Eirlys Hunter and Gail IngramThere were 63 youth entries this year, some straightforward, others strange; some stark and others baroquely embellished. We enjoyed reading through them, and were pleased to discover that, without any consultation, our ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ piles looked almost identical when we’d finished.
So, what were we looking for? One-page stories are tricky. You may think: only 300 words – that’s easy. But it’s not. In those 300 words you must convey a time and place, an atmosphere, characters and something happening. The advantage of such a short story is that a writer can interrogate every word. Can it be improved? Does it add musicality as well as sense to the sentence? Is this phrase predictable, or delightful and surprising?
We sifted through the ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’ piles again, looking for reasons to reject stories. Lots of exclamation marks? Out. Words that are repeated due to poor editing rather than for effect? Out. A clichéd expression or overblown concept, such as ‘being heartbroken’ or ‘turning to ash’? Also out. Other good stories were let down by their endings. Poor endings included trying to summarise or explain the story, and/or death. Several seemed to have ended where they did simply because the writer had reached the word limit. Most disappointing were the promising stories that ended with a moral lesson complete with drumroll and flashing lights.
Some of the stories that we liked very much were almost poems. That is, they had the lyricism of poetry, the joy in language and rhythm. But nothing happened – they were focussed on the language, rather than have a character do something or experience something, and so the story element, essential to flash fiction, was lost.
Not all stories revealed themselves on the first reading – in fact all the best stories held subtexts that rewarded repeat reading. Others that were less skilful had beautiful imagery, but it was obscure rather than mysterious.
We thought we’d put together some advice for next year’s entrants:
- When you only have 300 words you can’t approach large abstract topics death such as death or heartbreak head on. It’s better to focus on a small moment or object within the experience and write around that. Our winning story provides a brilliant example, structuring the big topic around a small object.
- Be oblique rather than obscure. Tell your story by focussing on specific moments and/or times in the character’s experience. Think of it as a layering of detailed and specific ‘pictures’ to show the reader what is happening to the character and how they might fare by the end.
- Have a story. It might be the merest wisp of a thing, but there must be some sense of forward movement, of change. Each new sentence and paragraph should add something new, and advance the story.
- We were aware that some of the writers were very young and so have less experience of language than older writers; they may not recognise an expression as hackneyed. The antidote, of course, is to read as much and widely as possible, as well as trying not to sound ‘writerly’ but to stick to your natural voice.
- Edit carefully. Check for unnecessary repetition of words and concepts. Check your beginning and ending especially. The first draft is for figuring out where the story is going and what you want to say, and so often ends up explaining too much. When you write your second or third or tenth draft, consider whether you need those opening lines or last explaining paragraphs. If you take them out, does the story still work?
- Trust your reader. Show what your character experiences and leave the reader to think about it. No need to explain.
- Finally, don’t be so serious. Not necessarily serious in subject matter (though death got an almost clean sweep if you tally up this year’s topics), but in approach. We want to say – loosen up. Make us smile first, and then we’ll cry much harder. We want to say: write this again, with your eyes half shut, looking sideways. We want to say: show us something we don’t already know. Be playful – be surprising.
The winners…Not only did we have little difficulty choosing our long and short-listed stories, we found that we had picked the same top three stories. But ranking the three finalists turned out to be the most challenging part of the judging process. Three exceptional stories. Three pieces of excellent, but very different, writing. We could both argue for giving each of them first place. All three have mature voices; they show us feelings; they’re cleverly crafted. They reveal enough for us to understand something that we hadn’t thought about before, but they don’t tell us everything. They made us think and feel. But we had to make a choice, and here it is:
Five rules for liking girls when you are young and prone to heartbreak is a stunning title. The narrator is really talking to themself as they set down the five rules, sometimes in the second person as ‘you’. They remind themselves why each rule is necessary, and together the rules tell a story about what the narrator rather cruelly dismisses as their schoolgirl crush. They even manage to indicate a potential escape route from the wonderful misery of their own lovesickness. There is a lot here: a believable setting, a resilient and self-aware character with a wonderfully wry and self-deprecating voice telling an unfolding story, and yet the whole feels roomy, unhurried and important.
Funeral Hymn for a Lost Toy is a strange and wonderful story that doesn’t begin to reveal itself until near the end when we read Last year I watched my grandmother fall, and no matter the force I could not scrape her back together. Last year I saw my mother‘s chest torn with the grief of it. And now the earlier part of the story, about the way women are socialised very young to take responsibility for fixing others’ happiness, becomes clearer. Instead of prayer, this narrator is learning to stitch, to sew objects and people back together. There are some unforgettable images – we loved ‘the lines in your thumb become a ruler’. The language is poetic, metaphorical and unexpected. No clichés here. It’s a story that explores large themes of feminism, and a broken-down world in the language of fantasy; it’s a story of many layers you want to come back to, and rewards the reader each time.
Gummy Bears contains the wonderful line: I told my Mum I was dropping out of home-schooling to get a job as a construction worker and spend the rest of my days tailgating on the beach with Coke and Haribo. The narrator is musing about confectionery, dreaming of a TV advert existence, but behind the obsession with Gummy Bears is a story about the experience of serious illness. The narrator relates how they managed to consume gummy bears when on a liquid-only diet, and wonders about getting them into a drip. This narrator is seriously ill, possibly facing death, but illness and death are not mentioned. We love this story because it’s told lightly — I laughed the first time I read it — but it is very serious. It is carefully crafted. Each short paragraph advances our understanding of this narrator and their circumstances.
Congratulations to all the finalists!
Eirlys and Gail