1st Taking Off - Clare Scurfield, London
2nd Robot Wasps - Adam Marek, Potton, Bedfordshire
3rd Morgan's Pomade for the Misses Linster - Ian Madden, London & Sohar
Runners up (in alphabetical order)
The Loves of Michaelis - Jad Adams, London
Steady Hand - Carol Baxendale, Norwich
The Butcher's Daughter - Jane Borodale, Bath
Rose Red - Carys Davies, Lancaster
The Missing Eye - Angie Farrow, Palmerston North, New Zealand
The Silver Sugar Sifter - Alexandra Fox, Hackleton, Northants
The King of Love - Wayne Price, Aberdeen
How to Eat an Elephant - Kathryn Simmonds, London
The Most Ordinary Man in the World - Laura Solomon, London
Horatio's Flowering Armpit - Ian Wild, County Cork, Eire
1st The Lovers - Carole Bromley, York
2nd Dog Day Afternoon - Pauline Keith, Lancaster
3rd Canaries - Candy Neubert, Dartington, Devon
Runners up (in alphabetical order)
Bloodletting - Lesley Bankes-Hughes, Oxford
Undercurrent - Sally Clark, Solihull
Winter Perils - John Feakins, Beccles, Suffolk
Almost - Helen Lovelock-Burke, Barnet, Herts
Pie - Ellie Madden, Bridport, Dorset
Flint Picking - Malcolm Moore, Abingdon, Oxon
Winter Walking on Hampstead Heath - Samantha Peters, London
The Whole Red Sky - Julie Ann Rowell, Totnes, Devon
Farm Boys - David Swann, Brighton
The Dog’s Out - Patricia Zontelli, London
I was sent the top 50 stories, drawn from a submission of approximately 4,000, to judge anonymously. 49 of the stories I received were of a very high standard, and it was not easy to pick 13 prize-winners from among 49 accomplished writers, all of them writing in different styles about different subjects.
What I did try to do was to represent, as a judge, the demands of the short story form insofar as I understand them: and the short story is not very forgiving. Because it is so short, everything in it must contribute to the final effect. There is no room for charming meanders or inspired digressions, unless they subtly deepen one of the story's central themes. A story is more, and sometimes less, than a piece of wonderful or atmospheric writing; it is more than an intriguing piece of characterisation, or psychological realism. I think it should involve some transformation of consciousness. A short story must go somewhere, and actually arrive in the span of its short life. It should have a beginning, a middle, and most of all, an end.
It was at this final fence that many very strong writers, frustratingly, slipped in my mind from main prize-winners to smaller prize-winners, or fell out of the prize stakes altogether. Among these last were many people I would guess to be natural novelists. Finding an ending defeated them because, I guess, they wanted to go on. But the end of the short story is its most important point. It is the pivot from which the reader looks back, in his or her mind's eye, over the whole story, and everything that has gone before should seem inevitable. Of course endings are the hardest thing to write, and I am sure that many other short story-writers are like me and try again and again to find that perfect ending, and still fall short. What feels like a perfect ending one day to the writer, feels like a wrong turning the next: in the end you just have to send it off.
Were there any popular themes? There were several powerful stories about childlessness and about illness, mental and physical. I would say that 75% of the stories were predominantly sad, which made me enjoy those with flashes of humour and irony more. There were a few joyful surrealists, and a few who really exulted in the pleasure and fun of language, to season a general linguistic restraint that occasionally dipped towards the drab.
I have already said that the short story form, unlike plays and novels, is unforgiving. As a judge, I forgave the occasional missed word and, due to their sheer number, misplaced apostrophes, but I was harder on some very good writers who had clearly not quite had the time to check the narrative for major inconsistencies, or who had left in passages that did not fit the story. But then, judging a prize is a wholly artificial process. In real life, writing is sent off to publishers, and if they see work of enormous promise with a few faults, they are likely to say 'Yes', thinking 'We can edit this.' In a competition, by contrast, everything has to be viewed as a finished product. So to those many good and original writers who seem not to have made their mark among the prize-winners today, you probably did make an impression on me as I read, but I was looking for the stories that came closest to perfection. Because that, alas, is what the short story form, in all its intransigent beauty, demands.
I read 100 poems from the 4,000 plus submitted for the prize. They came with a warning that it had been 'quite hard to find 100 poems of good enough quality' - and I have to say, I can see what this means. Although there's no doubting the sincerity of the entries, they do pose a number of questions. Are people writing rather than reading poems (or aren't they reading enough)? Is too much credit given to 'spontaneous overflow' and not enough to the hard work of revising? Is too little thought given to audience? Is there a general retreat from the opportunities offered by traditional form? I'd say the answer to all these things was: emphatically yes.
The task of choosing winning poems was made harder by a striking (but not entirely unexpected) recurrence of certain subjects: love, death, sick relatives, 'what I saw on my holidays', children, the beauties of Nature. It meant there was precious little surprise in the reading - surprise being the element Elizabeth Bishop memorably identified as the one she looked for most eagerly when judging competitions. In other words, I wished I'd found more evidence of people stretching their imaginations, and transforming experience, rather than (often perfectly decently) reporting on it.
One other thing: the poems received over the internet seemed (even) less revised than the ones sent by post. Is there something about the immediacy of the medium which actually encourages a lack of 'work'? Again, the answer is probably yes.