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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.