Competition Results

Southport Writers’ Circle International Annual Short Story Competition 2020

Stories Available to Read Here

Organiser’s Report

2020 was a difficult year and it was brilliant to see so many ambitious authors throw themselves into their work and to submit many excellent pieces with themes ranging from the mundane (buying a teddy), to the epic (in the trenches during wartime) to outrightly bizarre (what if you lived on the wrong side of a mirror?).

There were a handful that managed to fall afoul of the rules of the competition, the most common infraction being putting their name on every page, closely followed by not putting a title on it and, amazingly, in some cases simply sending in a story without any author details or an entry fee! The majority did it right though and you all gave us plenty to chew over.

Big thanks go out to this year’s shortlisting team, who had a tough job all round. In some cases, some stories did not make the final cut because of little things, like unoriginal titles or unneeded detail. It was often a hairsbreadth separating the ones that made it through, so anyone who did not make it should not be discouraged from putting their work out there in the future.

Entries came from all over the world, with the usual concentration in North West UK, but also Spain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and various locales in America making an appearance.

In the end though, there can only be a few winners and our chief judge this year, Professor Emerita of Short Fiction, Ailsa Cox, has been extremely valued in her final say.

Judge’s Report – Professor Ailsa Cox

There was a wide variety of stories entered, and I was impressed by the quality of the writing, and the care that had been taken in polishing the style; and by the writers’ willingness to experiment with different kinds of stories and structures, including genre writing. What made the winning stories stand out, for me, was vividness, clarity and originality. By originality, I don’t mean plots or themes that no one else had thought of, but a way of using the form to make us see the content in a new way.

If I had to sum that up in one word, I’d say ‘simplicity’. The best stories kept language, style and structure simple. Others might start well, but were quickly bogged down in too much information, slowing down the pace with explanations of complicated relationships or previous event. Lengthy  exposition, either using description or passages of dialogue, is not the short-story writer’s friend.

It was interesting to see writers turning to horror and the supernatural, great territory for the short story. The writers of ‘In Every Angel’ and ‘The Silent Pool’ root their stories in a banal, everyday world, slowly unleashing the generic elements. There were other stories that were potentially powerful, but signalled their spookinesses from the very beginning, which made them feel predictable despite touches of originality. Another word of advice on beginnings – beware metaphors or turns of phrase in the very first line that you might be very pleased with, but might not work for the reader. Keep the opening line clear and direct, without unnecessary distractions.

Of course none of my advice is infallible. There are no absolute rules; ‘Untroubled Waters’, for instance, contradicts the advice you will sometimes find in books on creative writing that tells you to focus on just one character.  It also breaks the rules by not including a single line of dialogue.

I was expecting to read stories set during the pandemic, or to reflect current circumstances in some way, and was surprised that this didn’t seem to be the case. We’re muddling through a confusing and shapeless narrative right now, and perhaps it will be months, or years, before we’re able to contain those experiences within our fiction without being overwhelmed by them. In the meantime, congratulations to the winners, and to all those who show so much dedication to their writing.

1st – ‘In Every Angel’

by Michael Ranes

 A wonderfully controlled story, that is deeply chilling, a true, and very original, horror story. By making you imagine the ultimate horror, the writer makes you pity, and possibly even empathise, with the abuser turned victim.

2nd – ‘How to Fake a Heart Attack’

by Richard Hooton

A lively and ingenious story, highly original in its structuring of a narrative through thirteen easy phases. The writer has a rare gift for subversive comedy.

3rd – ‘Untroubled Waters’

by Juliet Hill

Water is the main character in this story about a flood in an apartment block in an unspecified European city.  But there are other characters too, from Carmen and her little dog to Rasputin the avocado seller and the Jehovah’s Witnesses round the corner, all of them neighbours who are simultaneously close by and distant from each other.

Highly Commended

 ‘The Artist’s New Beginnings’

by Sue Gerrard

While the identity of the protagonist comes as no surprise, the story is beautifully imagined and structured, and the point of view sustained with subtlety and restraint.

Commended

‘The Silent Pool’

by Ruth Loten

A tale of an abusive relationship slips into the supernatural, building on the imagery of silence and suppression through an uncanny landscape.

Commended

 ‘The Anatomy of a Ticking Clock’

by Ciara Mullaney

With its startling beginning, this story is rather like Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ in that it’s based in a world in which everything is normal except for one very peculiar thing that has happened to the protagonist.

2020 Poetry Results

To read the winning poems, go HERE

Organiser’s Report

It is always a crying shame when entrants do not do the two absolutely fundamental things one must do when entering a writing competition (apart from putting pen to paper):

Follow the rules.

Proof read thoroughly.

There were… a few this year. That said, there were many people who did do those two things and produced excellent work to boot. It was very difficult to pare down the shortlist, with many outstanding entries from worldwide locales, as well as a good selection from the UK and even a handful from Southport itself! The theme this year was ‘City Life’ and entrants took that topic in all kinds of interesting directions, with poems about birds, invading wildlife and other, sadder issues such as what ills might be transpiring behind closed doors which led to some powerful work.

We thank all those who entered and look forward to your future entries and welcome your thoughts on the winners.

Judge’s Report

Tough. That one word describes every aspect of the task of judging this competition, with every nuance it contains. The shortlist included poems about violence, about loneliness and about loss. They also included lighter themes such as the magic of the silver screen and the eccentricity of having a good brew. All had some aspect of the life in the city, whatsoever that happened to be, and it was enlivening to engage vicariously in the little windows of other people’s experiences. With such a high standard of entries the final call had to be partly made on merit, partly on personal preference, as it was especially hard to separate the winners from the other deserving work in the sift.

Humour –

Mothball Express – Tony Oswick

Few people want to get old, but if it ever happens one could do worse than be a bit like the bus clogging, ticket snatching, yakkety-yakking geriatrics featured in this amusing observation from the point of view of the driver. The image of the old folks competing over benches conjures thoughts of squabbling seagulls and overall this well-described poem has excellent economy of language. It could have gone on for longer, following the adventures in town, but wisely does not, focusing on the short scene well.

1st –

Oldies – Alex Hand

This poem, while also about the elderly, draws instead on the intimacies of an obviously long-standing relationship, painting a picture of a couple who have gone through their adult years learning to understand the important things, like still holding hands and having activities in common. It is a tender portrait, using details that the poet found a certain commonality in; full of comfortable silence and affection. It is also a well structured poem with the right beats and gentle expectations, challenging the reader to look differently at their elders, because they clearly are doing something right. The poem does such a fine job that you want to meet the pair featured in it, to listen to their life experiences. Perhaps that is the mark of a good poem; that you forget you are reading it and instead dwell on what it could still show you.

2nd –

The Pearls and the Paste – Linda Ford

Short, to the point and inspired by a photograph of a turn of the century Spanish actress stood on a  balcony much later in her lifetime. The poem, as it stands, is a poignant description, carefully chosen words evoke a sense of grubbiness in what should be glitzy surroundings, echoing the life of its subject. It is a fragment of a what-could-be story, a reminder of the tragedy of looking past the glamour and still finding beauty in something like pigeons coming to eat seeds. Nicely handled.

3rd –

Ballad – Michael Newman

This piece flows through what seems to be an industrial cityscape, taking in the rain, the factories and the lack of sunshine, letting us glimpse the stunning countryside that lies beyond before forcing us to go back to work in the dreary employment once more. It is a threatening piece, full of ill-will and cruel ambition, but at the same time contains enough hope to qualify for an escape from the hardship it depicts. The writer has an almost train of thought method of construction, but this lends itself to the sprawling nature of its subject, the clanking of the factory echoed in the unforgiving rhythms of the lines.

Highly Commended –

White Tea Cups – Steve Singleton

A staple of city life – the cafe, in which the teacups pass observation upon the denizens that choose to enter the threshold. There are signs of good construction here with the matching opening and close, but the perspective wobbles and the rhythm does not seem to be consistent. There are some strong images and archetypes shown (penniless writers is right!) and the overall scene setting has strong merit. Unfortunately it feels like some of the cup’s judgment is missing, some element of their observation withheld, leaving the reader to guess too much. Otherwise a very interesting piece.

Commended –

Siren in a Night Street – Christopher M James

The Forgotten People – Sue Gerrard

To read the winning poems, go HERE

Short Story 2019 Results

Read Winning Stories Here

Organiser’s Comments

I was overwhelmed – both figuratively and literally – by the number of entries which were received for this year’s competition: at the final count, we had over 300 entries from 200 writers. Many of those who entered made great use of our money-saving “four stories for a tenner” entry facility. It’s a great way of getting lots of entries in, and I was delighted to see so many writers doing so.  

The stories entered were of a tremendous range, both in subject matter and style. We had an epistolary tale, a story told entirely in dialogue, a narrative in the second person, tales told from odd perspectives and even one which included “newspaper clippings” in the story. The inventiveness of this year’s entries has been astounding. The subjects have been the usual broad range: romance, science-fiction, historical escapades, mysteries in the art world, spine-chillers, family dramas and murder by the bucketload.

Just a quick note about where we had entries from: I think that the only continent not represented this year was Antarctica (husky postal services not being what they were). This year’s international writers came from such exotic locations as Hawaii, Illinois, Stellenbosch, New Zealand and the Ukraine. We had a sprinkling of European entries, and lots from the island of Ireland. I’m delighted that the creativity we have seen has come from all longitudes.

A big thank-you to everyone who took the time to enter one or more stories into the competition. By my rough estimate, the number of words you collectively sent us was the equivalent of five decent-sized novels.

One more note of thanks, this time to the brave volunteers of the Circle who read through a batch of stories each before passing their favourites onto our Chief Judge. Their sterling efforts deserve a hearty round of applause.

And talking of our Chief Judge, here are a few words from Dr Anna Maddison regarding the winning entries:

Chief Judge’s Feedback

I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the stories and I found the creativity inspiring. The standard was very high and made judging both pleasurable and difficult!

Thank you for the opportunity to be involved in the judging experience.

First

‘No Answer’ by Eamon O’Leary

This winning story had one of the strongest openings of the competition, pulling the reader in immediately with its striking language and highly visual (and sensory) description. In fact, despite an economic use of language, every last word felt saturated with vivid imagery, giving a strong sense of character and setting – and evoking quickly and strongly a physical and emotional response. As reader, a feeling of revulsion was brought out towards the unkempt, misanthropic character and his surroundings. However, counterbalancing that were humorous and poignant moments, which acted like guideposts through the sea of unpleasantness, which really humanised the character and drew the reader in to what was essentially a very moving tale. This was especially effective given how unpalatable the character was and illustrated the inherent skilfulness of the writing. Overall, this story had a strong flavour which stayed with me long after reading. A worthy winner!

Second

‘Living Stones’ by Elizabeth Pratt

This poignant story had one of the most moving endings, eliciting a strong emotional response. The style had a simplicity about it; a clean, clear use of language and a calm, steady pace throughout. The tone of slow determination reflected the main character and her style of painting, which was all about close observation and subtlety. The author clearly shares these attributes, with convincing characterisation and sense of place effortlessly drawn for the reader. The title, almost an oxymoron, signalled the use of juxtaposition of opposites throughout, which made for an interesting dynamic. For example the interplay between images of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, which resonated with characterisation as well as setting. Images of both hardness and fragility were evoked through mention of materials such as wrought-iron and eggshell, and most particularly through references to glass throughout, which cleverly symbolised and reflected the character of the homeless girl. This is a thoughtful, nuanced and sophisticated piece of writing.

Third

‘The Curious Koi’ by Peter Kelly

This story was highly original, intelligent and amusing. Eloquently written, it had a philosophical quality, which read like a Buddhist tale, of Confucian fable. The curious koi in his pond, with his questioning mind, is a metaphor for human nature, its curiosity beyond itself and its quest for identity and meaning in life. The style had aspects that reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s short stories for children; loaded with more significance than is at first apparent. Its tone also reminded me at times of the philosophical playfulness of Lewis Carroll’s writings. The apparent simplicity of style and the light hearted tone belies the level of sophistication and refinement on show here. This is a carefully crafted, thoughtful and engaging piece which was a pleasure to read.

Highly Commended

‘The House of Resentful Women’ by Valerie Thompson

This story had a fluent and effortless style, it was easy to read and the subject was compelling. Believable characterisation combined effectively with a strong sense of place from the start. In the best tradition of dystopian fiction, the author established a world not so distant, having contemporary political resonance. The gut punch of a dark twist – which I didn’t see coming – was thrilling! Although successful as a short story in its own right, this piece felt very much like it could be part of a longer narrative. I found I wanted to read more about this character and her predicament. Well done!

Commended

‘White Sky’ by Jocelyn Kaye

This story had strong characterisation. It effortlessly established a psychological depth in the main character and made effective use of first person narrative throughout. It also had a striking simplicity in its use of imagery which effectively conveyed the climate and atmosphere of England, not just how it looks, but how it feels. As the story progressed, the interplay between the representation of England and its projected antithesis, The Gambia was particularly vivid. Overall, this was a touching story with a pleasing, hopeful and poignant ending.

Commended

‘Fleur’  by Jez Hodesdon Despite its contemporary setting, this story had a timelessness about it. The subject and character had shades of Thomas Hardy in their tragic poignancy, particularly in the evocation of loneliness. The closeness of the man to his horse and the land also made me think briefly of D.H. Lawrence. The slow and steady pace reflected the simple, methodical nature of the character and his work. This story didn’t hurry, but it wasted no time either. I thought the Gothic and macabre elements were handled with sophistication and were truly affecting; the use of colour in these sections being particularly bold, enhancing the drama.