by Alex KeeganA year or two ago, I was asked to judge a well-known competition. I had the choice of reading a short-list or all the stories and I chose to read the lot.
I have to tell you now that this was a mistake from which it took me a long time to recover.
In the end I picked two stories as joint-winners but what was surprising to me was that the 3rd and 4th stories were humorous and another of the top ten was "genre". I was surprised because I so much prefer serious fiction these days (life's too short to waste), so why did I not pick the ten best "literary" pieces?
As I've said, I chose to read all the stories, and reading almost three hundred me-too pieces, many with the same tone, the same phrasing, the same voice (a kind of mid-Atlantic thinned-out "literate" creative writing exercise voice), the stories began to blur and no matter how hard I tried, I began to see only words.
Instead of reading and assimilating, I found myself swallowing without tasting and waiting to be hit between the eyes. I think, in the end, I found the best two stories, but after that, those stories from 3rd through to 30th (and indeed some which missed the long list) were so similar that God knows what they were (I can't remember one). They were all competent but every one lacked that extra spark or ambition. It's quite possible I missed decent work and for this I'm sorry, but the writers, that's you folk, bear most of the blame.
The first joint-winner was far from perfect, but what it had was scope and ambition. It didn't have the small, "close focus parochial" of so many stories, the cuckolded husband, the betrayed wife, the funeral, the abused child. So many stories, so few large canvasses, so little courage.
To begin at the beginning (beginnings matter a great deal, even more so with a sad, depressed and very jaded competition judge) here I scored the opening 14, very good. Something in the language made me expectant of a good read. It's a rare story which doesn't open at least 13 that then goes on to blossom. If a writer can't stamp authority in a few lines, if he can't make it clear he's a serious professional, then my spirits drop and what comes afterwards is filtered through an extra veil of depression.
In this story, the writing tense was going forward, it was back in the past and talking about a winter to come. Ah, bravery! I was to go on and be concerned about the story's time-line but not enough to give up. That is, the braver opening, its directness, and clean language told me I was in better hands and to look harder at what followed. I gave it a bit more leeway
Then the second paragraph quickly "made" one of the main characters, the reverend, and the third nailed the setting. It was the economy of it all, not a big bang which attracted me.
Then came a letter. In truth, I didn't see the necessity for this and had the opening been flat and ordinary I might have written off the story at this point. Indeed, the reminiscences that followed weren't "easy" but the story survived on the momentum earned from the feel-good of the opening.
What then carried this story for me was the sense of a crumbling England, the way a drug was the vehicle of dissolution, how wars had made and unmade men, how one (even with his history) was the engine of destruction. The core story was "Peter's" and straightforward enough but if that had been all there was, then the story would have drifted down to marks in the 110-120 range, wallowing with the better of the near-misses.
What lifted this story was the bigger picture revealed, the macro, while we discussed the smaller, more specific events, the micro. This is what I mean by an ambition, a canvas, a thing to say (and something worth listening to). So many of the competing stories were only Peter's story, competent, mildly interesting, but ultimately forgettable.
Here the difference was that the writer made me wonder how we have changed from a non-drug culture to the one where Ecstasy, Pot, Cocaine and Heroin undermine the basic fibre of our lives. That is, that the story worked, as a story, but also had weight. It made me reflect and wonder.
I had no idea if the writer had it right, or if "ice" was real, but what matters is he told a story and made me think. The story remains memorable.
The other winner.
Competition entrants should understand what it's like to be a judge. If they did they would work harder, be braver, redraft their stories, print them perfectly on good paper, make their manuscripts crisp and inviting.
"Fire" was the last story I read, what chance did it have? By this time I absolutely hated reading competent, so-what short-stories about the same old tired subjects. I read this one, the very last one in the competition at one a.m. knowing it would be nothing-story #275 but luckily (for the author) it was direct, crisp and uncluttered, at least enough for me to take a deep breath and give this last manuscript a chance.
Like its co-winner, this story's opener woke me up. It was by no means brilliant but it didn't make me groan; I knew almost immediately it wasn't another funeral story and I knew (thank-you, God) it wasn't My Life as a Cat.
Paragraph two, was quite long, but it worked, just about. It was OK, it was passable, but it hardly needed to be there. Had it followed a weak opening paragraph, the story might have been dismissed there and then.
What followed in the entry was a mix of nicely understated love-story and African detail which, in truth might not have been needed or could have been tightened. (Here the author was lucky in that the extraneous detail was exotic and therefore of more interest. In the end I took this fact in to consideration when deciding, despite it squeaking home on marks, to award it joint and not singular first place).
The story had many weaknesses (but then all the stories in competitions have some weaknesses) but it won for one simple reason, the last page ached, it made me empathise, it lingered, it resonated.
The penultimate paragraph was superb.
I found the judging very hard and I had to apologise the good writers I may have missed. But those writers should blame yourselves too. Did they read their first pages and ask, "Is there true promise here? Would the reader expect something special?"
In other competitions, judges I've read talk about the "pleasure of reading so many good stories". Not me. So many similar stories, so many unambitious, narrow, and hackneyed stories, and almost everyone lacking guts, ambition or any deep sense of truth or honesty (not quite the same thing).
So dear writer, before you send out your next competition entry, ask this of yourself: "I may be competent, even a good writer, but what I write about, would anyone care?"
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.