by Catherine Edmunds
First came the sifting. With over 100 stories to read, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to read each one cover to cover half a dozen times. I would have to make a decision about which would repay re-reading, and which wouldn’t, so the first thing I did was to read the first few paragraphs of each story and decide if I wanted to go any further. If I did, it went on the re-read pile. If it didn’t grab me, for the sake of fairness I made myself read to the very end to make sure I wasn’t missing a gem. This way every single story was ensured at least one read all the way through. If people take the trouble to write these stories and send them in, they must get a fair reading.
The stories which didn’t progress any further at this point were not terrible. They were all literate, all had something to say – they simply didn’t say it well enough, or in a way that mattered, a way that was going to stay with me long after I finished them. Many didn’t feel new. I had read them before – not these specific stories, but stories very similar, full of comfortable expressions that could slip easily into dozens of other stories without any noticeable change of voice. Some were clearly aimed at children. I’m not a child. There are specific competitions for children’s stories, just as there are specific competitions for Romance, a genre which along with sci-fi and fantasy will rarely do well in a specifically literary competition where the bar is set that much higher. Some stories were so cosy and gentle I felt as if I’d eaten a Cornish cream tea, indulging in one scone too many with extra butter, a huge dollop of over-sweet strawberry jam and – you get the idea. I could imagine them being read aloud in writing groups and the writer being told, ‘Oh, that’s so lovely! You must send it in!’ A useful rule of thumb: if anyone tells you your story is ‘lovely’, there’s something very wrong with it – unless you’re aiming for the sort of magazine that takes ‘lovely’ stories.
What I was looking for was something with spark, with originality; something different to anything I had read before. Most of all, I was looking for genuine literature, with resonance that would stay with me long after I’d finished reading. I wanted to learn something new about the human condition, not necessarily in a grand, earth-shattering way, but in a way that would leave my world-view subtly changed as a result of the reading. There is no reason why a ‘feel good’ story shouldn’t do this, but just as a beautiful melody in a minor key is likely to move you more than a cheeky little tune, so the stories with a deep sadness, with genuine ache, are the ones that will stay with you, the ones that matter. That doesn’t mean stories have to be miserable. I would never pick up a ‘misery memoir’ as such things rely merely on a facile manipulation of emotions, on trickery. The genuine literary story, on the other hand, has depth and layers upon layers of meaning. It will make the reader work hard to prise out every last nuance, it will be cathartic, it won’t dole out emotions on a plate for the reader to ingest and then excrete at the earliest opportunity. The genuine literary story also never has talking animals – or that’s what I thought until I read the third placed story. There are always exceptions.
Luckily I found plenty of stories that made me want to linger over them and re-read. I made a long-list of around twenty-five stories of the best, and spent a long time whittling them down. Inevitably, some good stories were discarded, but I finally reached a top six.
I’ll talk a little about the ones I picked as highly commended first. These were all strong stories that repaid many re-readings and thoroughly deserved their placing.
‘Mary, Mary’ takes what could have been a stock subject: a social worker who allows his feelings towards a client to get out of hand, with disastrous consequences. In this storyteller’s hands, however, the situation is turned it into something dark, tragic and deeply affecting. The author clearly knows and has experience of people with Mary’s difficulties so the context rings true and the ‘world’ of the story is completely authentic. The heartbreak lies in its inevitability, given the character of the protagonist. This is the world of Greek tragedy: a hero with a fatal flaw that will be his downfall, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. The best stories can only have one outcome. If there’s any artifice, any misleading, any fake twist in the tale, they’ve failed. This one couldn’t have gone any other way.
‘The Cult of Click And Clack’ is a gripping tale about what happens when your passion, your obsession for your art goes way beyond safe limits. The story is nightmarish and hallucinogenic, but it never descends into melodrama because the drawing of the characters is so strong and convincing. These are real people. Tom is a writer, Jenny a photographer. Tom is writing a book called ‘How To Kill Your Wife and Still Sleep Soundly’. His computer ‘killed’ his first draft, so now he types on an old Imperial typewriter. He has bad knees, and takes strong painkillers which have dodgy side-effects. Jenny is a conceptual photographer, fascinated by the technicalities of her new hobby. She is obsessive and disastrously competitive. Foxes scream as the story is played out in a domestic North London setting between waterbed and bathroom. To say this story is original is an understatement. I have never read anything remotely like it.
‘A Blackpool Winter’ is only 709 words long, but it doesn’t need to be any longer. It’s complete, and it proves, not that it needs proving, that word limits in short story competitions are just that – limits – and you should never write up to the limit just for the sake of it. With this particular piece, the entire story is effectively told in the first few lines – and that is always a sign of a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing. The rest of the writing fleshes everything out, adds the necessary details to turn it into a full story, and, most importantly, proves the original premise. The plot involves knot-tying, library books, attempted suicide and redemption, but it’s also a love story, and it has a wonderful wit and lightness of touch. There’s a lot fitted into its 709 words, but it never feels rushed. This is highly skilled writing, and the story would have slipped into the top three, had it not been beaten by a whisker by the third placed story.
In third place, I put ‘Along Came A Spider’. The narrator, a recovering alcoholic who is crippled by gout, lies in a hospital bed and chats to his neighbour, Mr Urbach, an elderly man who was rescued by the Kinder Transport during WW2. The narrator’s recovery from alcoholism started when a spider called Mr Churchill climbed out of the plaster cast on his leg while he was lying in a gutter outside a seedy Bermondsey pub. He doesn’t remember how he broke his leg, but on the advice of the spider, he has the cast removed. Mr Churchill is long gone, but the healing process is continuing with the help of Mr Urbach, who tells the narrator tales of his childhood escape from the continent to England. There is a gentle confusion to this complex tale, a dreamlike melding of the two men’s experiences which enhances the heart of the story. The image that lingers longest is that of the bench on a cliff top overlooking the sea, seen at a distance at first, but close up by the end.
In second place, I put ‘At Lunch, Football’. As I’ve already mentioned, we are often bombarded with well-meaning ‘rules’ on how to write good short stories. This story blithely breaks pretty much all of them, and proves categorically that good writing doesn’t need the sort of facile rules you see all too often on the internet. If the technique, the sheer craft is in place, the rules can be broken. For example, we are always being told that a story of 1500 words can’t cope with more than two, or maybe three main characters, but this one has a huge cast, far too many for such a short story (the rules would say) and they’re all important. Then there’s how you construct a story. This one doesn’t have a nice clear three act structure of beginning, middle and end. Far from it. Also, we’re told that an omniscient viewpoint is old hat, that we should focus in and tell from one point of view. This story breaks that one with a vengeance. It’s about a group of diverse characters kicking a football around in their lunch break, only we don’t see much football; we just get brief character sketches, paragraph by paragraph. That’s the story. Doesn’t sound much told like that. So how come a second place? Because this story insists that you read it over and over and over again, learn all the characters, learn their relationship with each other, their histories, what makes them do what they do; it insists that you ache for them all, but particularly for Jill, the one female character, because of what Mr McLintock did, that one, terrible night. This exceptional story would have been the winner had it not been pipped at the post by a story that in many ways I hated, but judging literary competitions isn’t about loving or hating the stories; it’s about which one’s the best.
So, the winner – ‘Family Matters’. If I were a harassed slushpile reader who had a bus to catch, I might have read the first paragraph, thought, ‘You have got to be joking’ and thrown it on the floor, then run for my bus, trying my hardest to get those images out of my mind. I might have caught my bus, but the images would have stuck. Luckily, I’m not a slushpile reader in a hurry. I read the first paragraph, thought, ‘Blimey! Urrghh!’ and put it on the pile to read further. I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. This story hurts. This is not one to read in your doctor’s waiting room, this is not the story you will ever see in a women’s magazine even though – as the title says – it deals with family matters, just as a comfortable magazine might do. Family matters equals brothers and sisters, kids, parents, right? Yes, but that’s a misreading. This is not about matters to do with families as much as the fact that your family matters. The first paragraph is painful, but the thing that makes the story for me is the very last sentence, which is so beautifully done it hurts even more. And there’s another thing – I remember from my own childhood the cloud that forms when Dettol is poured into water. Whoever would have thought such a simple image could be so poignant, so devastating? This is true literary fiction; difficult, painful, searing, heartbreaking and from an entirely different universe to those ‘lovely’ stories I mentioned earlier. This is writing.
Thank you writers! I’ve had the pleasure of reading a huge variety of stories, from one written entirely in witty rhyming couplets, to warm little domestic tales, from talking animals to historical fiction, thrillers and mysteries. In the end, however, it was the memory of a long walk on a distant summer’s night that clinched the victory for the writer of ‘Family Matters’.
Catherine Edmunds, 2nd July 2014
Many thanks to Catherine for the patience in staying with this competition which combines entries from February and May 2014. At the end of the entry period our February competition entries were rolled over to the May competition because the entries had been too few to make the contest viable. Three entrants requested and received refunds of their entry fees but the rest stayed with us. In the end the judge had 121 short stories to judge and reading her report above I suspect she had great fun and these stories will make great reading when they are published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly.
Now to match those stories with their authors.
Mary, Mary by David Higgins (St Helena’s Island, South Atlantic)
The Cult of Click And Clack by Wendy Ogden (Eastbourne, UK)
A Blackpool Winter by Debbie Jay (Southampton, UK)
Along Came A Spider by by Wendy Ogden (Eastbourne, UK)
At Lunch, Football by Debbie Jay (Southampton, UK)
Family Matters by Debbie Jay (Southampton, UK)