4 February 2006

Short story comp - judge's report (Giles Hugo)

The Write Stuff
2005 Short story competition
Judge's report by Giles Hugo.

The judging process and observations:

* PLAYING BY THE RULES – Our diligent scrutineer received and processed all entries as they arrived, vetting their eligibility, weeding out the few stories that did not make the 5,000-word lower limit.

A couple of entrants failed to read the rules and included their name on the first page. All eligible entries were assigned a number as they were entered on a secure database and the judge had no indication of any of the authors’ identities until after the judging had been completed, then the entry number was matched against the author on the database.

* SHEEP AND GOATS – The judging process.

Entries in The Write Stuff’s 2005 competition were – by comparison with the inaugural 2005 contest – much better overall, which made reading the 92 stories most enjoyable. Once again I committed myself to reading every word of every entry – a total of about 600,000+ words. On my first reading I gave each entry a score between 1 an 10. There were a few 2s, most were between 3 and 6, and the short-listed Top 10 all scored 8+. I had no doubt about the winner and there were three candidates for the second prize. I then re-read the short list and scanned through all the entries to check if I had misjudged anything. After careful rereading and consideration I chose the second-prize winner and judged two entries to be Highly Commended and two Commended.

* THE USUAL SUSPECTS – Themes and genres.

These included: Romance, with extremely variable results; Lust, generally more boring than revealing or even arousing, though there were a very few rare and powerful exceptions; Mystery, from the bizarre to the banal; Murder, both highly ingenious and gratuitously gory; Medical, including a surprising number of detailed minute-by-minute accounts of prolonged labours; Historical Romance, sadly mostly hysterically clichéd and determinedly predictable; Fairy Stories, veering from the Blytonesque to something suggestive of a Photon Faery computer game, with unexplained power shields and mega-potent spells, which could have been spelt out to add some verbal interest; Swords and Sorcery, mercifully few examples; Death, dancing with or simply a terminal plot device; Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, but a good story helps; Horror/Paranormal, shock and strangeness also need a good story; Time Travel, variably successful, as this frequently explored theme demands ingenuity of concept or freshness of voice.

* THE REAL McCOY – What stood out.

The best entries combined good writing with a striking story. No matter how well-crafted the writing may be, unless it is used to tell a good story, it is only half-way there – a pretty ornament with no purpose other than decoration. Unique stories that defy the genre they may fall into are gems to be treasured. A good story is memorable, once read, never forgotten and even pondered over. Good writing may be unpretentious, direct and seamless, or – conversely – highly stylistic and experimental, wringing new meanings and perceptions from unexpected expressions or juxtapositions. Expressive, authentic-sounding dialogue that fleshes out, differentiates and defines characters as they speak is a rare pleasure, to be savoured by the reader, or judge. Writing that makes the reader think, feel and experience – or re-experience – is engaging and compelling.

NOT A GOOD IDEA – What got in the way.

Apart from poor writing or non-stories, the greatest weakness in story-telling was overly obvious conclusions and tales that just petered out. Unfunny attempts at humour – especially involving large casts of freakish characters, each continually trying to outdo the other with repartee – invariably fall flat. Ditto dialogue in which all the speakers sound alike. A bland title is a lost opportunity to intrigue and engage readers and heighten their expectations – a really good title is worth at least 1,000 words. “The Story of Joe Bloggs” or “To a New Land” have none of the “come hither and listen” of, say, “Handcarved Coffins” (Truman Capote), “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” (J.D. Salinger), or “The Wer-Trout” (E. Annie Proulx). A device that was less prevalent than previously – thankfully so – was the use of numerous quotations of the author’s favourite song lyrics, scattered through the text. While this shows the writer’s musical/lyrical taste, it often provides a humbling comparison with the story writer’s own less-than-memorable prose. Except where one can claim licence for creative effect, blatantly wrong details presented as fact or background are simply irritating – no the Zulus of South Africa do not, generally, speak Swahili; their language is Zulu. And clichés, clichés, clichés – both in language and narrative.

IN CONCLUSION:

This competition was set up in order to promote the longer short story – because, generally most magazines and competitions these days will not consider anything longer than 3,500 words at the most. This has severely limited creative writers and we want to allow writers to stretch themselves and prove their ability to sustain a good story up to 10,000 words. Entries in the 2005 competition showed that most were able to do so. Few entries approached the upper limit and only a handful had to be discounted for being under 5,000 words. We hope that this competition is a welcome challenge for all writers who feel constricted by the limitations of most mags and competitions. We congratulate all entrants on their efforts, ingenuity and persistence. We believe the short story is an endangered species and we applaud all short-story writers who soldier on with this most-demanding – and rewarding – literary form against the odds.

– Giles Hugo
The Write Stuff Fiction Editor

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