SAWC March 2017 Short Story Competition: Crime Story – 2000 words (first person POV)
There’s a lot of air between March and December. Humble apologies to all the entrants for my contribution to this lengthy delay. Regardless of the reasons, nine months is a long time to wait in limbo, so thank you for your patience.
Thanks also to SAWC for the opportunity to judge this competition. Crime is not a genre I’ve judged before which is almost a crime in itself since it’s a genre I really enjoy. To my mind it’s a genre that revels in edgy atmosphere, tight descriptions, heightened pace, rising tension and passionate flare-ups. And, of course, the carefully sculpted plot dusted with ‘random’ clues and oblique intrigues which reward the observant, puzzle-hungry reader.
Stories that stayed true to the genre while playing within the constraints of the competition remit, scored well. Not that there wasn’t scope for a little creativity. There always is. And it was equally refreshing to discover a couple of stories that ‘swayed’ the tight-rope of the contest, introducing supernatural or ethereal elements to a fairly rigid environment – an environment that did see a couple of stories lose their footing once or twice to be fair. But that shouldn’t deter anyone. Typically, we learn as much if not more from our mistakes than our successes and it’s in this spirit that I offer my critiques.
I also prefer to focus on the craft side of fiction, not the grammar, since grammar guides are readily available and the basic rules are easily learned. That said, I would strongly urge all contestants to study and apply these basics. Speaking as a judge, the more basic errors there are, the harder it is to critique the artwork. And this, I believe, is why we’re all here in the first place: to hone our story-telling, not our grammar.
This competition provided 14 stories to weigh up which, after all was said and done, gave rise to a ladder comprised loosely of three distinct sections: 4 stories occupied the lower rungs, 5 stories made up the middle, and 5 vied for the upper rungs. As alluded to earlier, most of the entries stayed within the mainstream ambit. A factor which I believed would make it relatively easy to compare apples with apples and arrive at the podium placings.
I was wrong.
Even within the top 5 the styles alone were vastly different. Complicating matters further was the fact that each of these harboured clearly defined strengths as well as clearly defined weaknesses, albeit in differing areas: some were strong on description, but weak on dialogue; some strong on accuracy, but weak on tension; strong on emotion, weak on grammar etc. All of which made comparing apples with apples very challenging. That said, the strong bits in each of these 5 were satisfyingly strong! And I genuinely believe that any one of these could have occupied the top spot had their respective weaknesses not been present.
When I critique the first thing I do during my initial read-through is highlight things that catch my eye. The good gets highlighted in green, while the not so good gets highlighted in yellow. On my next read-through I hone in on these green and yellow ribbons, and drill into why they either worked or didn’t. The best stories tend to have more green ribbons than yellow, which in turn helps guide my judging eye when all the critiques are done. However, this is only a guide and it can happen that many green ribbons can labour under the combined weight of only few yellow ribbons. This occurred more than once during this competition which gave me much to ponder on. In the final analysis it came down to which stories gave me the best overall experience. Which stories snared and played with my emotions? Which stories raised my pulse? Which stories captured me and held me? Which would I remember long after the read?
To the podium then.
FIRST PLACE goes to Quito
Technically, this was one of the strongest entrants, with the author skilfully placing us inside the cynical and angry internal monologue of the main character. The experience was both immediate and convincing while the writing, overall all, was tight and controlled – the author managing to cram a lot of story into very few words, through precision of language.
It both started and ended with a bang and boasted some great descriptions along the way. From the outset we slipped and slid from past to present and back again in a suitably incoherent fashion, well suited to someone drugged up on medication and fuelled by cynicism, betrayal and anger. This allowed the reader much insight into the character who we at times both liked and disliked. It was this emotional see-sawing which kept me enthralled. It also offered some lovely little oblique references/themes to reward the careful reader.
There were several minor grammatical issues present, however the more pressing concerns for me centred around firstly, the occasional logical inconsistency which crept in, within certain descriptions and story elements. And secondly, the unwanted and unnecessary shift in narrative style which occurred, where the narrator broke through the ‘glass wall’ between stage and story and spoke to me, the reader, directly.
SECOND PLACE goes to The Golden Goblet
This was a disturbing and heart-wrenching tale told from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl. All told this tale had a lot going for it! Straight off the bat it was clear that the author knew exactly where the plot was going – a factor that was lacking in many of the other entrants. With such a firm hand on the wheel it was easy to sit back and enjoy the ride. A ride that was deceptively gentle. Understated and with no exploding fireworks it nevertheless delivered the goods in terms of rising tension. In fact, the tension was heightened precisely because the events were so innocuous, so ‘offhand’ as to be believable. And also, so achingly ‘preventable’. Ingredients such as these make for a potent cocktail of emotional amphetamines, the effect of which is that, as the reader experiences the story they also seek to influence it. Especially when, as we inexorably gather momentum, it dawns on us that the reason for the firm grip on the wheel is because we’re sitting in the passenger seat and the author’s playing chicken with the ending…and there’s nothing we can do.
The powerful ending aside, it also possessed many parts which thrummed with resonance paragraphs later.
Technically the writing was good, barring one or two hiccups. And, while there were occasional instances where the author strayed into the realm of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, these were not my major concerns in the big scheme of things. The areas that did draw my critical eye fell largely into two camps. Firstly, the inconsistency in the ‘age’ of the narratorial voice which wandered away from an 8-year-old at times. And secondly, the dialogue. Here the dialogue sounded both artificial and a little bit Hollywood. It felt as though the author was feeding us pre-meditated lines. In essence they came across as rehearsed, unlike the rest of the narrative which had a much more natural flow, and this weighed heavily against the story.
THIRD PLACE goes to Unfinished Business
This was a great little story which sucked the reader in with it’s tantalizingly slow and steady build-up (so slow, in fact, that at one point I worried it was in danger of stalling), before shifting through the gears at an ever-increasing rate, until we were racing along!
The author also made good use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ device to keep the reader intrigued, as well as the ‘present tense’ which gave the action a nice sense of immediacy. Each of these elements was in turn bolstered by extensive use of dialogue, something which many of the other competition entrants didn’t capitalize on.
All of the above indicated a writer who is actively experimenting with styles and techniques. This can only bode well as, in my view, this author shows much promise.
My one major frustration, however, was the dip in writing quality that occurred from time to time. Ignoring the occasional grammatical slip-up or typo (which all of us fall foul of) as well as the ‘polishable’ areas, some parts of the prose were noticeably weaker than the bulk. They tended to be overly wordy and thus lost the tight, crispness of the good stuff. Many involved an element of repetition, which has the effect of talking down to the reader, i.e. the reader can’t be trusted to get it the first time, so the point is hammered home with extra emphasis. In writing parlance 1+1 = half.
My second criticism centred around the fact that dialogue in fiction is not meant to mimic speech. Our day to day speech is riddled with useless sound bytes: ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and pauses and other random nonsense. Dialogue is tighter. It should contribute to tension or character or plot. If it doesn’t, ditch it.
2 HIGHLY COMMENDED AWARDS go to African Sunrise and Monster
African Sunrise was a poignant piece, bittersweet and firmly grounded in our current South African reality. Without being overly dramatic or sentimental it raises the burning question that I’ve no doubt plagues many South Africans, myself included: stay or go? Live with passion and high risk, or relative security but little passion? I felt this piece worked well in many areas. Firstly, it didn’t try and be ‘Hollywood’, it aimed for ‘real’ and largely hit the mark. Secondly, it contained some wonderfully tight yet emotive, descriptions. Classic examples of ‘less is more’.
My main criticisms with this piece concerned the ‘looseness’ of the text in parts which rambled a bit, as well as the shifts in Point of View, where the camera abandoned the main character in favour of another. Something which was contrary to the competition remit, but which also had the effect of unsettling the reader.
Monster was an exciting tale that trod the path between crime and the supernatural. The author is to be especially commended for their fantastic descriptions which evoked plenty of imagery, and which were ‘right up there’ at the top of the pile. In fact, it was the descriptive style of this tale which carried it triumphantly aloft for much of the way. Weighing against this, however, were two elements which could not be ignored. Both served to unsettle my enjoyment of the story, something I found quite frustrating considering the quality of much of the prose.
With this tale the author had a good understanding of the relationship between rhythm and tension. This tale was riddled with tension from the outset, which was a good thing, and something the author amplified through the use of short sentences. However, at times this was overdone. Too many clipped sentences in a row creates an unwelcome, staccato rhythm, which becomes predictable and monotonous. Analogous to an elastic band which loses its elasticity if stretched for too long.
In addition, the author had a habit of randomly double spacing between words, giving rise to a larger than normal gap. Once or twice is hardly noticeable but here it happened frequently (probably a product of typing quickly) and had the effect of knocking my eye off it’s stride. A bit like walking on paving stones that are inconsistently spaced. One ends up concentrating more on each step rather than the direction you’re heading in.
I hope my comments, both above and in the individual critiques, prove helpful.
Once again, thank you to SAWC and well done to all the contestants. I was definitely entertained throughout!