I swear this gets harder with every contest.
Contest #16 received 237 entries, not counting resubmissions (authors replacing their own entries) and one we had to disqualify. Out of those 237, about 40 seriously impressed us, and by the time we woke up this morning, 16 stories were fighting for the 10 finalist slots. Bethany and I have debated and argued and pointed out strengths and weaknesses in those 16 stories, and we're still not down to 10.
It's a sign of our maturation as a fiction market that we are now turning down stories that, at one point in our history, would have easily made the final judging round. I'm not convinced that the best stories in contest #16 are better than the best stories we've published in previous issues. I am convinced that the 16th best story we received for this contest is heads and shoulders above the 16th best story we received for our early issues. It's probably better than the 8th best story we received for our early issues.
What that means is, we're looking at stories that we both like and we're still forced to turn them down because each contest forces us to get even pickier about stupid little mistakes and minor problems. Three years ago, I'd have said, "This story has a significant flaw, but let's put it in the top 10 and if it gets published, we'll fix the problem in editing." Now we say, "Sorry, story--you're out."
Stories that it absolutely killed me to turn down include:
...a heart-rending story in which the last 85% of the prose was as good as anything we've ever received. Too bad we thought the first ten paragraphs were not just unnecessary, but detrimental to the story, which in our minds, begins with its eleventh paragraph. Writers! Deep in your heart, you know where your story really begins. Cut everything that comes before that point, okay?
...a highly believable story about Earth's possible future, which would have enthralled us except that the main character is taking a stubborn stand against something for no reason we can figure out. Writers! If your character is doing something unusual, please give that person a reason we can relate to, okay?
...a story that we're convinced would be a contender, except it's set in a culture we know very little about, and the story thinks we're much more familiar with that culture's basic concepts than we really are. Writers! Even the most real-world story requires worldbuilding. Are you sure your American audience will understand your culture's subtle elements?
Anyway, we're not down to 10 stories yet, so the debate will continue. I expect to have figured out our finalists by Wednesday. Sincere congratulations go out to the increasing number of writers who improve with every submission, and who make our job harder with each contest.