Judges Reflections: Sharon Griffiths.
We were lucky this year to have a high standard of entries, many well-written competent stories. there are fashions in stories as in everything else – themes that emerge from current preoccupations. A few years ago I remember we had a spate of stories in which husbands left their wives for other men.
That excitement died down and this year we’ve had what I think of as the 3 As – Alzheimers, Abuse and Afghanistan. All fascinating issues that need exploring But an issue doesn’t make a story. You don’t give a story gravitas just by writing about something serious. It takes a bit more than that. The other staple is middle aged disenchantment and wives murdering their husbands. Wish fulfilment doesn’t make a story either.
People ask how you choose the winners. We don’t. The winners choose themselves.
As we’re reading our way through all these competent and quite enjoyable stories, suddenly we read one that makes our hearts lift.
Every one of those on the short-list had that effect. It made us stop and smile, treasure the words on the page and relish the thought behind them. Each one had a freshness and originality about it – either the theme, the plot, the different way of looking at things, all combined with good writing.
What’s startling is how much the four judges agreed. We’re an opinionated lot, never afraid to pitch into an argument, relish it, in fact. But all these short-listed stories seemed to emerge from the heaps of paper as if by common consent. Even though we each value different things when reading, our selections coincided to a remarkable degree. They were all clearly unequivocally special. The winners chose themselves. Nothing to argue about.
The only really tricky bit was the final placings, which got dangerously near to counting the angels on the head of a pin. Diagonal Flight had a fresh point of view – we were inside the head of that Chinese grandmother – but carried its theme all the way through without hammering at it. Delicately done. KT Boundary had a strong “voice” which couldn’t be ignored. Ruby Fleet took the now familiar story of the Magdalene laundries and gave it a mischievous twist. As did Blood Pool with the curse of sisterly rivalry.
Each of those stories took us somewhere else and gave us a new way of looking at the world. No mean achievement. What’s more, by the time we’d done the judging we’d each read each of the short listed stories at least four times, often more. And we were still finding new small delights in them – that really is the sign of a winner.
ROOM TO WRITE 2014 SHORT STORY COMPETITION
SHORT LIST JUDGES’ COMMENTS
In no particular order apart from First, Second and Joint Third which come last here
1. NORTH CIRCULAR – Isabel Costello,
Marooned on a demolished estate, a Greek Cypriot woman about to be physically ejected is visited by a Greek Cypriot social worker. Great sense of place here with a woman in a house in an island of traffic. Told in the first person the style here is punchy and staccato, wasting no words yet implying depth of experience. This well written, well located, well-structured story focuses on the personal but underneath this lie crucial issues of living in modern urban Britain..
2. THE DERBY WINNER – Simon Van der Velde – (congratulations to Simon on winning the Wasafiri prize) – Here is a story about a man in a bar watching a football match that grabs you from the word go. And of course is about much more than football – underlying all the bravado of the bar and the match is a poignancy and a certain sadness. A powerful first person voice, a story whose great tension is created by the dialogue as the match unfolds and the mystery of the young boy.
3. CLIMBING – Jason Jackson This cleverly structured short story, told in the close third person voice, tells of an old man who climbs a tree to recover a lost and neglected doll. The spare prose here is full of unspoken feeling. This makes us empathise with this old man. As the tension in the prose drives us forward we learn fragments of his back story.. We sense his loneliness and isolation and his anonymity played out against the well-drawn park landscape; we come to know his determination, feel his satisfaction when he achieves his aim in reaching the doll. The nature of the day dawning brings the story to a neat close
4. RESTORATION Sally Wylden: (Suffolk) ‘ – What can you do for a chair that wants to be a tree?’ This story grew on us like the tree on the chair. It is intriguing and highly original and a great example of the power of the object in storytelling, the object in this case being an abandoned chair in a lorry park. The story hints at underlying truths about the world of the object -the inanimate. and the natural world, – the animate world and the place in which they meet. As such it touches on universal: this is a story of transformation and, as the title suggests, of restoration.
5. THE DAY OUR JIMMY BECAME A MAN – Ruth Henderson – A very powerful piece of writing which, in using heroic language, has the epic flavour of the old sagas. It has the sense of lives powerfully lived. The characters – particularly the mother and father – are strongly drawn. The use of the (easily understood) Tyneside vernacular enhances the sense of family identity, giving the story the flavour of myth. This writer’s skill lifted this story out of nostalgia into a universally recogniseable truth.
6. STARLINGS – Cathy Edmunds – Possibly the most visual of all the stories submitted, it put us in mind of a painting by Breughel- Hunters in the Snow perhaps… Through powerful imagery and lyrical and poetic writing we are immediately transported into the landscape of the story. And the fact that the place is never named adds a truly universal, almost mythical feel to the piece. Every word here is chosen with care. Every word counts in the cumulative meaning or the story.
7. BLOOD LINE Ann Ousby – Rock and roll at the Co-op – mini dresses and hot-pants are de rigueur. This is a story that made us smile underpinned by something universal that says something about friendship and those poignant teenage years which lie in or own memories of late teens. The prose is crisp, the viewpoint is sharply observed and it isn’t all fun by any means – underpinned by a bitter-sweet tone. The story opens with dialogue, – a great, often overlooked way,– and it continues to crackle all the way through with youthful verve. dialogue and dance.
8 (Joint Third)RUBY FLEET – Sarah Isaac
Told in the close first person, this story is as tight as a drum. The writing is sharp, perceptive. We find ourselves in the shoes of a girl the writer has imagined, has constructed in her imagination. This is the fundamental gift of a good writer. We step straight into the story which is structures around a single event. A woman photographer comes to a laundry where women are confined to work off their ‘sin’. In a few lines we come to know the watcher and the man and woman she watches. And through her yes we see the photographer who is another kind of watcher. In these days of retrospective social awareness we are aware of such depredations. But in this short story, in this writer’s hands, Ruby Fleet is raised out of the generic passive status of victim, to be a fully rounded and vibrant character in a story that can contribute to our contemporary understanding of trafficked and enslaved women in our complacent present day society.
9 (Joint Third) BLOOD POOL Ruby Shifrin–– In this story Ruby explores how the pool became so named. In doing so she transports us into the realm of myth and fairy tale. Beautifully told: the language is lyrical and poetic and often surprising. A highly visual, sensual story full of powerful imagery and redolent with place. And from the beginning, underneath the wildness and beauty of this place there is an underlying sense of darkness and foreboding
10 (Second Prize) KT BOUNDARY John Adams –– This is an explosive story told with huge energy and beautifully written – much of this energy comes from the way John uses language – in particular the short, even one-word sentences and the potent use of dialogue. So that as a reader what we hear is a strong and unique writer’s voice, drawing us in. KT Boundary intrigues us from the start. Is very brave in its scope – a whole life is told here within 1,500 words and ultimately it surprises us – as good short stories often do.
11. (First Prize) – DIAGONAL FLIGHT -Christine Powell – This a highly visual piece of writing, beginning and ending as it does with strong images of the main character Win. and later on in story, of the snow. Diagonal Flight has perfect pitch and flow – nothing jars, nothing disappoints. We were impressed by the original viewpoint and fine writing in this beautifully crafted story. It focuses on the particular and at the same time reveals universal truths applicable to us all. This great character study is a slice of life that tells a strong story – especially how it is to be a woman from Hong Kong living in a ‘damp northern village in South Durham.’ As well as this, it tells some fundamental truths about what it is to be a grandmother. The movement and energy bedded in the prose makes it stand out among the entries – the Tai Chi, the boy running, the jackdaws sidestepping, the Methodist minister striding come to mind. A great story.