite a few small competitions have only one judge — we have three and often four);
- helping writers to improve — we produce a free newsletter that comes out once or twice a month;
- rewarding those who write good stories by ensuring that their story is published, both electronically and in paper form; and
- celebrating writing success by giving the winning authors a profile page on our website.
Since our first competition in 2010 we have run eight competitions, judged 1127 entries, given $4,190 in prizes, published 273 short stories in 10 e-books and 9 paperbacks.
Our competition themes are set by writers and readers themselves by us seeking regular feedback from writers and that way we know we are meeting the needs of writers and readers.
What do you look for when you’re judging a short story?
We make it very clear on our website what we are looking for — all part of our transparency — but in short we want stories that match the genre of the competition, have a strong and internally consistent plot, good characterisation and deal with interesting subject matter. In addition, competent punctuation and grammar don’t go astray either! Everything people want in a novel, we want in a short story. We do publish submission guidelines which should make it easier for both the submitter and the judge but it is constantly amazing how few people read them and that even fewer writers follow them.
How subjective do you find the process? Is there a way of keeping things as objective as possible or does it just come down to taste?
We do our very best to make a subjective assessment objective. We mark each story out of fifty — ten marks for interest, ten for plot, ten for style, five for setting, five for characterisation, five for spelling/grammar and five for the judge to allocate on the basis of whether he or she thinks the story should be published. Thus with four judges each story is marked out of 200. We find that by having multiple judges individual judging quirks tend to get ironed out. We also produce a comprehensive guide for the judges to provide them with clear advice on how to rate elements of a story. Having said that, it is clear that individual judging taste is very important. If a judge doesn’t like a particular plot/theme/style then we find that the story tends to be marked down on all criteria. But then this is no different to reader’s reactions to stories. If you like something very much then most sins are forgiven. ”What? Poor punctuation? No, just a typo.” Conversely, if you don’t like something then there is little the author can do right. Human nature, I’m afraid.
Why did you decided to focus on short stories and writing competitions?
Short stories are a wonderful form of literature for writers to practise their art. In a short story, every word counts and so a word needs to mean just what you want it to mean — nothing more and nothing less. Similarly, everything else needs to work — characterisation needs to be powerful, the plot clever and the style appropriate. In longer forms of writing, it is less necessary to be precise and writing can become sloppy. Dare I say it, but the latter Harry Potter books would be vastly better with being a little shorter. However, by then JK Rowling was so successful that nobody would dare to suggest pruning of her words!
We focus on writing competitions because it is clear from the interviews we do with authors that writing competitions are an important way for them to receive feedback on their writing. It is a relatively objective and independent way of finding if what you write is worthwhile. Friends, relatives, lovers and children never quite manage to provide unbiased advice about the worth of a piece of writing. They are simply too close to the author to be without any conflict of interest! Therefore if our overall objective is to encourage Australian writers then supporting them through running a writing competition seems to make sense.
What advice would you have for any aspiring and novice authors out there?
Our author profile section on our website is full of writing wisdom. However, there is one piece of advice that has always been with me. The only way to learn to write, is to write. Just do it! And then do it again and again and again…
Thanks David! Sage advice, and some really interesting comments about writing and the competition process. I’m not sure that it will help me win when I eventually get around to entering, but it’s certainly worth knowing. I’d also like to thank David for launching Stringybark, and commend him for the policy of transparency in the competitions.
If you would like to know more about David then please either visit his website or the Stringybark Short Story Awards. If you’re an Australian writer, I strongly advise you check out the different competitions. Currently they are looking for flash fiction stories, due in about seven weeks time, so if you want to try your hand at that then by all means do so. I’m even considering putting a story together myself!