Judge’s report, 18th Award, by K.M. Elkes

General Comments
Judging a story competition with a high standard of writing is a whole, twist-filled narrative in itself. There are beautiful moments of discovery, difficult decisions, inner wranglings, a love story or two, sadness over loss, and the inevitable questions, mysteries, and ambiguities.

Working your way from longlist to shortlist, you encounter risky, raw stories that promise to leave you changed; love-at-first-sight stories full of confident verve; ones that have an allure through their use of language; quietly persuasive stories, confident in their low-key power; there are stories to admire for their elegance and beauty, and ones that raise a smile with their quirky charm.

After a lot of deliberation, the narrative gathers pace and the climax nears when there are just 10 stories left. You sit with them. Take them on a walk. Gaze at them in silence. Read their words out loud, over and over. You study their deployment of craft – tone and voice, use of narrative tools, the way thematic ideas are conveyed, the pace and flow of the narrative, how well the ending has been earned. You find yourself, in cheesy parlance, asking: ‘is this story the best story it can be?’

Choosing the final group of winning and commended stories is when the tension of the judging narrative reaches its final, feverish pitch. The plot now becomes more complex, stories slide in and out of contention, some disappear then reappear stronger than before, some fade, some remain strong. The pervading tone of this denoument is tough love, and no little admiration, as final decisions are made.

And so, many congratulations to everyone who made it to right to the end of this particular story. Your work deserves it, after the difficult journey it has been on. Congratulations too, to those who missed out on final places – it’s often a case of fine margins. And if you were shortlisted or longlisted, take much strength from that and go again.

Finally, thank you to the whole Bath Flash Fiction Award team for their hard work and dedication and to Jude Higgins for trusting me to be the judge for this incarnation of the Award.

First Place: The Button Wife
The joy of some flash fiction is that it invites you, at times compels you, to read it again. And in those secondary readings, the depth of the story becomes more completely realised, the emotional resonance rings out more sonorously. So it is with The Button Wife. At first glance it seems an odd, almost naïve idea, to represent characters through types of fabric. But for me that is the point, the oddness is a strength, because it allows the writer to create a quirky, unsettling reality that throws into relief the desperation of emotion that marks this story. Good writing, of any kind, relies on the use of contrast and opposites. And here it works to utterly compelling effect. As this story unfolds, the desperation and need of the narrative character is conveyed through a series of actions, each darker and more revealing than the last. There is contrast too in the lay-out, which appears to the reader as one buttoned up, wound together block of text, even though this is a literal and metaphorical unravelling, an emptying out of despair. Contrast too in the calm language used to describe this self-destruction. It is the care and artistry with which the writer addresses such a raw, but all too recognisable human condition, which makes this story a worthy winner.

Second Place: Strong Like Carp
This is an absorbing piece of storytelling, the kind of story to hold up to the light and examine for the intricate way it holds together across so many elements of good writing. There is an immediate sense of place and time, the story unfolds at just the right pace, and there is strong and well-contrasted characterisation. But this story doesn’t just have craft, it has artistry too. It does what all excellent flash does – it takes a big subject and focuses down into one beautifully detailed and distinctive part of it. By doing so it illuminates something much wider than what is contained within the text. I particularly admired the way koi carp (which in Japanese culture represent perseverance and courage) weave through the often choppy waters of this text. Something so very symbolic can often feel stilted and ill-fitting, but the way the central character is able to keep the koi alive in her mind while the world around her is reduced to ashes, is a shimmering thread through the landscape of this story.

Third Place: Reasons You Married A Woman Called Rose
Stories with alternative structures, where the traditional narrative form is stressed and remade, can be tricky to pull off successfully. But that’s not the case with this refreshing, inventive and emotionally involving story. The structure – a kind of test or puzzle to be solved – is integral to the ideas being conveyed here, about the struggle to match up disparate and often contrary parts of a person into something that fits together. But it also poses the question of whether there really is a right answer at all. This flash doesn’t just succeed because of its structural interest. The use of the second person point of view works well, as does the language, that use of repetition to emphasise self-reflection, that need to understand rubbing up against the narrative voice’s self-doubt, creating an emotional depth that draws the reader into this world.

Commended: Across The Street the Old Man Clears Out His House
A beautifully paced story which reflects on the circularity of life and the interconnectedness of things. This story depicts its setting concisely and with great attention to particular detail – it is these details which make the narrative and language tick, but also brings to life the situation, creating a strong visual world for the reader. The use of perspective is interesting in this story too, the reader is invited to join the neighbours as an onlooker, watching from a distance as something unfolds which at first seems melancholy and then becomes quirky and finally becomes uplifting. It takes that idea of stories which return to the beginning point in order to see what has changed and gives it a fresh twist.

C<strong>ommended: Where are the Instructions for the Panasonic Full HD 3D Home Theatre Projector?
Good writers back up their interesting, intriguing title with excellent stories and this piece is no exception. The title choice reflects the wry, humorous voice of this piece, that dry self-reflection that masks other emotions, including sadness and defiance. This story has brio and a poetic attention to detail in the language (particularly in the use of repetition). It also has a strong consistent tone and narrative voice which always makes a story attractive. Also highly admirable is the way it is laid out on the page in a single block of intense text demonstrated that the writer had thought not just about the story but the way it would be seen and read.

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