Judge’s Report by Alex Keegan
Over the last 10-15 years I have judged approximately 45 short-story competitions including “From the Ashes”, The Derby Prize, 7Q & Fish. Usually, although sometimes there is not a very long short-list, it seems, just about always, there are enough decent stories to allow the judge to select the prize-winners and a few “High Recommendations.”
But this competition, sadly, I guess through the randomness of chance, simply did not produce six stories that I could, hand on heart, say were worthy of prizes or recommendation.
This is a new situation for me, and not at all comfortable. It would be easy to “bite my tongue” and take the best six and over-praise them, but if I did that I would be dishonest and ultimately help no-one. It is important that when we win an accolade it MEANS something
After all the stories had been read once my feeling was “not great”, but what was very noticeable was the lack of ambition, the over-use of stock phrases and clichés, too many stock characters and stereotypes and a homogeneity of language. Lines and phrases could be cut-and-pasted from most stories into almost any other. Only two stories stood out as having a distinct voice.
A lot of the writing was careless and “baggy”, twenty words used when fifteen, ten, even half-a-dozen would suffice. There was no sense whatsoever of rewriting, of POLISH, of serious editing, of any attempt to be succinct, poetic, or punchy.
Also, almost all the stories are WYSIWYG. That is, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Everything is obvious, surface, superficial. There is no dance, no subtlety, no shadows, nothing metaphorical, nothing to “discover”.
Quite a few “stories” were mere lists of advice, e.g.: how to pick a husband, but were not STORIES with characters making choices and those choices driving a plot.
Far too many stories were simple, obvious with tacked-on “twist-endings”. Writers should know that the purpose of a good story is not some cheap trick, some crude, “clever” surprise. 99% of the time the twist is not much of a surprise and ALWAYS a disappointment.
My advice is, if you have an idea for a twist-ending, put it in the first paragraph and write something worthwhile.
Only six stories made what would normally be a long-list and the following three (in no particular order), while better than the rest, did not reach a standard where I could award them the accolade of “Highly Recommended”
An Angel in Dustville
The White Coat
This left three stories
Epilogue to the Uganda
The Last of the Yagimui
The Innocents of War
Uganda and Yagimui stood out immediately for their language, in such a way that they didn’t need to be read right through to make the long-list. They smelled of writing in a way all judges want all stories to smell.
The innocents of War has a promising scenario where a French housewife protects an allied airman before ultimately sacrificing him in order to save some Jewish children. The story fails partly because the language, while smooth enough is derivative and stock, and partly because there is no decision-making, no heartache, no wrenching decision for Claudette to make (or if there is, it is “off-screen” denying the reader the chance to feel the weight of her choices. The story is thus “too easy” what I call a roll-out, a plot unfolding far-too-neatly without tension. For that reason, though this is the third-best story, I did not feel I could award it a prize.
The Last of the Yagimui was instantly attractive. It had voice, a great setting, and a definite hook. I had put it in the probable-finalist pile after reading just one paragraph.
Sadly, the story failed, not on the writing itself, but on (again) the lack of dramatic tension, the sense of rolling out with too much ease. The finish was glib and disappointing, which was a damn shame because the author can carry a narrative well. The story deserved to be longer, more complex and the death and/or language-transfer needed to be lingered over and result from an actual, seen, action or decision.
Epilogue to the Uganda, like “Yagimui” had immediate promise. It was simply better-written than all bar one of the rest. This was the ONLY story to move me and to resonate and linger.
It’s far from perfect but it has weight, depth, some fine detail, and a great last line. It was slightly over-wrought in places but genuinely created an atmosphere and made me think.
I am happy to choose “Uganda” as the overall winner, but, as explained, I do not feel that the two runners-up quite reached the standard to be awarded a prize.
No doubt I will be cast as a villain, here, but I feel it is important not to inflate the worth of submitted stories and to indicate to aspiring writers that it takes a lot of hard work over an extended time to reach a reasonable standard. Join a good writing group, seek out professional feedback, and write-write-write, search your work for stock language and cliches, ask can this sentence, that sentence be tighter, more voiced, more original. Understand point-of-view and control it. Give up on twist endings and write stuff that matters and moves the reader. Be brave.
SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY SHORT STORY COMPETITION (SEPTEMBER 2013)
This quarter we had particularly low numbers. Only 69 short stories. When we received the adjudication report from Alex Keegan it was somewhat disheartening. We have been running the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competitions since January 2010 and we have had one occasion that the judge struggled to find a winner. We have never felt that any of the stories that have won our competitions have not deserved the prize. Alex Keegan, the judge in this competition is a novelist and short story writer himself. He also runs a writing boot camp. We perfectly understand where he is coming from and we respect his judgment. Usually we do not interfere in any way or change any decisions made by the judge, but in this instance, we will intervene. We don’t think that anyone will cast Mr Keegan as a villain as he suspects in his report. Our writers are grown-up and will understand that he has stated his own professional opinion. It is nothing personal.
At Sentinel, we understand that many short stories entered into writing competitions are works in progress. Some authors enter stories into competitions that they have completed, but many enter stories into competitions to test the stories, to seek feedback from a judge who does not know them. Because the stories are judged blind, many writers trust the comments from such blind judging more than those from their friends in small writing groups. The reason we have such a long time, several months between the announcement of our results and the publication of winning stories is that we attempt to edit winning and commended stories and improve them as much as possible.
Because of this, we have decided that we will award the First, Second and Third Prizes to the three stories Mr Keegan has picked. We took the liberty of sending the 6 top stories to two independent readers and the consensus is that the stories “The Innocents of War”, “The Last of the Yagimui” and “Epilogue to the Uganda” do deserve the prizes but could benefit from strong editorial intervention. We will work with the authors to improve the stories before publishing them in our magazine. Unfortunately this time, we will not award the Highly Commended Prizes. We will however contact the authors of the three stories that nearly were highly commended: An Angel in Dustville, The White Coat, Funeral Checklist and invite them to work on these stories and re-enter them free of charge under different titles to our next quarterly competition and see how a different judge will rate the stories.
Here are the prizes that we will award:
Sally A. Johns - The Innocents of War
Joseph Rizzo-Naudi - The Last of the Yagimui
Stuart Condie - Epilogue to the Uganda
Congratulations to the winners
SENTINEL ANNUAL SHORT STORY COMPETITION 2013
CLOSING DATE: 30 NOVEMBER 2013
FIRST PRIZE: £500 SECOND PRIZE: £250 THIRD PRIZE: £125
HIGH COMMENDATION: £25 X 5
For previously unpublished stories in English Language, on any subject, in any style, up to 2000 words long.
Authors of all nationalities, age and gender living in any part of the world are eligible to enter.
JUDGE: DAVID CADDY – editor of Tears in the Fence
FEES: £5 per story for first 2 stories, £3.50 per subsequent story
Enter online and pay securely by PayPal or download an Entry Form for postal entry at:
Cheques/Postal Orders in favour of SENTINEL POETRY MOVEMENT to
Sentinel Poetry Movement,
Unit 136, 113-115 George Lane, South Woodford, London E18 1AB