Our judge's feedback 2006
Read our judge's feedback below and pick up tips for your own writing.
All these stories have been published in our anthology 39 Emergency Exits
Judge D says: As usual it has been both a privilege and a simultaneously agonising process to decide the winner of this year's competition. We short-listed a wide variety of stories this year, all of which had their own strengths, but which are not easily comparable... and my feedback below is intended to be constructive, although as always, feel free to disagree with me on our Discussion Board! Comments made on the discussion board have also been taken into account, although one of the changes we are going to make next year is to limit the short-list to a maximum of six, as part of the feedback we have received is that if too many stories are posted online, people feel less able to comment on them. We have continued to assess stories using the following criteria as guidelines.
First Runner-up: Storming the Citadel
A great voice to this story, with a very credible stalker who cannot seem to accept the fact that he has been dumped, and who will go to extreme lengths to break into his ex-girlfriend's flat in the middle of the night. Even the minor characters such as the petrol station attendant are painted comprehensively in only a few words, and the pictures provide a means for Ray to go to extremes which seem almost like normal behaviour! Finally, a classic twist at the end, which was expertly concealed throughout, and is it because she is so used to his eccentric behaviour that she doesn't scream as soon as she realises there is an intruder?!
Second Runner-up: Chameleons
A compact plot with clever twist when we realise who the target of the attack is, and with the subtly revealed dramatic irony that she has been shot by a little old lady... a character who is so well drawn that she clearly inhabits both of the domains this writer is describing: her army mind still forms the framework for her world, but now living within the constraints of an old people's home, making her adept at using the camouflage of the natural aging process. The pictures are incorporated into the story in a very natural unfurling of the plot, with the reader being made to feel satisfied with the slickness of the murder, and then being touched by the humility of this serial killer recongnising her own frailty.
Third Runner-up: The Job
A very well put-together story as we hear the plotting of a gang that is clearly up to no good, and these men are brought to us as likeable characters who are nevertheless capable of a terrible kidnapping or murder. The anticipation is drawn out well as they home in on their targets in the park, with a twist that turns out as an unexpectedly happy ending and notably brings in the park bench as a central focus of the plot. In this story we also see one of the more imaginative uses of the ladder, as a means of putting spotlights up in the trees.
2006 Winning Entry: Losing a Mate
A beautifully narrated piece bringing in details through descriptive turns of phrase which avoid being overbearing, and the characterisation of the couple is one of the things that makes this story work so well: we can understand how strongly Faith falls for Shaun and therefore how distraught she is at realising that they have gone too far after the party. None of the pictures is brought into the plot tenuously, and in fact it is at the petrol station that her fizzing starts, again with dialogue that is alive and develops the characterisation of the main players' relationship in an unobtrusive manner. Through to the end both Faith and Shaun stay in character: her overly worrying about analysing the relationship, and him instinctively following a simple 'take-it-as-it comes' approach. Which means the question remains, of course, in the up and down rollercoaster world of starting out on relationships, whether everything will turn out happily ever after or will it turn out to have been a mistake after all?
A completely different style of narrative, which allows the writer to give us a strong feel for this character, and making us wonder if he is truly the misunderstood altruist that he is making himself out to be, trapped by unfortunate circumstance. The style is creative, without use of any narrative other than the defendant's explanation, and the pictures all fit neatly into his reconstruction. His explanation does not allow him to be pre-judged as guilty, and a reader is invited to ponder throughout how they would respond as a member of a jury: maybe you are one who is initially inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, until the final section of his explanation cleverly answers this dilemma with an ending that makes clear he has been taking his listeners for a ride and exposes the bare-faced cheek of his nonetheless ingenious attempt - full credit to this writer for drawing us on this journey.
The Meaning of Life
Certainly the most imaginative use of the pictures - fitting four of the five pictures into an art exhibition was a stroke of creative genius, and as such the story also opens up a theme of contemporary debate which many readers would be able to associate with. The clever explanations of the way the pictures could relate to a quest for the meaning of life are done so well that I even started wondering if these photos had subconsciously been chosen that way! This story has a nice twist and would have been an even stronger contender in the competition if elements of the narrative and dialogue had flowed more seamlessly into one another, but it is an insightful story that is hopefully a promise of a great future for this young writer.
Well, I can tell you that I never checked out Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code anagrams on a piece of paper in the way that I had to check out Pat's anagrams: certainly a very clever trick, with a fast-moving plot twisting around it. The characters are not made to play their cards too soon, and all of the pictures play their part in the narrative - with a clever angle on the use of the key. The main twist in the story is saved until the end: just when we think the plot has twisted to implicate the petrol station owner, we are brought a bigger twist with the realisation that Chemyl has pulled off an ingenious operation of her own.
Weddings and Wisdom
An altogether different genre, with an ongoing extension of the incredulous being increasingly drawn out through the story. Normally it would be a farcical concept to have a bride and a bridesmaid climbing up a ladder to enter the registry office but the narrative and style have successfully brought us on a journey which makes this a fitting ending, complete with the bride's sense of achievement being matched by the groom's cancellation. The pictures are all brought into the story, but the strength of this entry is in the style of writing, and innovation such as the line 'Boots... All right.' I admit that I actually considered suggesting that we edit this line out of the story for publication but in fact it tells us so much in only three words that it is an example for other writers in how to convey characterisation in a concise way - with the important consideration that it completely fits with the tone of the story.
Well done to all our short-listed and published writers!
Well done to our £200 winner, Lydia Jones of Derrington, Staffordshire!