16 September 2011

Judge's report - Henry Savery short story competition 2011

FAW 2011 Henry Savery National Short Story Competition
results (also see http://www.fawtas.org.au/results.html)

1st Prize: 'Tasty Necessities'  by Neil McInnes of NSW
2nd Prize: 'Bitter Fantasy'  by Neil McInnes of NSW

Judge's Report
Giles Hugo

13th August 2011

There were 55 entries in this year's competition -- a good indication of the keen interest in short story writing among FAW members nationally. The wide range of approaches to story telling was also gratifying -- there are many ways to skin the fictional feline.

I followed my usual judging process of reading all the entries right through and assigning a "first impression" rating of 0 to 10. After 24 hours I repeated the process and made minor adjustment to some ratings. The two prize winners stood out from the rest right from my first reading. However, I reread all the entries twice more to confirm my impressions and judgements.

The quality of entries was extremely variable. Most that did not make the cut simply failed as short stories. A short story is not:
  • A wildly complicated tale of crime, death and duplicity more suited to an outline for an episode of a TV thriller.
  • A travellogue about "what I did on my OS holiday" -- often exacerbated by a saccarinely romantic or dystopic affair.
  • A philosophical treatise on life, the universe and everything. Even Douglas Adams needed a whole novella to explore that.
  • A rambling anecdote spanning decades and a cast of dozens, roughly threaded together by the presence of the narrator.
  • A childhood fragment about some kindly saint who warms the heart but chills the brain.
Several worthy attempts that achieved the form of the short story were spoilt by poor writing:
  • Flat or clichéd language.
  • Clumsy use of words.
  • Unconvincing dialogue. Here I suggest to all writers that they read all passages of dialogue aloud to judge their authenticity. Do people really speak like that, or only in parody?
  • Unfunny attempts at humour.
  • Totally unconvincing switches of personality or character at very short notice. Old dogs -- and bitches -- rarely learn new tricks. Some real people do -- but the cirumstances have to be extraordinary, not just convenient for neat plot purposes.
  • Poorly executed endings. This was probably the most common reason for failure to make the grade. A bang or a whimper? Both can work. The last line is your final shot, your last note before your word fall silent in the reader's mind or continue to reverberate. Miss it or blow it and you have undone all the careful wooing and stalking of the reader that your words should have achieved.
In judging competitions such as this, it has always been of interest to me what themes emerge in the entries. This year among the deeper themes that appealed to entrants were:
  • Sea changes.
  • Vietnam veterans and those close them.
  • The shadow of trauma.
  • Life in a retirement or nursing home. And this is where one of the prize winners excelled.
Unfortunately I had to disqualify three entries because of identification issues. In two cases -- inadvertently or otherwise -- the authors were identified by cover sheets with names on them stapled to the back of the entry. In one case an email was stapled to the back of an entry -- with the names of a sender and a recipient, one of which might have been the entrant. This should have been picked up before I was given the entries to judge and I urge the organisers to review and improve their processing and scrutineering. Fortunately none of the disqualified entries made the short list for the two prizes.

And so to the winners.

I'll start with the runner up: the second prize of $100 in the 2011 Henry Savery Short Story Award goes to Entry No.15, Bitter Fantasy.

I liked this on first reading because it is a simple tale of injustice and retribution -- somewhat in the Roald Dahl vein; well told and nicely restrained in the slow advance of looming menace and gruesome resolution. A very bitter fantasy, but most satisfying.

And the first prize of $400 in the 2011 Henry Savery Short Story Award goes to Entry No.14, Tasty Necessities.

This is one of the rare cases where comic writing succeeds -- not because it tries to be a laugh a line, but because the humour emerges convincingly from real characters and situations. The premise -- that one of the residents of a retirement village can fundamentally change the lives of his fellows by daring to promote their virility and sexuality -- is both novel and delightfully realised. In area of human experience that is generally shunned as taboo, or treated as somehow bizarre, this story asserts the value of the liveliness and spirit of those who choose to grow old slightly disgracefully. Rebels with a cause. And why not?

Congratulations to both winners and the 53 others who tried so hard. It is most gratifying to see so many attempting to master the short story genre -- certainly not the easiest, but very satisfying on those rare occasions when your efforts succeed.

Giles Hugo

13th August 2011

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