Besides aiding in the establishment of a global corporate empire, my central motivation in setting up The Reader’s 2012 Short Story competition was to discover what was out there. Writing is a silent art, performed alone. If one wishes one can go out and meet writers, but you end up meeting a person and not the work. The rules were lenient. There was a word limit (5000) and the condition that the stories had to make a reference to Another Country bookshop. When the deadline had passed and I got down to the reading, I felt like the winner of pass-the-parcel over and over again. Each time as I opened a document I had no idea of what would be inside.
And it was my job to compile a shortlist of 10, which eventually became 13, and would have – if I hadn’t been aware of how generous the judges were already being with their time – swelled to 16.
My first concern while compiling the shortlist was the prose. Does it read cleanly? Or does the eye keep tripping up and have to return to the beginning of sentences? A good writer develops a feel for this, moreover her sentences are balanced, the use of set phrases or tired clichés is not resorted to and clarity presides.
After prose, I had to consider character, voice, dialogue – did these work? Were they consistent? Did the writer manage to capture our interest at the beginning and sustain it to the end? Was the style mature and accomplished?
This was a short story competition and yet quite a few submissions read like extracts from novels. They were competently written, often intriguing, but a sense of wholeness or completion was absent. A novelist has space in which to build, a short story writer must possess the ability to sketch.
I turned to a master for inspiration. Edgar Allan Poe wrote that, ‘A short story must have single mood and every sentence must build towards it.’ To this I would add that it should also possess its own interior logic, that no matter how surreal or commonplace the subject matter, the invisible wheels that power the narrative need to meet, and grip, and turn.
I cut further and then – still over the limit – I got mean. Flashes of brilliance were not enough. Stories that were a touch convoluted – or baggy in the middle or collapsed at the end – had to go. Those endings, they were most often the means by which I narrowed the list down.
Then it was time to hand the shortlist over to my judges: Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Books, Kenneth Macleod, author of The Incident and Jen Hewson, literary agent at Rogers, Coleridge & White. Via email I was witness to their struggles and how hard it was not to intervene in favour of my own favourites!
Ultimately, a winner was chosen and after much wrangling the runners up agreed upon. The winner you can read in this month’s Exberliner, a book will be published this year by Another Country featuring the top 5 and a further selection of Sophia Raphaeline’s favourites, and The Reader website will be hosting the shortlisted pieces.
Then we’re going on summer break until new writing groups begin in September, a summer break in which we’ll be promising ourselves to never, never do this again…until next time.
Neil Bristow – The Inheritance
Runners Up (in no order)
May 1st – Johanna Da Rocha Abreu
A Guide to Shoplifting in Berlin – Brittani Sonnenberg
A Slightly Sexually Provocative Short Stroy – Ambika Thomson
Train – Pippa Anais Gaubert
Shortlist (in no order)
Monogamy – James Harris
Green – Sara Zaske
The Preparation – Marcus Speh
The Nuns – Nick Modrzewski
The Jew of Maltestrasse – Ruth Bennett
Pain – Arne Hordvik
Cat’s Paw – Charles McDaniel
Don’t Worry, It’s Just Regret – Anna Byrne
But go out and grab a copy of Exberliner #107 and read Bristow’s “The Inheritance” (or keep watching this space for a future online publication of the piece). It’s not to be missed!