There were over 220 entries received, nearly 90% of which arrived digitally. Regrettably, some entries had to be disqualified: either for want of an entry fee, inclusion of the author’s name on the script, or for having seen light of day elsewhere first. If one is to stand a chance of winning a competition, reading and adhering to the rules are a must.
Thanks must also go to members of the Circle who read through initial tranches of stories, selecting those which went to the final judging. Their efforts, reading between them the equivalent of Books 2, 3 and 4 of the Harry Potter series, are greatly appreciated. My thanks also to Spencer Leigh, who had the hardest job of all in deciding the winning stories. He has carried out his duties with professionalism and good humour, and has been a delight to work with. Please enjoy his words of wisdom, and his selection of the winning stories.
Chief Judge’s Comments: Spencer Leigh
I was flattered at being asked to judge the short story entries for the Southport Writers Circle’s competition. I’ve never belonged to a writers’ club but in my mind, I suspected the entries would be romantic short stories influenced by Mills and Boon. How wrong could I be? A few of these stories could even have been graphic novels.
Although there weren’t many direct references to Covid, several stories related to people who were claustrophobically living together and getting on each other’s nerves. There was domestic violence and murder aplenty. In one story, a man buries a live dog to get back at his partner, an image that will stay with me for some time. As well as violent deaths, there were several stories involving elderly people dying of loneliness and/or dementia in care homes.
What did I look for in a story? Well, first of all, it had to keep me reading: I write newspaper obituaries and one of the key rules is “Don’t start with so-and-so being born in 1936.” Grab the readers with a notable event from their life and then maybe another one. The end results sometime appear disjointed, but the important thing is that the readers stuck with it.
I’ve written several biographies and the only one that starts with the subject being born is the one for Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats and Liverpool Express. When we started the book, he said, “My birth certificate has the wrong date of birth on it.” That gripped my attention, and I opened the book with that sentence because the reader would want to know what’s going on. So be prepared to break the rules if it works better.
A key rule in writing is to engage the readers at the start and don’t let them go. My friend Hunter Davies is still writing books at age 85 and he tells me that his main principle is still the same. When he gets to the end of a chapter, he says, “Have I still got the reader with me?”
You need to be careful with titles as they can give away the plot. The Southport writer Ron Ellis wrote a crime novel Grave Mistake and so you know before his detective does that the wrong body has been buried. Beware of giving too much away.
Two thousand words doesn’t sound like much for a short story but it is eight minutes of speech. Just because 2,000 words is the maximum length, you don’t have to write that many. A story has its own length and you should finish it at that moment. Some of these stories were good ideas but would have been more effective condensed to 500 words.
You also have to know how to build up the drama. One of my favourite stories is by the Merseyside horror writer, Ramsey Campbell. His protagonist goes walking though St John’s Shopping Centre in Liverpool late at night. There is no one else round and he hears a rustling behind him. It builds up and builds up until he realises he is being pursued by a huge ball of rubbish. He goes one way and then the other and another ball of rubbish comes after him. It is horror fiction grounded in reality and it is hardly surprising that St John’s Shopping Centre is now closed at night.
Remember too the effectiveness of just one sentence. Ramsey wrote that story in the 1980s while in 1995, Bill Bryson wrote his travelogue of the UK, Notes From A Small Island. He started a chapter, “I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a festival of litter when I arrived.” That is drop-down-dead funny; it tells you all you want to know about public services in Liverpool at the time and it is done in 16 words.
Think of the start of Midnight Cowboy where people are bustling down a crowded New York street. They are too preoccupied to notice somebody has died on the pavement. You could write up that story in 50 words and that would be enough. Less can be more.
I’ve just read something where a character refers in passing to an auction where someone was selling an air guitar autographed by Brian May. The writer missed the story. There must be a dozen ways to develop that story, one of them certainly akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes.
I was wary of being a judge because I remember a children’s TV show with Steve Race in the 1950s. He gave out the winners of some new instrumental pieces and played their work. He was shocked a couple of days later to find that one of the entrants had submitted something by Mozart under their own name. What’s more, Mozart had only come second.
So, thanks to everybody for competing and giving me such a good time and such hard choices.
The Battle For Jennings Grange by Dave McVey
This was an exchange of letters between the lord of the manor and the leader of some activists who felt that the building should be given to the homeless. The correspondence is deftly handled and one surprising punchline follows another.
It reminded me Mike Hart’s brilliant ‘Shelter Song’ from 1969. The Liverpool singer/songwriter wondered why the two cathedrals could not be given to the homeless.
A Week Ago Last Tuesday by John Bunting
There were two things going on here – firstly, the protagonist’s friends who meet every week to talk about nothing at all and secondly, the surreal adventures that the protagonist had endured during the week. During a knee operation, the surgeon had added a new muscle-enhancer which created havoc and was so difficult to switch off. We laugh at its ridiculousness, but we know those two friends won’t even notice.
The Gobbledygook by Richard Hooton
This felt like a contemporary update from George Orwell’s 1984, and is very effective. It shows how someone succumbs to office life and can no longer be rebellious or hold any original ideas.
Silence Is Really Dark by John Glander
Systems like Alexa and Aurora have warm, welcoming human voices so that they can befriend us. This story is about a power cut. Maybe it would have been better if the disembodied voice had an argument with the subject and fell out. Aurora could ask for an appointment with a psychiatrist. There could be a book of Aurora stories.
Groundhog Day by Alan Heys
This is a childhood reminiscence of the Sunday morning conflicts between mother and father and how they always developed in the same way. In this case the title was misleading, perhaps deliberately so. The point of the original Groundhog Dog is that the previous day was repeated but with a difference which turned out to be significant.
David Beckham’s Boxer Shorts by John Bunting
Top marks for an intriguing title, although it is only a passing comment in the story. If ITV were still filming Rumpole, the ramifications of badly worded legislation could be worked into a very amusing storyline. It is a good example of how you can present serious ideas whilst still being funny.
Right, that’ll do – 1,200 words. I’ll submit it to that new short story exhibition. Damn, I’ve missed the entry date.