Short Story Judge’s Report 2022

Judge’s Report for the short story competition 2021/22 from Wendy Clarke

When I was asked if I would like to judge the Flash500 Short Story Competition for the third year, I said yes straight away. The reason is simple – how can reading fifteen stories from talented authors be anything other than a pleasure? With the usual high standard of entries, though, my job wasn’t to be an easy one!

As in previous years, my judging process is quite simple. I read through all the entries in one sitting, separating the stories into two piles: those I would like to read again and those that don’t quite hit the mark. The stories in the first pile are likely to be made up of different styles and genres but there will have been something about each one that will have piqued my interest. This could be related to the plot, the characters, the setting or simply an emotion I’ve been left with when I’ve come to the end. I’ll put these stories away and when I look at them again, usually the following day, the read through will be a slower, more considered one. This time, I will be looking for stories that have that special something. Maybe it will be an interesting theme that runs all the way through, a surprising ending or compelling characters I want to spend more time with. All will have a clear beginning middle and end and must leave me satisfied.

On day three, I will read my three highest scoring entries for the final time. Even when I think I know who my winner will be, a story might nudge into my subconscious in the night and, by morning, will be vying with my original choice for top position. All very exciting! Not that it happened, this year. Unusually, I knew my top choice from the moment I read it.

As always, I’d like to say a big congratulations to all the winners. I enjoyed reading each and every one of the short-listed stories and if you weren’t lucky this year, it’s important to remember that judging a competition such as this one is subjective. Making the short-list is a huge achievement and in another competition, with a different judge, your own story could well make the top three. Well done to you all.

1st place: Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere is the story of a woman who wakes from a coma twelve years after a traffic accident and I chose it as my winner as I loved it’s originality. It’s always tricky deciding the best way to fit a backstory into a narrative successfully – should you alternate between ‘then’ and ‘now’? Use flashbacks? Tell the past through a character’s memories? I’m delighted to say this wasn’t a problem in Road to Nowhere as the past and present are skilfully brought together through the use of newspaper headlines.

This really is a study of family. An insight into how people change and can surprise us. It also touches on how we might not know our children as well as we think we do. Beautifully and concisely written, we see Gail’s daughters and son through her newly opened eyes. The reader feels as though they are experiencing her disappointment, bewilderment and, ultimately, her surprise alongside her. It’s a lesson to us all that showing your worth is not just about looks, academic achievements and sporting prowess but how you can adapt and show love and strength in adversity.

At the beginning of the story, Gail said of her son, Sam, ‘there were no ticks in any of those pot-of-gold boxes I’d planned for him’. How wrong she was. I delighted in the ending as much as she did!

Congratulations! Road to Nowhere could have fallen into the trap of sentimentality but it didn’t. In fact, the shocking moment when Sam says, ‘Why didn’t you just die?’ is the moment when Gail’s true recovery starts. The story is heart-warming in the best possible way and a worthy winner. I won’t forget it.

2nd place: Delayed Reaction

I love a story with a powerful sense of time and place and Delayed Reaction has it in abundance. How could this be anything but the 70’s when the main character stands in a bedroom, where bead necklaces adorn the mirror and Les McKeown looks down from his poster. I think I even had an enamel ladybird brooch like the one on the dressing table… or maybe the description was just so vivid I’m imagining it! I remember, too, eating sandwiches ‘their edges curling like that fortune-telling fish you find in Christmas crackers’. What a perfect simile.

Delayed Reaction is a complete story with a clear beginning and surprising ending, but it’s the characters who really steal the show. I was left with a fabulous image of the poor bereaved mother bookended on one side by Lizzie’s mum, with her burgundy lipstick and false sympathy, and on the other by the doughty Aunty June.

And as for Lizzie… even after I read the twist, I couldn’t help cheering her on for having stolen back everything her friend had taken from her. Her lack of sympathy or guilt for her late friend is shown in her final thought, Bye Bye Baby – a clever continuation of the Bay City Roller theme that brings everything neatly to a close.

3rd place: Don’t Turn the Light On

This was an imaginative stalker story with a great twist. I love it when the reader is misdirected and this is exactly what happens in Don’t Turn the Light On. You presume Sam was once a long-term partner of Hana’s but this couldn’t be further from the truth. When I found this out at the halfway point, it had me nodding and wondering what deviant path this story might now take.

It’s fascinating to see the workings of Hana’s mind as she attempts to meld the truth with her own fantasy. I love how she decides the gaudy flower pictures and the self-help book, The Art of Positivity, must belong to Sam’s girlfriend rather than Sam. Anything to make the reality fit in with her skewed vision of her relationship with him.

In this story, the descriptions of Sam’s house are cleverly consigned to the sections where Hana practises the ‘grounding technique’ given to her by her doctor. Five things she can see, four she can touch, three she can hear, two she can smell and one she can taste. As the tension mounts and the story reaches its shocking conclusion, the descriptions start to get darker. Very clever. After reading this story, I will certainly never turn the lights on when it’s sunny in case it brings bad luck!