Judging a Contest/Sh0wcase artist Melissa Mary Duncan

I have had the pleasure for the past two years of judging the finalist and  runners-up for Pulp Literature’s Raven Short Fiction contest, a stunning Canadian magazine now in its fourth year of publication. I am now completing second reads before handing over my choices to the editors.

Over the past few years Pulp Literature has showcased the writing of many well-known award-winning writers of genre fiction: Robert Sawyer, Susanna Kearsley, Carol Berg, C.C. Humphreys,  Eileen Kernaghan, J.J. Lee, George McWhirter, Douglas Smith, Bob Thurber.

Moreover their cover art is eye-catching and varied, featuring the work of many artists. A sample of Melissa Mary Duncan’s art appears on today’s header and I hope you will visit her here to see her evocative mythic-inspired work.

The editors of Pulp pick their selections from two specific segments: exceptional emerging talent, and established writers and artists who wish to break out of their genre confines.

to find out more about this stunning magazine and its publishers, go here:

Now on to my comments about judging a contest. In my previous study of anthology assemblage and providing short fiction for book bundles and anthology open calls, I have come to understand several things about catching the editors (or judge’s) eye.

Subject matter: I am looking for subject that will fit the call. I am looking for a subject that treats the call in an exciting and surprising way. I am looking for pieces with a unique voice, perhaps a surprising and compelling cadence and word choice that fits the story itself like jam on bread.

Length: Do not exceed word count. Did you get that? I’ll say it again. Do not exceed word count. Unless you have a well-known name and your name is already listed in large print on anthology covers. Exceeding the requested word count will bump you out of the arena for that coveted spot quicker than a newbie in a roller derby.


I always consider the length of my work when I submit to an anthology open call and when submitting to a contest I do as well. As a reader or a judge I am keenly aware of the length of a piece. Many editors read millions of words of submissions every month. They read until their temples ache and they think their eyes are bleeding.

Often it is easier to fit a short, tight story into an otherwise filled anthology. In my judging this year many of the finalist’s pieces were short and sweet, packing a lot of story within the bounds of only a few pages. This is not to say you shouldn’t write long, but if you do, remember it must be a grabber right from the very first line and something the (already overhwelmed) editor can not do without. Remember your longer story might mean someone else’s story can’t be fitted in due to budget and space restraints, and if the editor didn’t buy your work, this might be the very reason why they didn’t–someone else’s amazing longer story bumped yours out.

Or not. It is futile to second-guess the reason you had a nice note but a pass from the editor. Better to just re-submit and keep writing. The dreaded rejection might not have anything to do with the quality of your writing. Sure it will hurt, but move on. All the stories I received to judge were well written, carefully edited and unique. I had a hard time making choices and regret not being able to choose all of them.

Completion: There were some stories in the bunch that left me with a feeling either that this was part of a much larger story and therefore not complete, or I had somehow missed the ending somewhere and there was a last page missing. Please make sure your story has a beginning a middle and an end. Nora Roberts says she writes for ‘stupid people’. What she really means is make your work easy to understand and don’t disguise your meaning under the tent of ‘being literary.’ I love Gary Larson’s Far Side for this reason.

Taste: this said, I love genre writing. I read everything from literary to thriller to horror to fantasy to romance to sea adventure to women’s fiction to historical. But always as I read I want story.  I have personal tastes and those tastes influenced me as I read. In judging this contest, I was struck by the number of pieces that were written in first person present tense and I find myself wondering if it was the story that dictated this, or was the person and tense the challenge they set for themselves even before they began to write?

Every judge has tastes. For instance, I am not a great fan of existential prose, but I adore humour. How I view the feel of a story right from the beginning will influence me and either make me want to read more or hold me back. I certainly gave every story a fair read, and as said before am now doing second reads and possibly thirds related to my top choices, but my personal tastes were there at the beginning and still present at the end.

Read what you write:  If you want to write short fiction then read widely in this field. Submit widely and write to challenges. The same goes for long fiction and for producing cover art. When I go to conferences I always stop into the Art Show and talk to the artists. I take cards, I visit sites and I take note of what styles of art influence me the most.

Over the next few weeks I intend to interview a number of artists who also write. I plan to talk with them about styles, genres and success in their personal field and how they achieved it. The nature of success is also something to be defined. For instance, the fact that Pulp Literature is moving into its fourth year of publication is in itself a striking success, and I for one hope to see many more issues in future.



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