Short Story Competition
Vanessa Gebbie, award-winning author and creative writing tutor, gives her comments on the shortlist, the three winning stories and two highly commended – also her thoughts on what makes a prize-winning story and how to choose one.
I believe that this year’s Chalk Circle Competition must have had a great standard of entry because the shortlisted entries were very good. It is fair to say that every story I saw had something great about it, and I could see why they'd been shortlisted.
A few words about what I am looking for. Firstly, that indefinable ‘something’ best summed up by the head short-lister for the Bridport Prize, some years ago, when I asked what instructions he gave to his twelve readers who back then, typically read some 600-700 stories each. “Easy," he said. “I tell them I’m only interested in seeing those stories which make them forget they are reading.” He means this - all the carefully engineered craft has to disappear, letting the story shine. And, in order for that to happen, all the craft elements need to work together perfectly. None must overshadow, or undermine, the rest. Whatever it is that makes a reader forget they are reading has to have a modicum of subjectivity. Me, I am a sucker for a good voice, an engaging character who is up against something. A satisfying conclusion that doesn't tie everything up too neatly but lets the world of the story carry on spinning.
My process. Read everything, making notes, making a ‘score-sheet’ of craft elements, eg: Title, Opening, Character/s, Prose, Voice, Dramatic engagement, Plot, Theme, Ending . . . among others, giving each a score out of ten. Yes, it is impossible to separate them out entirely, but I do it as far as I can. Wait ten days, in this case. Read again, re-score. Check against original rankings. Take the top 5 of both lists out - (they were the same five, easily) and that’s my list of possibles. Read again, rescore, rinse, repeat. Ask questions such as ‘Which story do I think about most?’ And ‘Which characters have really got under my skin?’ From that point on, the top stories change places in the list frequently, but at some point they have to stay still.
Always Something to do on a Saturday Night
An intriguing, poignant, slow burn story that draws me back to it, having got under my skin from the first reading. Deceptively simple, beautifully balanced, in lucid echoey paragraphs, this story really made me think. The voice is great, laid back, unsentimental, constant. Rather like the friendship underpinning the narrative. The irony of the title becomes clear as the story unfolds. A really satisfying read that keeps delivering - one that explores a friendship, asking what exactly it is that binds us together - but never quite comes up with the answers. It is not until the loss of that friendship that its power is felt - by both character and reader alike. In among the otherwise ‘ordinary’ events of this story, a single image towards the end hit the target (me!) quite unforgettably. This story would work really well on radio, I think. The repetitions are mesmeric.
Teacups are for Girls
I enjoyed the voice, the character, the humour, the resilience of childhood, the world created in these few paragraphs. I enjoyed the slow release of the theme, underpinning a simple narrative exploring events leading up to a momentous, personal discovery for the young narrator. The narrator is a young lad who moves from ‘One time I seen Shaun’s Dad in a dress’ through a world where fathers expect sons to be mini versions of themselves, to the blissful ending: ‘how the colours in the mirror were the colours of me.’ What a wonderful line to end the piece. I'm unsure whether the spelling of Shaun is intended to set that family apart from others in this narrative. If not, it was a fortuitous accident, and worked rather well!
I loved the prose here, and the structure of this story - the mirror opening and ending, the breaks with conventional layout when interior tension is too great for thought. I started worrying for the character, Billie, early on, who takes on a mythic quality for this reader, just as the vulnerable chick of the title seems to be both her, and the bird. Billie is very convincing, and the turn of events at school arrived as a surprise, and a shock, even though it has been flagged so clearly up front. Yet it feels ‘true’. The build of tension is handled very well - and anyone who can remember how cruel school kids can be to each other will be pivoted back to those years. I was holding my breath as I read. This story also raised some really interesting questions about morality, and which, in the end was the cruellest act in the story - for me, it was the words “You think we were really going to …”
Both at Once
Ahlam is a refugee, educated, intelligent, stressed - learning to read English via simple children’s fairy tales. Living in Hinchley Wood, Surrey, with all its suburban aspirations, Ahlam’s life was never going to be easy - and she enters a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears when she sees a girl break into a neighbour’s house. Poignant, thought provoking.
Pocket Money Pickings
A glimpse into the world of Yusuf who picks pockets, but usually has his takings stolen, in turn, by bullies, and needs to save money to pay for a hip replacement for his grandmother. Here is a character who drips ingenuity and charm. I particularly liked the vivid settings against which his story unfolds. This one raised a smile at the end, and the thought that Yusuf was one day going to try to be an accountant suddenly rang very true!