Short Story Judge’s Report 2021

Judge’s Report for the short story competition 2020/21 from Wendy Clarke

When I was asked by Lorraine to judge the shortlist for this competition for the second year running, I was delighted. Reading fifteen well-crafted stories is a privilege, especially when, as last year, the standard is high. A judge’s dream maybe, but with every story having something to commend it, my job wasn’t an easy one!

All competition judges have their own way of choosing their winners and I thought you might like to hear mine. After settling myself in the garden, the first thing I do is read through all the stories, separating them into two piles as I go. The pile I’m interested in contains the stories that have resonated with me in some way, and these are the ones I’ll be reading again in more detail. On second read, the stories that made this first cut will be given a score based on certain criteria: whether they have made me ‘feel’ something, whether the characters have engaged me, whether the ending has made me stop and think, and, most importantly, whether I’ve become so lost in the story I’ve forgotten I’m reading (in other words, blissfully unaware of the writer and the techniques they’ve used).

The next stage of the process is to leave my three highest scoring stories overnight before reading again the next day with fresh eyes. It’s at this stage the winning piece normally jumps out at me!

Congratulations to all the winners but please remember that all competition judging is subjective. If yours didn’t make the top three this time around, it might do with another competition and a different judge. Well done to you all.

1st Place: Sticks and Stones

This was the story that, when left overnight, jumped out at me and said, I am the one!

On the surface, Sticks and Stones seems like a simple tale of two young brothers but it’s so much more than that. It’s a story about battles: play fights, sibling rivalry and the emotional and physical battles they face at home.

I loved how the first paragraph misleads the reader into thinking that this will be a story set in war time before our young narrator shows us the truth with his simple command, ‘Stop the game.’ This misdirection is clever in that it sets the scene for the battles that will continue to the end.

The boys might be obsessed with re-enacting famous battles but in the second half of the story, we are shown that at home there is a greater adversary to stand up to. The controlling, strict nature of the boy’s father has been cleverly alluded to in the description of his formal allotment and the disdain he feels for anyone who dares to soften theirs with flowers or fishponds.

The war theme is strong throughout the story, the tension in the second half growing until you can almost feel it. But it is ultimately the exploration of the brothers’ relationship that grips you. So much so that when you reach the final poignant ending, you want to take both boys in your arms and hug them tight.

2nd Place The Balance of Things

Just like the title of this piece, a short story must have the right balance of components for it to work: relevant descriptions, dialogue that shows as much as it tells and an interesting plot. The Balance of Things has all these and more. The beautiful but tight descriptions bring the flooded quarry, where the protagonist is diving, to life – adding to the atmosphere without being over-indulgent. Aided by deft figures of speech such as ‘his light chased the sides of the tunnel behind her’ and ‘peering into the dark artery’ the tension in the story mounts until its chilling conclusion. It’s a story where you look back and see the clues that were lying there just out of sight. A story that makes you shake your head and think if only.

I’ve never been diving but now I’ve read this story I feel that I have!

3rd place Little Hell

This is a perfect example of a short story that is complete yet leaves the reader crying out for more. I’d love to know more about our protagonist’s life before he left to go panning for gold in Australia and I’d love to find out what the future holds now for this family where their collective disappointment is as dark and brooding as the mining village where they live.

Little Hell is seamlessly written, and the writer is adept at making the characters’ speak volumes through just a shrug of a shoulder or a look. The story is filled with longing and loneliness but at the end, when the man feels the weight of his small son on his lap, there is also a small but beautifully formed nugget of hope. One that shines as bright as the gold earrings he brings home from his expedition. Thank you for that.