I host and manage a quarterly writing contest. If you’re reading this you’ve likely heard of it: I call the series the Size Riot contests. Each contest has a theme, and writers volunteer to work on one original, new piece of flash fiction on this theme within the span of a month. Then I put out the call for volunteers to read these stories and evaluate them against each other in several categories. We’re in Year Two of this series, about to enter the seventh contest.
The series has been pretty fun. A couple dozen people write new stories; a couple dozen people review them and offer much-desired feedback. No prizes, it’s just for fun and to improve oneself. I’ve solicited for new ideas for the contest, and some ideas have been good (“writers should be able to submit two stories”) and some have been awful (“lift the ban on writing sexual stories about children”). And then some people approach me with ideas of their own. A complete stranger came out of nowhere with some ideas about how the contest should be run, and it was a great opportunity for me to think about aspects of the contest and what it stands for.
Querant: How about this? At the beginning of the year (or right before it ends) we vote for the theme of the all the contest throughout the year. Both to give authors more time to think about entering and creating the story and more uniquely (to me) the choices that are voted on determine from most votes to least which comes first along with giving people more of a chance to see their favorite theme get the spotlight.
I totally don’t intend to shoot down all your ideas, although that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Everyone knows I’m not a great person.
January is always Cruelty, and April is always Gentle. That’s because the contest originated from my challenging Nyx to a “cruel-off,” and other people wanted in on it, so that was the first contest. April’s my birthmonth, so, happy birthday to me: a couple dozen people write Gentle stories, which I enjoy. These are fixed and immovable because a large part of the contest is supposed to be writers challenging themselves to write in genres they’re not fluid or even comfortable with: Nyx disciplines herself to create a legitimate Gentle story, and I tighten my gut and get drunk and try to cough up a Cruel story.
I don’t like to give the writers that much time to decide on the topic for two reasons: I encourage them to be nimble and diverse creators, able to think on their feet and cope with unusual situations. For two contests, they have a whole month of sign-ups and a whole month of writing to cope with the topic. The other reason is that I savor their anguish. It tastes like greasy lemon-pepper chicken. This delicious anguish comes up in the last week of the contest, when writers try to decide which of their absolutely essential lines to delete, to get it under 2,000 words.
Now, kidding aside, I’ve discovered a serious problem with the voting system-qua-voting system.
When I solicit for writers for each contest, I get about 20 to 30 participants, a third of whom will drop out due to unforeseen life circumstances. After the stories are complete and posted online, if I’m very aggressive I can get around 20 people to read and review them. My standard is to collect as many reviews as there are writers, since everyone who writes should also vote, but I know for a fact not everyone does. Almost all do, but a few decide that reading other people’s crap is beneath them, and heaven forfend they leave a review. Every creator knows how this goes. So aside from those few writers, I think I’m able to bully a few people from Giantess City, DeviantArt, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr to get in here and read some stories and evaluate them.
As of this writing, 125 people have voted on July’s array of topics.
With inordinate smugness, I promise you 125 people will not read and evaluate the stories of any contest. A hundred never will; I’ll even suggest 50 never will.
Why? Because people like what they like, and nowhere is that more true than in the Size community. In fact, the Size corollary is that they absolutely will not read what they don’t think they’ll like.
When I closed the nominations, 39 people had suggested topics for July’s contest. I know that some people used shadow accounts to nominate their own topics multiple times. And like I said, 125 people have voted on those nominations, and again, I know flagrant cheating is involved in this, but I can only do so much to mitigate this. I wish people were better. But when the dust settles and a topic is decided, only those whose vote “won” will read the stories on August 1. Right now three topics are tied for second place, and first place’s topic has 32 votes. Once again, I feel quite secure in predicting that there will not be 32 evaluations waiting for me on August 19. Everyone else will have fled: while the writers are challenged to write on unfamiliar and nonpreferred topics, there is no challenge or even incentive for readers to stretch themselves and try new things. They want what they want, and if they can’t have farts ’n‘ feet, they’re outta here.
A few writers noted that this vote actually limits the contest: the writers are looking for a challenge, but some readers are just looking for the same old things to masturbate to. Very few are here for story arcs or character development. If you ask the body of readers what a crew of writers should write about, they’re not likely to suggest “inner torment” or “unreliable narrator.” The majority of them just want their wanking button repeatedly struck. That’s it and that’s all, sad but true.
There are some writers who will never attempt Cruel, and that’s fine. There are some who are bored to the point of violence by Gentle, and that’s fine. But if I announced all the topics on January 1, there are some writers who’ll think, “Welp, fuck July and October, because I’m not into those.” Only Taedis and I have competed in all six contests to date; five writers besides us have competed in four out of six. By springing the topic on the writers at the last second, sure, there’s a one-week scramble for the more timid participants to decide whether they’re up to it, but everyone who signed up in advance may feel a little pressure to exert some effort and cut their teeth on something new. Maybe. Not guaranteed.
But no, no one should be able to think about and plan October’s story in January. Absolutely not. The people who compete in July are supposed to start their story on July 1 and turn it in before July 31. I’ve had past contests where people dig out old stories that fit the topic and turn them in on the first of the month, and that chafed me, but people seem to have knocked that off. The contest is supposed to be about a fresh, original, new story that is written entirely within the span of the month. That’s part of the challenge; the word count is another. If I announced all the topics at the start of the year, I know someone would write them all up and turn them in to me in February and demand that I hold onto them and enter them when the appropriate month rolls around.
At the risk of sounding glib: fuck that noise.
I want to encourage writers to challenge themselves. There are no prizes (or hardly ever) because I don’t want this to be about relying on strengths: the anonymity should give writers license to try something new, take chances, develop themselves. See how they’d do without the gravitas of their name to pull in readers. What I’ve seen is that some writers absolutely deserve their high reputation; once in a while an underdog comes in and demonstrates that they deserve some attention. I love when that happens. Some people walk away, dejected and discouraged. Others glow with a resolve to try something new next time. Many are grateful to receive the feedback they’ve been starving for all this time.
As for getting people’s favorite topic to come up… I get it. I could take the list recently generated and set up a schedule for the next 12 years, but I doubt the contest will be around that long, and do you know how old I’ll be by then? VERY. I did try to impose a “no repeats” rule on nominating topics, but one-third of all nominations were dedicated to Butts, and that is popular demand. So yeah, there will be a few people who don’t get to see their favorite topic come up, whether as a writer or a reader, and I regret that.
OTOH, I started this contest out of the blue, entirely on my own, and nothing stops anyone else from doing the same. I don’t make money from it, and I’ve had a few arguments with my wife about how much time it takes to manage, but I want to encourage the Size writing community. I wrote up a guide for new writers; I’m compiling a Size Fantasy style guide. Through my writing and my editorial services I’m dedicated to encouraging writers who want to elevate their craft and hone their skills (not everyone wants to, it turns out, but oh well). As much fun as I have with surprise topics and needling people over word count, I think no one can reasonably question my devotion to supporting Size writers. I’m making a solid, conscientious contest for people willing to challenge themselves and rewarding them with feedback. It won’t please everyone, all the time, but so far that falls within acceptable parameters.
I do thank you for speaking up and causing me to clarify my own thoughts on the matter.