Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competition (October 2011)
The entries in the Autumn 2011 competition dealt with diverse themes. I approached the stories with a particular focus on the voice and originality, as well as craft.
As a reader I want to get the sense that there is more to it than just what is on the page. I want to get a sense of a world. This world does not need to be fully described, but the stories I was drawn to in this competition were the ones that were suggestive. I was particularly concerned with the sense of place, and this may be the main shortcoming of all the stories. Some stories stand out, but each and every writer, no matter how experienced, needs to rethink his or her sense of place.
Many stories were clearly not finished. The ideas were interesting, but the current drafts were rushed. They needed some shelf-time. Some had themes simply too large, and they read more as overtures to potentially longer pieces. The 1,500-word limit demands that the scope of story be narrowed down, or at least told with precision and economy of detail.
The common shortcomings in the competition entries were the old nuts: show-not-tell, unnecessary judgments by the narrative voice, use of dialogue for exposition of the story framework rather than letting the characters speak naturally. Some writers clearly showed they can handle the elements of craft, and yet the themes they dealt with were neither original nor treated in any new way. Some writers had more particular and original takes on recognizable themes, but the execution left much to be desired.
While even the six stories I selected for the three prizes and the three honourable mentions leave something to be desired, they manage to dramatize interesting themes, be suggestive enough, are partly multilayered, and they give the reader a sense of somewhat unique voices. I have unfortunately had to exclude some interesting voices because of other shortcomings, notably because the stories felt like preludes to longer works and had endings that only quickly wrapped up the narratives.
Six stories made it to the short list. Here is my reasoning:
The first prize goes to “Swarm,” because it manages to tell a large story through attention to small things. Everyday work of a family becomes a metonym for the mundane lives of a larger population. It is highly suggestive and simple. It gives a sense of both personal intimacies and historical urgency.
The second prize goes to “Where the Blue Line Fades.” This story takes place at a threshold for the characters. It holds back a great deal of detail and thus creates a sense of the forgetting of the past, while at the same time the memory of it is quite potent and important.
The third prize goes to “Third Time Lucky,” which dramatizes a character desperate for (medical) attention, a character both disturbed and funny. The story has great pace despite time gaps, and the foreshadowing works well. The final twist may appear somewhat typical, but it works well in the context of the story and with the special kind of protagonist.
Commended stories are:
“Maggie Kelly’s Gift” notably because of its suggestiveness, and because of the rhythm of the prose that ties an otherwise choppy narrative. It should be fleshed out so as not to appear too rushed.
“Going Quietly” because it manages to capture a moment between major events, the events that would infuse it with too much melodrama if they were actually dramatized. Putting the ‘before’ and ‘after’ at the margins, makes it more suggestive.
“Four Months” is somewhat experimental in form, contrasting four short dialogues to four short, poetic broodings on immigrant life in Scotland. This creates a sense of a character both split in her being and also intimately connected to the places and the other characters (only evoked).