Judge’s report, October 2021

When Jude asked me to judge the 19th round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award, it got me thinking about why I like writing for competitions. How it helps my creative process, that is, setting aside any distant prospect of prizes and glory (welcome as those are, should they ever come). For me, it’s the disciplines of wordcount and deadline coupled with the challenge that safe won’t cut it. If your story is going to stand out from so very many other excellent, unseen pieces, you need to step out onto the high wire.

On the longlist I found stories that all took that risk. There were dreamscapes and dystopias, unheard perspectives and hidden inner dialogues, reworked fairy-tales and school play rebellions, the unexpected significance of custard, an earthquake on the page.

I read and reread these stories. I scribbled notes and added exclamation marks. I shuffled the order and read them in different rooms and in my local park. All the stories on the longlist would find applauded homes in magazines. There were some that it was so hard not to move across to the shortlist pile; there were ones on the shortlist that it felt so harsh not to give some kind of rosette. I considered making some Honourable Mentions here but, in all honesty, there would be too many.

In the end, these five winning stories are the ones that kept coming into my mind when I left pencil and paper behind and walked up the hill and through the woods, or in that still time at night when the light is out but sleep has not yet come. What all these pieces have is that elusive and strange double nature of completion and opening up, of absolute rightness yet surprise, that is the essence of the finest flash, for me. Each one feels as whole as an egg – I couldn’t see a word I’d want to change – but each made me wonder far beyond their perfectly placed endings.

There are very different narrative approaches here but each writer has a technical command that carries them across that high wire from tower to tower. We may have our heart in our mouths, but something tells us these writers won’t fall. The rhythms are sure, each word carefully chosen, each punctuation mark setting the pace, the subtle shifts in perspective so well managed I didn’t notice them until I went back and tried to work out how the writers have made their impact. It’s a cliché to say that any of the pieces could have won, but these stories minuetted round my kitchen table gracefully swopping places as I reread each one. This is where the music stopped today.

All, that is, except for the winning story. Near the bottom of the original pile, it was one of the last I read when the longlist arrived. I forgot about being a judge, and sat quietly with the story for a while. It was my standout piece from that first reading and, although I kept testing, it never lost that place.

First place: Snow Crow
This story brims with tension and mystery. With its timelessness and curious formulations, it has the air of a fable or fairy tale. The repeating sentence structure ‘And…’ ‘And…’, broken only once, gives it a biblical cadence – it’s gorgeous to read aloud. But it’s also an utterly believable and beautifully observed portrait of a lonely and troubled boy. When is this happening? It’s hard to fix: apart from the briefest mention of a garage and an electric light, we could be in any house near a wood. Yet the grip on the double story time is so firm, moving seasonally from crickets to first snow, across the day from one morning, through breakfast and afternoons, to the final evening. We are always pushing forward until we reach that final enigmatic, inevitable movement. Is it one of hope or despair, joy or anger? I still don’t know, and perhaps in our complex human hearts it can be all these things at once. Haunting and resonant, but impossible to pin down like the bird at the heart of its telling, this is a stunning piece.

Second place: The Mothers
This story throws us right back into that social crush we’ve all been missing. But it offers not only a vivid picture of a birthday barbecue for a small child, with all the families piling into help, but also a sharp reminder of how fenced and guarded our social circles can be. The form is worked perfectly: a ‘breathless paragraph’ where the pace never lets up (I counted only three punctuation marks in the whole piece, including the last full stop). As we read, we feel the pressures building in ourselves. And so we share that moment of release and intimacy at the end. A moving story that ultimately celebrates the uniqueness of each of us and of our bonds of love.

Third place: That’s All There Is, There Ain’t No More
Again and again, this piece attempts to describe the game of cribbage. Again and again, the real story – a relationship between father and son – interrupts. ‘Hermit-crab form’ – where a flash uses an existing form, here an encyclopedia entry – is tricky: it can end up reading like a cold writing exercise. This writer takes that form and breaks it down so cleverly. Only one-third of the words are about the relationship, but it can’t help bursting through in various tones and from various angles. We learn a lot about cribbage, but little about the problem between the two. The ending is perfectly pitched: we feel this piece could have gone on and on, and still got no further forward. Like the fractured relationship at its heart, we live those circular frustrations as we read and yearn for a happier ending that just won’t come.
Highly Commended: If Everyone Was A Superhero
It’s often said that humour doesn’t do well in competitions. I can understand why. What we each find funny varies widely, and it’s hard for that essential element of surprise to hold up to repeated readings. This piece plays with a light absurdity and a scenario that we can all picture and rerun for ourselves with a smile. When the shift in tone comes, around halfway, the humour makes the hope in the final section all the more poignant and profound. A deeply moving piece, that invites us all to imagine ourselves so easily into its heart.

Highly commended: On Rannoch Moor
What happens in this story? A group of well-equipped ramblers go for a hike. They get lost. They get very wet. We don’t know any more about them than what they take with them, though I can picture them very well from that. The lead character here is the setting. The implacable unreadable moor thrums with attitude. Do they make it back? I’m not convinced. A stripped-out horror story, this deceptively simple piece highlights the arrogance with which we approach the natural world.

Sharon Telfer, October 2021

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