Being asked to judge a fiction contest is always flattering. Judging one is always impossible. That said, I did manage to pick a winner, and two stories that seemed very good as well, to take a bronze and silver, although, and here I am lucky, I did not have to assign these to a particular piece. To give some form to the process and to make it clear that I didn't throw the stories into a heap and, dipping my hand at random into the mess, pick a lucky three, I will share some of the questions that I asked myself in the process of reviewing this competition.
1. What makes a story good?
2. What makes a story a story?
3. Does it matter if the story is a story?
4. How much of this comes down to personal taste?
5. How much of this is truly objective?
6. If I am not supposed to use my taste, whose taste am I supposed to use?
7. Am I guilty of looking for other writers who sound like me?
8. Do any of these writers sound like me?
9. What do I sound like?
10 Is this a good time to think about this?
11. Is it worth reading on if a story's beginning fails to interest?
12. Can a good beginning offset a weak ending?
13. Can a good ending offset a slow beginning?
14. Is good language worth more than good structure, tension, character, situation?
15. If yes, why?
16. If no, why?
And I could go on like this ad infinitum, but I will add another question and that is,
17. Would I pick the same story tomorrow that I picked today?
I did not judge these stories the day before I sent in the results. All the stories were read at least one week preceding my decision to send them in, and I think, above all those other questions, the one that holds the most weight to me is,
18. Is the story provocative enough to engage the reader not just in the process of reading, but in the days that follow?
And ultimately that is how I have made my decisions.
I chose, “Maura Takes the Multiple Choice Test of her Life So Far,” for first place because it made me wonder, and the structure, which on the surface may seem contrived and impossible to sustain, actually enhanced the tension rather than stymieing it.
For honorable mentions, in significant order, I chose “Yagoda's Bullets,” because the sure-footed tone of piece convinced me, and “Sandpiper,” for its eloquent descriptions of the dark side of nature.
Perhaps it would be nice to name the authors here, but lastly I would like to say that the anonymity of the submissions was maintained. I only know these people as F9, F6, and F10, to whom I wish the best of luck and all my encouragement.