What follows is my Judge’s Report for the Wells Short Story Competition
A strong selection of stories with, remarkably, no obvious winners or losers. All the stories had merit, all the stories had flaws. Looking back at my notes the most frequently used phrase is ‘depressing’. A lot of people died along the way. I was also concerned that decrepitude seemed to start early for several writers – the seventy year olds I know are buzzing around with full lives, not waiting to be consigned to the care home.
Characters were often passive, resigned to their fates. I longed for the worm to turn, but alas, it didn’t always. The stories that were most successful had active main characters who moved the story forward. Many main characters were one-dimensional stereotypes who had no existence outside the narrative.
Another phrase that cropped up a lot in my notes was ‘weak ending’. Some stories simply stopped, leaving me checking if I’d missed a page. Others didn’t carry through the promise that they’d started with. A weak ending is damaging because that’s the last thing we read, so that’s what we remember. Satisfying endings are important.
Lacking focus, or confused focus was another frequent phrase. A short story is just that: short. It carries a single idea through to the end like a beautiful pendant on a fine chain, unlike a novel which is a multi-stranded necklace. Some stories had several ideas vying for dominance. Or they would start with one character and finish with another, the first character having been lost along the way. Where was the reader supposed to be looking?
Some stories were based around clever ideas: tricks, or twists in the tail. These made me smile, but an idea is never enough on its own to carry a story through, there needs to be something else – humour, description, prose style, characterisation – to sustain the reader.
So, how to choose a winner? It was hard, as every story had good and bad points. Which should I put higher, the funny tale that was clumsily written, or the beautifully written story that lacked purpose?
In the end I decided to go back to basics. Which stories had I enjoyed reading the most, regardless of any technicalities? And at that point it became clear. My winners are the ones that worked for me as a reader. Another reader would have made different choices and perhaps, on another day, so would I.