Sunday, November 16, 2008

Judging Others

Over the weekend, the 2008 winner of the prestigious Al Blanchard Award for short crime fiction was announced at the annual New England Crime Bake Conference for mystery writers and readers. I had the privilege of being one of the judges who selected the winning entry because I received the award last year.

As I watched Margaret Press accept her well-deserved prize for “Family Plot,” I thought about the process that led her to the stage. It reminded me that literary success, like so many things in life, can be arbitrary.

Individual taste determines our choices in love, career, foods, hairstyles, etc. What we prefer one day may not be our choice the next. Why would we expect it to be different in fiction? The legends about authors who endured repeated rejection only to eventually land atop the best-sellers lists or in the library “classics” section are what keep writers going as we struggle to finish manuscripts, get an agent, find a publisher, attract readers, win recognition, etc.

I once believed talent was all that was necessary for literary success. But after my stint as a judge, I suspect it may be much more subjective: affected by an agent or publisher’s mood the day they see your work, how many similar proposals they’ve received, whether they’re willing to ignore that you violated their favorite grammar rule, and so on.

The process
Between November 2007 and April 30, 2008, a potential half-million words of crime fiction – 114 stories of 5,000 words or less – flew into my e-mailbox. A neutral party had stripped each Al Blanchard Award entry of all identifying info beyond title, word count and state of origin. (One story was disqualified because it did not meet the contest requirement of having either a New England author or a New England setting.)

By April 1, I’d carefully read and ranked the 41 stories submitted, amazed at their diversity and the talent of their authors. It would be difficult to choose a winner. Then another 73 stories flooded my e-mailbox by the April 30 deadline -- 42 of them in the final week, alone. I faced the daunting task of compiling a “Top 10” list to exchange by e-mail with the other judges by our deadline in advance of meeting in person to select the winner.

I was surprised by the variety on our “Top 10” lists. Choosing just one winner and four honorable mentions from 113 stories would not be easy. So many deserved to be published. But only the winner would receive the honor of leading the new anthology “Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers” (which also contains my story “Circulation,” by the way.)

A few weeks later, we met at a coffee shop to discuss each short story that made a judge’s “Top 10” list and the reasons why. All of us sitting around the table that day had read all 113 entries in their entirety, even those we didn’t immediately love, out of respect for our fellow writers. I well remember how I struggled over writing and rewriting “Mercy 101” before I submitted it to the contest last year. I couldn’t imagine how many hours has been invested in creating the stories before us.

As we reviewed our lists, it was fascinating to hear why a story might not be the favorite of another judge. One thought the plot of my top choice was implausible. Another found a different story offensive. A well-written entry didn’t have enough mystery. There were some with themes that seemed too similar. And so on.

Although Margaret's story is extraordinary, it occurred to me that our reactions to the stories might be similar to what happens when writers submit their work to an agent or a publisher. Rejection doesn't necessarily mean it’s not good work. It might just be that the story/novel/article isn’t right for the specific outlet, that particular time, or for the person reading it that day.

In writing, as in life, maybe you just gotta be able to take the “no’s” – as my wise friend Jeanne’ would say – and keep going, holding on to that glimmer of hope that somewhere out there you'll find someone waiting to make a judgment in your favor.


Jen said...

Thanks so much for sharing what goes on behind the scenes. It's a great illustration of how subjective the process is. Thanks!

Pat Remick said...

I hope it inspires people to keep writing and not get (too) discouraged. After all, we do it for the love of it anyway, right?