Thank you for the opportunity to read the twenty-one shortlisted entries in the above competition and for entrusting me with the responsibility of judging them.
First, by the standards of competitions I’ve been involved in before, this was a strong collection. While the intents and styles differed, the writing was consistently assured, and, I sensed, had benefited from careful revision and editing. Any criticisms should be taken in that context.
Selecting the winner, place-getters and highly-commended entries was difficult, and necessarily subjective. I suspect that if there had been multiple judges, we would have found it easy to agree on the ten best stories, but would have had plenty of debate as to the order in which to place them.
On first read, I rated the stories on each of four criteria: quality of prose, story, originality and engagement – incorporating other factors such as character and sense of place under those headings.
I did not consider fidelity to the theme tracks of desire. I assumed the pre-readers would have confirmed that hurdle had been cleared, but generally it seemed to have been addressed – sometimes fundamentally, sometimes cleverly, sometimes as a box-check!
I returned to the stories some time later and flagged those which had stayed with me – another criterion to consider. I ended up with a short-short list of seven stories, which I re-read and reflected on before making final choices.
As noted earlier, the prose was consistently of a high standard.
Most stories had a strong sense of place and period, from seventeenth century London to Italy to the street where I live. The descriptions of physical environment featured some of the best writing, and were overall stronger than those of character. Emotions were vivid on the page; motivation sometimes less clear.
The best stories had a good balance of ‘show’ and ‘tell’, some of the less successful ones could have used more dialogue and action. No surprise there for writing teachers!
It was in the domain of story that writers took advantage of the convention that short stories need not follow the beginning-middle-end structures of popular fiction. But I felt that overall, the storytelling, in the broadest sense of how events and revelations unfolded, was not as developed as the prose: the authors hadn’t always realised the full potential of some promising ideas.
Several of the stories alternated between two situations (one past, one present), an entirely workable structure, but there was often room for clearer causal or thematic links between the two threads.
The old-fashioned twist is still alive though not necessarily well. To work effectively, it needs to change the reader’s understanding of and response to what has gone before in a fundamental way. In several cases, the ‘reveal’ was of something less central with correspondingly less impact. Indeed, few of the stories hit me with an emotional punch; their power was steady rather than sudden.
Originality lay largely in the choice of subjects. Prose and structure were consistently familiar rather than experimental or confronting, and there was little that was attention-seeking or distracting.
A couple of stories ventured into non-literal territory, but there were guideposts for readers. The overwhelming majority of the writing would have sat comfortably in a mainstream novel.
Which is also to say that most authors did not take advantage of the short-story format to experiment with styles that the reader might find tiring in a longer work. About half the stories were written in present tense and about half in first-person, and a couple chose omniscient points of view. But not much to scare the horses.
‘Desire’ was predominantly sexual and the sexuality conventionally straight or gay male (which was well represented). Within that, there were a couple of quite distinct voices and unusual settings. Unfortunately, the most original ideas didn’t correspond with the strongest execution.
I included ‘engagement’ as a catch-all for how interested I was, how much I wanted to keep reading and what impact the story might have on me – and, by extension, other readers. Most of these stories were easy and, yes, engaging, to read, and, as noted earlier, the styles would happily lend themselves to full-length novels.
My involvement in the stories was mostly emotional rather than intellectual; I tended to finish with a feeling rather than something to think about. And emotionally, there was definitely more ‘down’ than ‘up’ – not a lot of happy endings! Writers sometimes forget the emotional power of an instance of human kindness or decency in an otherwise grim scenario. And humour, even in the form of a wry observation, was thin on the ground.
When I returned to the stories, there were five that had stayed with me more than the others. It’s perhaps interesting that they were already all in my short-short list.
The Winner: A Boy in a Raincoat and a Boy in a Bus Stop.
The most demanding of the stories, and the most rewarding to read a second time. A finely controlled piece which explores connection and disconnection and alternates deftly between the allegorical and the literal, and between authorial and character points of view. As much about what it evokes as what it says.
Second: Branch Lines
Assured writing that would be at home in a contemporary novel of family life. The narrator’s desire to know her history is ever-present but elegantly understated. The sharp but not showy observation of place and character lift it above the ordinary.
The strongest conventional storytelling: two stories linked by the central character. One gives us a powerful description of place and physical jeopardy; the other, memorable characters and emotional conflict.
Over Your Souls