Reflections on Running a Fiction Contest

So Quarantine Quanta: A Drabble Contest is closed and I feel it was a great success. The subs were open March 17-31, and the results were posted on April 6, with just under 300 entries overall and with everyone having received their decisions (and the awardees having received payment) beforehand. Here are some observations from the process.

I have long been thinking about taking on some editorial duties, but have so far managed to stop myself by remembering that I have limited time and haven’t yet reached my goals as a writer that I promised myself I would reach first. This contest was a perfect opportunity to scratch the editing itch and test some ideas.

I used Google Forms for submissions. I have seen several markets do it successfully (off the top of my head: The Arcanist, tDotspec, and Longleaf Review), so it seemed like the (free!) way to go. The form was easy to set up with multiple layers of redundancy: form response, email alert of a new form response, and automatic placement of the entry data into a Google Sheet.

I did most of my work in Google Sheets, which was really convenient. Since the stories were short, I had submitters paste them into a text box, which would then be placed in the sheet, from where I read them. It was also easy to leave comments as I sifted through the submissions and I used color coding abundantly in order to stay organized: different background colors to mark up stories as read, likely no, maybe, likely yes, hell yes, and transferred from another genre (for cross-genre categories); different font colors to denote decision sent/done, acceptance sent/awaiting payment info, and payment sent.

In Gmail, I created email templates for a form decline, a shortlist decline with suggestions of potential markets where to send next, and an acceptance. The templates were absolutely essential to sending out many email responses with such a short turnaround time, and it was easy to add some personalized remarks when appropriate.

The contest had no entry fee and I accepted multiple submissions. The spirit of the contest was to get writers’ creative juices flowing; the no entry fee, I hope, lowered the submission barrier for many talented people who might be financially struggling, especially at this time. Unfortunately, the absence of an entry fee had some unintended consequences. There were many hits on my website from certain Google Classrooms, which I assume means that some teachers sent their class to submit to the contest. I  heard of this happening before, for example to the Weird Christmas contest, which ended up buried in subs last year, and I just don’t understand what the point is. I will not be providing these students with personalized feedback or a grade; presumably the teacher still has to read all the stories. By all means, a teacher should encourage their top few students to submit, but if the whole cohort submits, a majority of those entries are likely not going to be competitive. These class submissions create more work for the editor and I can’t imagine that the rejections encourage the students to write more.  What is the reasoning behind these assignments? Is it to force the students to complete something by a deadline? To see how it feels to submit? To get them to learn to read the guidelines and adhere to them? Anyway, if I do run a contest  this in the future, I am contemplating having a small entry fee, to prevent mass submissions.

A vast majority of submitters obeyed the guidelines: prose, each story of exactly 100 words, and no more than three submissions across all categories. I received one submission with well over twice the maximal length, two poems in verse, and one submitter who sent in more than the maximum of three. Given the number of submissions, I’d say this  wasn’t too bad.

I read each story multiple times. Those that received a form decline were read probably 3-5 times, while those that made it to the higher rounds probably two dozen times, if not more, as I was trying to fit as many of the ones I loved into the issue while maintaining a variety of topics and styles.

In terms of quality, I could have accepted twice, maybe two-and-a-half times as many pieces as I had. However, the contest was paid and it was advertised (and listed on The Grinder) with a lowest payment of 10 cents/word. Even though I greatly increased the number of awards in the end with respect to what was originally planned, I couldn’t pay anyone less than the posted minimum. At some point, increasing the number of acceptances further became financially prohibitive. However, rest assured that there are another 30-50 stories out there that are just plain awesome and I hope they all find homes soon, so that everyone gets to read them!

If I sent a shortlist declination, I meant it. That story was good and the only reason I couldn’t include it is that I was limited in terms of space (and, by space, I mean money) and, given the space, I wanted to showcase a certain mix of topics and styles. There were several excellent stories that just happened to be too topically similar to something else, and I could only pick one. The pandemic stories were so numerous that they warranted their own category, but there were quite a few topics with three or four excellent entries, yet only one accepted. There is a lot of talent out there.

I was dreading receiving hurtful responses to rejections, but I’m relieved to report that I didn’t get a single one. I attribute it to luck, no entry fee (so no one felt they were owed anything), and what I thought were encouraging declination letters. But probably mostly luck. The people who did respond to declines were all very kind, and thanked me for the feedback and/or for running the contest.

Judging this contest underscored two key elements that I feel are true when we talk about the evolution of one’s writing. Being that most people submitted multiple entries, I can say the following:
a) If someone could write at a high level, all their entries were at a high level; I might’ve liked one more than others (I made sure no one got more than one award in the competitive categories together), but they were all good, working stories. The converse was also true: If someone hadn’t quite reached a publishable level with their prose, that was evident in all their entries. So there is such a thing as objective writing skill, visible in all one produces.
b) There is also intrinsic subjectivity in these award selections. There are some writers who are quite skilled, but whose work just doesn’t resonate very strongly with me. I recognize the craft, but it doesn’t move me as much as some other people’s work. Consequently, this work doesn’t do well in my contest, but likely would’ve if someone else had judged. I believe it has to do with being on a similar wavelength as the writer, because, often, if one of their pieces resonated, more than one did.
So, as I discussed elsewhere, it is a combination of where one’s craft objectively is (above or below a quality threshold, and this is something a writer can work on) and a subjective component (whether a reader just likes the work or loves it). And, of course, logistical considerations from above (e.g., issue composition, number of slots).

This brings me to reading the entries of the writers I know. While I didn’t pay attention to who wrote which story during the initial selection, because it was easy to hide the name and email columns in the Google Sheet, once the time came to send out declines, it was gut-wrenching to do so to great writers whom I like and respect. This was my least favorite part of the experience.

Overall, what did I learn?

The timescale was short; that worked during the quarantine, but wouldn’t have worked if I’d had my regular schedule. It was a crunch, but I like to keep busy and it really helped me stay sane during the transition toward self-isolation. I could do this intense focused reading of submissions maybe once a year, but not more frequently, or else I fear I would get burned out really fast. I understand better now why magazines fold, why people have narrow and infrequent submission windows, and feel that those who have year-round subs over many years are definitely superheroes!

An entry fee might prevent being carpet bombed by submissions that really aren’t ready for prime time. But I am torn on the issue, even if the amounts are small ($1 or $0.50). Having entry fees would run counter to the spirit of the contest, and the benefit of openness and accessibility probably justifies the (minor) annoyance.

Google-based submissions were free and easy to implement, and a good choice overall. However, I assume there is a critical rate of submissions beyond which using a submission manager becomes a must. More than one person handling submissions might also make many of the benefits I drew from Google obsolete. But yes, for a one-time contest with a sole reader/judge, it worked out perfectly.

There are many talented authors out there, some of whom are so amazing it seems unfair to the rest of us mortals, and it was a great privilege to read everyone’s work. I am really happy I ran the contest, and I hope the readers enjoy the resulting anthology as much as I enjoyed creating it.


Cover for the Quarantine Quanta story collection. Art by Daniele Serra.

Contest eBook PDF

Contest eBook EPUB

Contest eBook MOBI

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