Judging the inaugural Bath Flash Fiction Award has been both an honour and a delight. The organisers did the hard work of sifting through one thousand entries and sent me, as if by magic, the twenty intriguing stories on this shortlist.
The first thing that struck me was the proliferation of certain themes — death, apocalypse or social breakdown featured in at least half the shortlist — which is not to say that the stories themselves are uniform. Far from it. Without exception, the writers have used their 300 words to create something fresh and distinctive.
The second thing I noticed was the level of ambition. The vast majority of writers avoided the common pitfalls of low stakes and trite endings (which might be why there was so much death and apocalypse!). Moreover, there was a high standard of linguistic flair, even if I did have some stylistic quibbles here and there.
When choosing the winners, I looked for originality and craft — care with language and a sense of formal completeness. Ironically, the few stories that succumbed to showiness tended to leave very little trace. The most successful writers were single-minded about what they wanted to convey and didn’t let their delight in language get in the way. As for the winning story, it is simply outstanding – a comedic tour de force.
When it came to judging, I annotated, spoke aloud, and colour-coded each story multiple times (green, red, amber for yes, no, maybe). As it happens, my overall winner revealed itself on the second read through and never lost that lead, but the six or so other stories that rose to the surface proved difficult to separate. Eventually, a couple of days later, six shrank to four and a ranking emerged.
The winning story made me laugh out loud each time I read it. In ‘Radio Alarm’ our character awakes to the soundtrack of the shipping forecast on the morning after a very eventful night. The title obviates the need for scene setting and leads us straight into the story. There is no laboured telling here; we receive information as the character starts to remember it, in single-word flashes of horrified recollection. The character senses the flavour of the night (bad!), long before s/he is able to piece it all together. The story is remarkable for its deft deployment of two voices — the incantatory voice of the shipping forecast acting as the perfect foil for the terse interior voice of the character. The writer mines the comic potential of disparate elements: rhubarb vodka, vicars, drag queens, naked bike rides, even the place name Thirsk, with judicious use of juxtaposition and repetition. Soon, a possible sequence of events begins to emerge. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The voices become ever more contrapuntal — certain phrases from the shipping forecast seem to prompt details from the previous night’s escapade — until the story reaches its breathless, and very funny, conclusion. Wonderful writing, and a very worthy inaugural winner!
Second prize goes to ‘This Is How They Drown’ — a more conventional story, but a very well told one. I loved how the characters, oblivious to what is about to occur, are placed in separate zones — Connie and Luke making out on the beach and Ferg floating further out to sea — and how the writer then unites all three in the final few lines. There are some lovely details: ‘they are fifteen and feckless’, ‘She tastes like salt and sunblock and girl’. Summer and youth, and the pleasures of both are well conveyed. Without overdoing it, the writer evokes very well the mercilessness of fate, both in the matter-of-fact title and in the use of hard-edged imagery — the ‘metallic glare’ of sun on sea, the ‘sequined water’ and ‘cut glass sky’. Meanwhile, an omniscient, unblinking eye looks on with cold detachment, and this is what gives the story much of its considerable power.
The third prizewinner, ‘The Most Amazing’, manages to pull off the unlikely juxtaposition of the repair of a toilet with the end of days. This story is distinguished by naturalistic dialogue and by its clear focus. The idea of someone empowered by catastrophe is an affecting one. It is apt that it is the girl’s eyes that are the primary object of Will’s admiration, just as the whole world is going dark. As he makes his declaration, he seems to see her even more clearly than before, which is when we get the beautiful final passage with its close-up focus on the detail of the girl’s face and her slow motion smile.
The two stories I’ve chosen for commendation are as follows:
In ‘Sailboats’, a seaside encounter between an adult daughter and her father, I enjoyed the wry observations on love and marriage. The character of the father is drawn very effectively with very few strokes. ‘[he] gestured the waitress over for more oyster shooters, an appropriate way to get a little drunk before 5.00.’ ‘[he] did believe in coincidental romances, having followed that fairy path several times himself.’ The daughter’s need for self-realisation is neatly expressed in the sailboats heading out to sea.
‘Picasso Dreams’ is a kind of conceit about the nature of imagination. The brisk, clean prose is somewhat at odds with the subject-matter, and this creates an interesting sense of dissonance. It’s visual too, with the dreamscape enlivened by flashes of blue and lime green. An imaginative, original story.
Congratulations to all twenty shortlisted writers!