Novella-in-Flash 2019 Award Judge’s report

Our 2019 Novella-in-Flash Award judge, Michael Loveday’s writes about the process of selecting the short list and this is followed by his comments on the winning novella-in-flash, the two runners-up and three highly commended novellas-in-flash..Michael has judged everything ‘blind’ and did not know the names of the winners until this announcement. Read more about the 2019 Award on Jude’s Award Round-Up post.

Michael: When judging a fiction competition like this one, it’s important to spend time not reading the submissions.
That might sound provocative, so I want to reassure you that all the manuscripts have been closely studied, annotated carefully and those on the shortlist have been read three, four, sometimes five times so far. I have spent a lot of time marvelling at the writing, underlining things, repeatedly writing YES! in the margins. I feel a huge privilege (and responsibility) in reading entries of such a high standard.

I’ve encountered bold, innovative manuscripts, from science fiction about alternate Earths, to magical realist fantasies, sweeping family sagas, stories playing with time and memory, historical-political fiction, heart-breaking stories involving domestic violence, even a maybe / maybe not story of the Second Coming, among many other ambitious or unusual stories.

The overall standard has been exceptional. Virtually every novella on this shortlist feels already publishable or is so close to being ready that an editor would no doubt be willing to encourage it towards publication. Several longlisted novellas were very close to this shortlist. The very best manuscripts have been shoving all others aside, claiming my attention fully, leaving me thinking, each time, “Gosh, maybe this one!” There are difficult decisions to be made.

We read for different reasons. Many of us read fiction to be stirred emotionally – we want stories that make our pulse race, bring that familiar lump to our throat, or we want characters that inveigle their way into our hearts. Many of us read fiction to uncover something about the way the world works – to find out what, in different communities, families, relationships, environments, makes people think and act the way they do. In the case of flash fiction, at least for me, there’s an important third quality to add – the style of the sentences, that sense of radio activity in the language that carries a charge/change through to the reader.
The shortlisted novellas stirred me, their insights taught me something about the world, their radioactivity worked into my bloodstream. In these manuscripts, I wrote YES! in the margins the most often. Many of these novellas bring something new to the genre of novella-in-flash or feel like stories that haven’t been told before. It’s genuinely thrilling to see the novella-in-flash gathering momentum as many more writers embrace its challenges and revel in its rewards.

In the end, though, there are manuscripts in this shortlist that are claiming my attention even when I’m not reading them – their characters and ideas are haunting me or staying with me off the page.

If you’re reading this announcement feeling devastated to miss out, I hope there is consolation in the knowledge that this process is both intensely competitive and highly subjective. A different judge will think and feel differently and there are fine margins involved. As writers, we all face rejections and fallings-short – they’re unavoidable if we want to get our writing out into the world. Somehow, we have to dust ourselves down and recover the will to revitalise our ideas, keep fine-tuning our manuscripts and keep getting feedback until our creative expressions discover their best forms. This is what we do.

Michael’s comments on the First Prize Winner and two runners-up

Birds with Horse Hearts – 2019 Novella-in-Flash Winner

Three women take centre stage in this novella-in-flash, a rich and poetic study of a poor farming family in Nepal, with whom a woman from Iowa is staying, for unnamed reasons, after the death of her husband. Here the impoverished and marginalised are, for once, placed in the foreground, and the story is partly about how we can and must find beauty and love amidst harshness and deprivation. At the centre of it all is the enigmatic, beguiling, and tragic figure of the young prostitute Putali, at once trapped in a difficult life, and yet as free-spirited as a butterfly. This is a novella shadowed by loss and the search for belonging; it is also, in its own quiet, subtle and radical way, a love story. The quality of the sentence-making is stunning, the characterisation vivid and unique, and the narrative compelling and effortlessly handled, layered with skilful exposition, motifs and foreshadowings. I couldn’t fault the decisions that had been taken by the author and, although there were several other very fine manuscripts of clearly publishable quality, in the end this dark jewel of a story haunted me the most out of all the submissions – as soon as I encountered it, the characters, setting, and storyline simply refused to leave my head.

Homing – 2019 Novella-in-Flash Runner-up

This 68-page novella-in-flash, a historical fiction encompassing the Second World War and telling the story of a Norwegian family from 1933 to 1970, has more epic sweep than many novels. It’s formally ambitious and distinctive, with its 37-year span incorporating five family members, and it makes wonderful use of “the unsaid” as several key narrative moments are implied rather than narrated. With the onset of Nazi occupation as the initial backdrop, the story’s main focus is to chart the life of the daughter Caroline, and through her the novella explores what it means to be part of a family, to belong, to have or not have a home, and how we find the resources to cope with crisis, loss and the passage of time. The flashes show subtle insight into human behaviour, are often genuinely moving, and the author has a way with closure – many flashes end with a lovely poise and delicacy. A powerful novella of real substance, bold technique and readerly appeal, it’s the kind of literary fiction that would grace the shelves of any bookstore and find a passionate readership.

Inland Empire Afternoon – 2019 Novella-in-Flash Runner-up

This novella is tour de force of narrative manipulation. Set in one urban area (the Inland Empire, California) on one particular afternoon, the story leaps from one resident to another in story after story, offering a highly diverse ensemble cast of over 40 characters. Virtually every flash is deftly linked to the one that precedes, picking up a thread of narrative or location, and centred around certain key events – a hold-up, an earthquake, a wedding, a fire etc. The effect is to create a mesmerising portrait of the daily trials and tribulations of an urban community. Sometimes funny, sometimes dark, the writing shows remarkable breadth of human insight, and there is a recurring, restless exploration of the very meaning of our existence. Is there some benign force shaping the world, or are we struggling and battling alone? Are human beings inclined to be good or immoral? Moses, Jesus, Satan, the angel Gabriel and one or two other biblical figures pop up, for good measure, and seem no better equipped to grapple with the mysteries of this universe. Brilliantly conceived and skilfully written, this is an unusual and deeply impressive novella-in-flash.

Michael’s comments on the three Highly-Commended novellas-in-flash

Even though they missed out on the top three places, all three of the Highly Commended novellas-in-flash were clearly of publishable standard and deserve to find their way to readers.

The Way of the Wind – 2019 Novella-in-flash Highly Commended

An unforgettable voice narrates this novella-in-flash, a story of a jilted lover who is obsessed with her ex, struggling to find a settled place to live, and trying to find a way to make peace with both her disapproving mother and the memories of her estranged father. It’s impossible to resist this flawed yet engaging narrator’s honest, raw humanity. Immediate, alive, sharp, psychologically astute, there is a kind of casual poetry in the writing – on virtually every page there are moments of expressive genius and flair that will either have you laughing or will tug hard at your heart.

The Roster – 2019 Novella-in-flash Highly Commended

An “ensemble cast” novella with a fresh and original concept — a sequence of stories about a teacher’s pupils at a school, more or less one story for each pupil. The students’ eccentricities, rebelliousness and vulnerabilities are depicted with warmth, fondness, and very often, an absolutely heart-breaking poignancy, as in the case of the child with brittle bones, or the young boy grieving his sister. There is black humour too, in places, and endings that are intensely lyrical. The characterisations are superbly individualised, vivid, inventive and memorable, and are written with beautiful variety of expression. A novella-in-flash of immense charm that has real emotional substance.

Straight Down the Road
– 2019 Novella-in-flash Highly Commended

As if it were some rediscovered Raymond Carver manuscript, this is a classic novella-in-flash in the mainstream American tradition. A working class family try to keep themselves afloat, travelling the country by car after the father quits his job. The writing is warmly affectionate towards the characters even though they’re flawed. There’s an appealing, breezy, summery quality even though real tension bubbles up – it feels like an authentic family dynamic. Some bond of grudging love is keeping this family together, even though they’re stretched to breaking point. Each flash has the clarity of a distinct memory – like each one might be a family legend. A vivid and highly effective novella-in-flash.

Many congratulations to all!
Michael Loveday, March 2019.

share by email