Sixfold short stories and poetry/the completely writer voted journal was something I discovered and participated in this past Spring. The way it works is you submit a short story, and pay $3 to play. If you submit, you are a judge. When round 1 opens, you will have 2 weeks to read and judge 6 shorts stories. You must rank them 1-6, best to worst. There are 3 rounds, so the judging process will take six weeks, and you will read and score 18 stories. You do not know how your story is faring out there, nor if it moved past the first round. Your best guess is comparing it to what you’re reading. What Sixfold emphasizes you will gain by this process is the written critiques (which should be 500 words) of your work, written by other fiction writers. I was definitely interested in these critiques, but I do have a fiction writing group which I’ve been part of for ten+ years, and therefore I have six very talented writers and editors who read my work in progress. Some of you will understand that that provides ample feedback on new writing. What I was really interested in, I realized as Sixfold’s round 1 date loomed, was seeing the work. What are other people submitting to writing contests? What is the competition? Since everyone who submits to Sixfold gets read, your round one stories represent the masses. I was surprised by the lack of proof-reading and the grammatical issues that choked some of these stories. I think I read all six of them in two days, and found it not too difficult to rank them 1-6. (It got harder) I didn’t find any of them to be fully successful, to completely work or hold together or carry through on their beginnings. But I did notice something right away that felt like a dictate. They had stakes. All six writers had gone for high stakes. There were dead boyfriends in trunks and anonymous sex with African taxi drivers. Many of these first round stories had voice too. First person narrators were frequently total messes, characters you would gawk at if you saw them going about their day, characters with really unusual points of view and ways of spending their time. To be truthful, I did wonder if the voice was the author several times, because the ability to construct a first person unreliable narrator with such a distinct and original voice seemed incongruous with the inability to construct a solid sentence. Nonetheless, I walked away from round one having been taught a valuable lesson. Higher stakes. It turns out, I kind of want a dead body in my trunk. I just hadn’t realized it.
Round 2 was infinitely more professional and the fiction was adept. These were writers who’d studied their craft. Who’d read fiction for decades and were writing to make a piece stand up, to accomplish something by itself in the world, to suggest, to reveal itself and to leave the reader at the open doorway, gazing in, having seen it all. My two favorite stories, after the contest ended, both appeared in round two. One of them read like Cormac McCarthy wrote it. It moved from horrific plot point to horrific plot point, punctuated by real and spare dialogue, and contained almost no backstory that went beyond six months in the past, if that. Fingers were lost, noses were broken and unlike McCarthy, there was a suggestion that love prevailed. Once again, I noticed a willingness to be more dramatic than my own typical range and I appreciated it.
I found my own place in the contest in round 2 and 3. I felt I recognized my writing in a few of the stories I read here. But it shone a light on something to be worked on more than my skill. I read one story in particular about a twelve year-old who was very distraught about her 18 year-old sister giving her baby up for adoption. It was realistic, poignant, well-developed and boring. I felt the writer and I shared some bad habits. The earnest and realistic plot points. The internal mapping of characters.
In another post I’d like to describe the return to shorter forms I’ve taken this year, why I have taken up with short stories, poems, creative non-fiction and blog posts and what it’s been like. But this post is really about the important leash-yanking I received by reading 18 stories, 18 writers out there, my brethren. And that the more skillful ones were often the tamer too. Revealing a slice of a world, very finely, but not pushing the reader into a shifting place. The story needs to be the shift. Why on this night? As I stumble forward with new works, hopefully short and long, I want to trip a lot, I want to fall into more black holes where readers must follow, unexpectedly and without enough light.