The shadow award winners will be announced tomorrow night, along with the close-but-no-cigar honorable mentions. In the meantime, here’s a little glimpse into the process, or a bit about what creeps behind the shadow.
We’d been talking about doing a poetry contest at Molotov Cocktail for a couple of years. Finally, in the middle of February 2016 we made it happen. After tossing around several possible names, Josh (Founder of The Molotov Cocktail, Co-Judge for the contests, Editor-in-Chief of the regular submissions, and graphics wizard) and I (Associate Editor, Co-Judge for the fiction contests and now Lead Judge for the poetry contests) both agreed on the name Shadow Awards.
First off, thank you to everyone who entrusted us with their lovely work and a double thank you for your patience. As a writer myself, I know first hand how incredibly difficult it can be to anxiously await for a reply on submitted work. And although many journals take up to six months to respond, this is the first time we’ve taken more than a few months, because it was a new contest and we weren’t sure how it’d do. (Personal example on waiting: One journal actually held five of my better poems hostage for NINE months before giving me a “Sorry, but no.” That was extremely frustrating. And as soon as the poems were released, I submitted them to another journal of their level and got all five accepted in three months. You just never know. One journal’s trash is another journal’s treasure, heh).
I want to explain a few things about our editing process because I know a lot of younger or newer writers get very frustrated and even discouraged about writing. At Molotov, we have no “slush pile.” We genuinely read everything. Everyone is given a fair chance, because that’s what we’d want for our own writing.
Usually, for the flash fiction contests, we read ALL entries together, aloud. Yes. Aloud. I highly recommend you do the same with your own work. You pick up on things you’d otherwise miss, like spelling errors or inconsistencies. But for this contest, our first poetry award, I did the initial read-throughs on my own. I got to a top 30 entires, most with multiple submissions (many poets had one good poem in their batch of 1-3, but a couple writers actually did have 2-3, which was a pleasure to see).
From that 30, I managed to pick a top 13. I gotta say, it’s hard enough to cut to a top 30, so a top ten is even more difficult. It’s always like this for the flash fiction contests as well. And I definitely marked way too many close-but-no-cigar honorable mentions. I just saw so much talent and potential. All of those cigars will semi-begrudgingly drop off however, as this time we will most likely simply give the close-but-no-cigar honorable mentions to the 20 of the 30 who didn’t make the top 10.
In the end, we will pick the work that not only encompasses memorable imagery, but also makes you want to read the words numerous times. This is also what makes a great piece of flash fiction, by the way. When we co-judge the fiction contests, we read every story together. It’s amazing how much we think alike and agree on each other’s opinions. Toward the end of each contest we make a list of the top 10 or 15. We do not have a hard time agreeing on this. At that point, I often read the pieces on my own, over and over. I look for voice, character, originality, as well as imagery that is unique and compelling.
My advanced fiction professor at my undergrad college only accepts 12 students per semester for his workshops. You must submit stories to him prior to the start of the semester and then cross your fingers that he picks you. He’s highly in demand, because he’s rather famous, so competition can be fierce. I frequently visited him during his office hours once the semester started, hoping his genius would somehow brush off on me (so far it hasn’t), and he did tell me that he might get 30-50 students vying for a position per semester, but other times it can be upwards of 50-75 or so. And each semester is different. If you’re the unlucky sap who happens to apply the same semester as a ton of exceptionally talented writers, your chances are lower. If it’s a semester full of newer or less serious or less instinctively creative writers, you may win a much coveted spot easier. Also factor in random variables like if it happened to be a year where dozens of people were trying to write and had already completed the beginning and intermediate fiction writing workshops, or is it a semester where more students are interested in pursuing business or science instead of the arts.
Writing contests are a similar process. It’s complicated. Although, it doesn’t really matter anyway because if you believe in your work and like writing, you’ll do well elsewhere or find alternate opportunities, eventually. Currently for Shadow Award, the top 6 feel solid. 8-10 are a bit rougher to decide, because it means letting go of 3. You see, after initial cuts, I felt we had a ton of pretty decent poetry entries. After another round of cuts, I saw 30 really good ones, as I mentioned. I managed to get it to 13, and I was okay with 13. But getting rid of 3 to sort out the top 10 was rather depressing for me. One grows attached to certain poems. You can’t help it. I had to closely examine things like who looked like they worked harder on their piece. Who was more original. Who used the tools of poetry. Which would I most want to re-read and re-read. Who used language or subject in the most interesting or unusual ways. Who surprised me or made me smile. And we use these questions with flash fiction too. It’s so sad to see certain poems or stories not make the cut, so we have to let our attachments fall away and become extra objective in our examination. That’s not to say these cut poems weren’t good enough. They were, and that’s the trouble. It’s just that once your back is against the wall, once the firing squad has them all in a line, who do you save and why?
Now, I will compare my top ten with Josh and having already discussed some of our stand-out favorites with him yesterday, I feel confident we’ll agree on most of it. Most of the time we write the nearly exact same numbers, one or two might be off. And actually, for the first time ever, our last flash fiction contest, Flash Felon, was an exact match. We have very similar tastes and opinions, which is why we work together so well. And we both have two degrees in writing, with our MFA grad school writing degree being from the same program, where we met, incidentally, in 2010.
Josh started Molotov over six years ago and he still does the regular submissions bimonthly all on his own, which is also why we like to see honorable mentions from contests submit for the regular issues. We began the quarterly contests together, about two and a half, nearly three years ago. Josh does all the graphics and clip art for both the regular issue and contests.
I’ll continue to write more about our process another time, in the interest of encouraging the pursuit of writing.
I mainly just wanted to thank everyone who entered. I’m especially excited about the top 3. We haven’t revealed the names yet, but it’s equally fun for us to see names we are familiar with via Twitter or regular Molotov submissions as it is for us to see new people we’ve never heard of. And we never know where in the world submissions come from, so that’s always fun to see too.
Thank you everyone who trusted us with your brilliant work. And I do want to reemphasize just because your work wasn’t a fit for us this time, that absolutely doesn’t mean it isn’t good, possibly even great. And it absolutely doesn’t mean another journal wouldn’t adore having it. It’s a complicated process, this judging, and so very many elements come into play at the end. I’ll address those more in depth next time.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. We like you all, you beautiful freaks.