A story can be defined in its most simple terms as ‘what happens’. If the answer is, ‘umm… hard to say,’ then the story is likely not a story at all. It might be a vignette or an extended description, it might set the scene, but it isn’t the story. A number of entries failed to show me ‘what happens’ in any real sense, so however lyrical or powerful the writing, I had to move them to the ‘no’ pile. I was looking for pieces of writing where there is movement, a change from the start to the finish; a premise established that the story goes on to prove. Once I had removed those pieces where essentially nothing happened, I started looking at questions of basic craft: does this writer understand how to keep their tenses consistent, how to avoid other basic grammatical errors, how to handle point of view issues, and also pacing, as with a relatively low word limit it’s often better to write in real time than attempt a saga covering decades. I was also wary of stories that broke the rules as regards word-count. Half a dozen words over? Fine. Different word processing programmes have different ways of counting, so that could account for small discrepancies, but 1200 words over in one case? Absolutely not.
That left me with a long list of about forty stories, all of them decent, to take on to my next round. Certain subjects cropped up frequently – in particular, there were a lot of relatives suffering from dementia. The problem with these was that most ended up relentlessly miserable, i.e depressing rather than cathartic – though there was one exception. At the other end of the scale were the humorous stories, and one in particular was very funny indeed. It takes guts to enter funnies into literary competitions, but if the quality of writing is there, go for it. As I whittled them down further, I was looking for stories that had strong, complex characters and multi-layered textures, stories that got under my skin, that I’d go to bed thinking about and would still be thinking about the next morning. My early favourite stayed with me. I must have read it a dozen times, but with each re-read I saw additional layers in the text.
Stories that didn’t quite make my shortlist but which I’d like to mention because they had a lot going for them and are worth the authors re-visiting included: ‘Osmund the Mason’ – a charming tale with a convincing historical setting; ‘The Clown’s Boots’ which caught its protagonist’s angst perfectly; ‘What Happened At The Christmas Party’ – lightweight but well-observed; ‘Remembering the Song’ – a powerful and distinctive story, but it took too long to get going – cut the preamble a bit, and this one could easily be a winner; ‘The Raincoat’ – a chilling dystopian tale, which was let down because the ending didn’t quite convince; ‘Hair Will Out’ another one with a great idea but it felt like the writer had run out of steam at the end; and ‘Hear No Evil’, a highly original take on telepathy, and a genuinely charming tale.
My shortlist contained many stories I agonised over, wondering whether to move them up into the top prizes, but I had to come to a decision, so here are my three commended stories, all of which were well-crafted and engaging reads.
‘Waiting for Pogo’ – took a little while to establish the character, but her sadness and the tragedy of the situation were very well expressed and it never became mawkish. I cared about her, and that’s what matters, that’s what made the story.
‘The Procession’ – this one almost fell into the vignette category, but had just enough actual story to rescue it with superb descriptions and a keen eye for character. The father-son relationship was complex and well-observed, set in a fascinating and vivid context.
‘The Insect Man’ – this one felt uneven as regards pacing, but the descriptions of the ‘insect man’ himself were agonisingly good, and Gerald’s reaction to him utterly believable. The ending in particular was beautifully written. I believed every word.
My Highly Commended stories. These ones were just pipped at the post for the top places.
‘Watching’ – as mentioned earlier, there was a lot of dementia about this year. This was the story that made the theme work by using dementia to say something profound about love. The point of view was unusual, a brave choice on the writer’s part. It almost felt like a poem at times, with the repetition of the refrain: ‘I watch you, my love’ – that simple line encapsulating everything about the story. Beautiful, lyrical writing.
‘Headliners’ This one was a bit of a sleeper. It didn’t make much of an impression the first time I read it as I was going through looking for obvious errors. There weren’t any, so it moved on up the list. And it kept on moving, up and up, until on about the sixth read I thought, ‘hang on, this is really good’. Each time I re-read it I saw something I’d missed the first time and I started looking forward to the re-reads, to re-acquainting myself with the characters. Strong and subtle writing. Completely believable.
‘Contagion’ If there were a separate prize for the most tense ending, I think this one would win it. The reader doesn’t know whether to shout ‘Yes!’ or ‘NO!!’ but it’s certainly nothing in between – the story has reached such a pitch by that point, the ending is going to be agonising whatever happens. The story is a powerful dystopian vision, and I know dystopian visions are often described as ‘powerful’, but this one really deserves the epithet.
And so to my top three.
Third place goes to ‘In The Rear View’. This is a high speed roller-coaster of a story with a complex construction that requires the reader to slow down and concentrate, to think. You can’t skim this one. Every single word counts. The whole was perfectly judged, authentic, exciting, and an object lesson on how to develop character by dropping in back-story without ever letting the pace drop.
Second place goes to ‘Ball Break Hotel’. I snorted with laughter when I reached the punchline, so I really need to add a caveat here. Normally, I absolutely detest twist-in-the-tail, punchline endings as they’re often the last resort of the writer who knows how to tell one joke and writes an achingly slow story just to get to it. This story was nothing of the sort. It was funny throughout, genuinely funny. X-Men meets Travelodge. Superb – and I am so happy to see a humorous story written so well.
First place goes to ‘Bunjee’. It’s not often that I judge a short story competition and the winner is clear from the very first reading, but it was in this case. This rich, multi-layered story deals with the two very different worlds; that of the wealthy foreign tourists, and of the indigenous people whose home is the tourists’ playground – and what happens when these two worlds collide. The entire story takes place in the few moments of the bungee jump, when a tourist jumps from her world on the bridge at the top of the gorge, down to the world beneath. It is symbolic, powerful, poignant, but not without humour. A superb story in every way.
Catherine Edmunds 10th April 2015
Penny Dale – ‘Waiting for Pogo’
Ron Jones – The Procession
C G Lister – The Insect Man
Highly Commended Stories
Amanda Zaldua – Watching
Penelope Randall – Headliners
Josie Turner – Contagion
Peter Burns – In the Rear View
Steve Startup – Ball Break Hotel
Sentinel Writing Competitions | firstname.lastname@example.org