Judge’s Report – Annual Short Story Competition – 2016

The SAWC 2016 Annual Short Story Competition was judged by Ian Tennent

Judge’s Report SAWC – October 2016 Short Story Competition: Open (Fiction) – 3000 words

First up, thank you to SAWC for once again affording me the opportunity to don my judging hat.

From my side, judging a writing competition is a two-way street. Not only do I (hopefully) get to pass on what I’ve learned along the way, but I also find it helps me hone my own craft. It challenges my thinking, makes me reassess what I believe to be best. It also highlights techniques and styles different from my own, the good and the bad, both of which can be instructive. For this reason I would encourage all writers to give it a go at some point.

I’d also like to thank the entrants, many of whom provided engaging stories that both entertained and enlightened. It was fun to delve into the minds of fellow story-tellers. Well done, all.

Twenty five stories made up the field this time around and the theme was ‘open’. As such, writers were given carte blanche to express themselves in 3000 words or less. This resulted in a smorgasbord of stories across genres and age brackets.
As could be expected ‘African’ fiction had a strong presence, with stories ranging from The Congo to The Karoo and everywhere in-between.
We also had a fair share of speculative fiction, such as when a graveyard ghost, stuck in ‘limbo’, tries to reach heaven by burning his mortal remains, or when a young woman, with a broken background, tries to jumps to her death but angels step in to dissuade her, or, when a ‘soul guide’ inadvertently becomes tethered to a soul she’s meant to be guiding, thereby running the risk of sharing in that soul’s ‘judgement’.
Love also featured prominently, as well as revenge. Revenge was happily meted out to cheating husbands, murderous gangsters, adulterous movie starlets, unworthy sibling inheritors and rude retail store managers, in varying forms and doses.

When judging, I take many things into account, with each afforded a different ‘weighting’. Grammar, plot, originality, characterization and emotional impact, amongst others, all play a role. They all go into the pot and the resulting ‘stew’ is judged on the overall experience the story gave me. It should come as no surprise that emotional impact features high on this scale, for, as readers of fiction, it’s the experience we’re after. And quality of experience is driven largely by the emotion the experience invokes within us. To a certain extent we are voyeurs: we like to experience the laughter, sadness, fear, anger, love, pain, excitement, disgust, envy and all the rest, of others – in essence, as humans, we like to ‘feel’.
I therefore make no apologies for the fact that the stories that came out on top in this competition, apart from being well written, all engaged me emotionally.

In the final analysis, no less than seven stories competed for the podium, with one in particular standing marginally higher than the rest and taking top honours as a result. The arm-wrestle for positions two and three was slightly more fierce. None of the stories were perfect, no story is. Nevertheless, all of the below were fine efforts.

To the podium then.

FIRST PLACE goes to Lessons in Xenophobia by Zak
This was a chilling story that, for the most part was very well told. A classic example of how ‘less is more’. The story was narrated in an almost ‘matter of fact’ tone, which, as is often the case with works written in this style, served to emphasise the truly visceral horror of the events described.
It’s a story that will linger with me for a long time. It felt all too repulsively real, as indeed the events described within it were. Yet somehow the translation of this story from radio broadcasts and tv screens, onto the page made it even more real. It captured the worst aspects of human nature and cut to the bone in the process.
No doubt, the first half was stronger than the second, most of the tension had dissipated by then, and it did contain an unnecessary number of ellipses (…), but the overall effect was memorable and some of the prose was truly startling in its bare naked simplicity.

SECOND PLACE goes to Those Who Would Listen by Paddy Bee
This was a melancholy tale of misunderstanding, misdirection and regret as a father, with a long history of not seeing eye to eye with his now mature (and gay) son, struggles to find common ground on which to improve their relationship following the passing of the father’s wife.
This tale had a lot going for it. A story of contrasts, it was both poignant and oblique, its characters wise and yet also ignorant. It charmed with its elegance and also its earthiness. It invoked both smiles and sadness, a sense of peace as well as frustration.
The opening was powerful and set the scene as well as the tone admirably.
In addition, this tale also made excellent use of the ‘unreliable narrator’. As such the reader was constantly off balance, constantly seeking answers and constantly reading further.
Although it also suffered from the odd error and punctuation overuse (in this case the semicolon) this, for me, was the ‘cleverest’ of all the stories and the one which had me guessing the most.

THIRD PLACE goes to Birds of Change by Rebecca Joseph
This was a heart-warmingly ‘authentic’ tale of an expat family uprooted during a dangerous period of political turmoil in the Belgian Congo.
Once again the writing was simple, the point view that of an eight year old girl or thereabouts. Yet the story was poignant and the mounting sense of unease as events unfolded was palpable.
Once again the first half, in my view, was stronger than the second. The first half was disturbing, the second half was interesting. Nevertheless there were some really well crafted bits which, while not flashy at all, in the context of the story added resonance and authenticity.

TWO HIGHLY COMMENDED AWARDS go to…

The Coming of the Crow by Zenwrite
This was an eerie tale of otherworldly retribution meted out to a man drowning in anger and misdirected hatred.
All told this was a solid, edgy tale that held my attention, from the delectably ominous title all the way through to the end.
For the most part the writing was crisp, clear and tight, especially the first half, which once again, in my opinion was stronger than the second half. Evocative descriptions were used throughout and were both powerful and resonated well.

And,

Valentine’s Rose by Valerie Stockton
Another heart-wrenching account, this time of an autistic boy’s uphill battle towards making sense of his world, and his mother’s anguish at her inability to forge a meaningful bond with him.
Few tales in the competition managed to attain this story’s level of authenticity. As a reader I felt very comfortable in the belief that the author has first-hand experience of the world of autism. Immersing myself in the story was therefore effortless. Autism is not a subject I’m overly familiar with and I found this story both engaging and insightful, with an ending that could only be described as triumphant.

Overall comments

1. Fading down the straight
Many of the stories (the podium not excluded) seemed to start strongly and then inexplicably taper off. The best stories tend to be ones where the tension mounts from beginning until almost to the end, where the ‘release’ happens. While I’m the last person to advocate rigidly following a formula, as writers, this is not something we can ignore. Readers, by and large, crave anticipation. Once they feel there is little left to anticipate, their interest flags. To accommodate this, I would urge writers to consider writing with the end-goal in mind. It’s much easier to hit the target when you know what you’re aiming for. Too many of us, myself included, begin tales and hope for the best. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t.

2. Overuse of punctuation
Ellipses (…) and semicolons (;) seemed to be the flavour of the month this time around, with many stories gleefully embracing these devices. To this end I would urge restraint. More often than not, these devices are not necessary. My advice – if you are going to use them – make sure they’ve earned their place.
The semicolon, in particular, while useful in formal writing, loses its appeal in fiction for the simple reason that most readers are unsure of how to treat it. Your average reader, when coming across a semicolon, is apt to sit up straighter and start looking for ‘important stuff’ in the text. This has the unwanted effect of pulling them out of the story.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a quote I found on the subject:
Kurt Vonnegut called the marks “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King, said McIntyre, “wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don’t use semi-colons.”
While I’m nowhere near as militant as these fellows, I do think it should be saved for those times you really need it and not liberally sprinkled throughout your text simply to add some assumed oomph.

3. Shifting tense
This was another area of concern that cropped up fairly frequently. Quite a few of the authors fell into the trap of shifting tense midway through a description or, even more concerning, midway through a sentence.
Consistency is a key pillar of writing and consistency of tense is no exception. This isn’t to say one can never change tense within the ambit of a story, but rather, that any tense changes should (a) serve a purpose, and (b) be controlled. To this end, I would urge the authors to pay special attention to the verb forms they use. i.e. Don’t mix your ‘was’, ‘went’, ‘could’ and ‘thought’ with ‘is’, ‘go’ ,‘can’ and ‘think’.
Take the following for example: –

Given the chance, we would always go to the movies where the smell of hot popcorn is strongest.

Here, the ‘would’ is in opposition to the ‘is’. ‘Would’ is past tense, while ‘is’ is present. Either ‘is’ needs to become ‘was’ or ‘would’ needs to become ‘will’.

I hope my comments on the individual critiques add value. Where possible, I’ve tried to keep my thoughts ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical’ and provided examples from the text to demonstrate my thinking.
Congratulations to the winners and compliments of the festive season to all.

Warmest regards,
Ian Tennent