Tim’s General Comments
Damn, but this was hard. And inspiring. And fun. But hard.
I don’t think there were many stories in my long list of 50 which didn’t at some point occupy a seat, however briefly, in my short list of 20. Such was the standard.
You will doubtless disagree with some of my choices. I disagreed with some of my choices. But, in the end, the stories which made my final list of five were those which battled for my attention, won it, and held it for a long time after I’d finished reading them.
There were many stories on the long- and short lists which were beautifully structured and beautifully written; some which evoked powerful and/or tragic historical events; several which found new and clever ways to harbour time-worn human truths; which experimented with form and language in ingenious, original ways. To the writers of these wonderful tours de force of flash, I can only apologise there weren’t more places in the winners’ enclosure.
Ultimately, I was drawn to those stories which felt perhaps less formulaic, less heavily structured; stories where character and mood were granted at least the same weight as plot and theme, and which didn’t necessarily give up all their secrets on first, or even fifth, reading.
Thanks to everyone who entered this amazing competition for giving me such difficult decisions to make, to the readers who did such a great job of whittling the original entries down to the long list, and, of course, to Jude and the team at Ad Hoc Fiction for the honour of being its judge.
1ST PLACE – ‘Remembered Yellow’
The more you read this deceptively simple and unsettling story, the more sprouts from between the building blocks of its short sentences – like the yellow flowers growing amongst the stones of the railway track, which give the piece its title. To really get a sense of what’s going on here, you need to read it out loud; for the insistent rhythm and looping repetition, mirroring the ominous approach of the train. It’s the story of a small flower which has miraculously moved from extinction to life, and a troubled narrator who – perhaps? – is heading in the opposite direction: two trains passing. A story of interlocking beginnings and ends, it fittingly ends on the word ‘beginning’. Incidentally, the wonderful, pivotal line, ‘I keep my eye on things that aren’t going anywhere in case they go somewhere’ is, for me, almost the very definition of the way flash fiction works.
2nd PLACE – ‘Failure to Thrive’
This beautiful, sad, darkly funny story is underpinned by its freewheeling musical cadence and punctuated throughout by a startling cascade of trippy imagery – ‘Lou steadies me with his fork-fingered hand’ / ‘the moon rises like a refrigerator light’. The couple deal with their grief and loss in the way many of us do – by self-medicating (or, as here, medicating each other) with drugs. The results described are both comic and surreal. And yet, however fast they run, ultimately they are unable to outrun their pain; the technicolor whizz-bangs finally giving way to an exhausted, almost childlike plea for forgiveness in the devastating last sentence.
3rd PLACE – ‘To All the Copies of Us’
This story washes over you, in wave after paragraph-wave of acutely observed details, building to a final crash of pain and despair. The repeated toasts – ‘To the…’ / ‘To the…’ / ‘To the…’ – are glasses raised in ironic eulogy to a tragic, drunk father who, despite his flaws, appears to have tried, if ultimately failed, to hold himself and what remains of his family together. More than anything, though, it is the voice of the narrator in which the power of this story resides; the voice of a child who has lost even the not-very-much they had left.
Highly Commended – ‘My Daughter the Wolf Therian’<
Elsewhere, I have written (well, tweeted) of my slight allergy to the ubiquity of wolves and crows in flash fiction; there is definitely something about the restricted length of a piece of flash which seems to act as bait to the mystic end of the animal spectrum. (By contrast, there are very few aardvarks.) But this story succeeds brilliantly, mainly I think because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While there are certainly sinister hints at something darker throughout, the everyday references – Tik-Tok, a cheeky younger brother, a faux-fur tail for a school dressing-up day – keep the overall mood light, while the comic ‘wink’ of the ending is delicious and perfect.
Highly Commended – ‘Diamonds in the Earth’
There is so much here contained in the perfect harmony of a single sentence and the curved arc of a falling baseball. We are not told if the boy’s father is angry/disappointed when he finds his son wearing his mother’s clothes and make-up, but certainly we feel the boy’s panic at being discovered echoed in his desire to make things ‘right’ by catching the baseball, and thereby ‘reclaiming’ his masculinity in the eyes of his father. In its clash between traditional macho expectation and questions of sexual identity, this story feels both real and timely.