The 2021 Olga Sinclair Prize for Short Fiction – Judge’s Comments

It was with great pleasure, not to say humility, that I was asked to judge the 2021 Olga Sinclair Prize for Short Fiction, the results of which were announced this evening.

The theme of this year’s competition was ‘Lost’, to be interpreted in any way by the submitting authors, the only limit being the number of words. There were just under a hundred entries, which I read very closely over the course of a week, and despite what you might have heard – or assumed – about literary competitions, I can assure you I read every word and took notes on every entry. I also read ‘blind’, of course, having no idea of the identity of the writers. Neither did I confer with my old friend Helen Boorman-Rye, who judged the ‘Open Competition’, which had some crossover entries.

This reading experience was without exception an absolute joy. The range of styles and subjects was as diverse as it was impressive. There were stories of parents and children, of minds lost and found again, of witches, mermaids and castles that were not castles, of holidays that ended in disaster, folk tales, fairy tales and historical dramas. Settings and set-ups were wide and various, including places I know well and places I’ve never been and will never visit. Some stories were gentle and kind, some were hauntingly tragic, some were very funny, and some were downright Kafkaesque. The one consistent thing throughout, however, was the power of the voices telling these stories. There was a lot of talent and enthusiasm on display here and, quite frankly, it was a struggle to come up with a shortlist, let alone three winners. I hope I’ve chosen wisely, but to those of you who did not make the cut I would urge you not to be discouraged. Standards were high, making competition fierce, and maybe your entry was still a draft or two away from perfection. Although they didn’t quite get into the Top Ten, for example, I still think of the autistic kid resolutely looking for his mother in ‘Green Car Keys Broken, Nummy Broken’, the concluding interior monologue of ‘Bunny’, the gothic ambivalence of ‘A Prayer to Saint Anthony’, the beautiful whimsy of ‘Department for the collection, care and control of items dropped, forgotten or otherwise overlooked’, the checkpoint execution in ‘Missing’, and the drowning Victorian servant girl calling her real name to the elements in ‘Free Passage for a Single Woman’. And I could go on; these were great stories, full of personality and imagination that just needed some revision to bring out their absolute best. Remember the old adage: ‘Write without fear, edit without mercy.’

And this type of judging is always going to be necessarily subjective. It was interesting to note where Helen’s selections and mine corresponded, and where they didn’t. To give you an idea of what I was looking for in the entries, let me offer some advice…

  1. Consider and evaluate point of view and point of view characters. If you’re writing in the first person but the punchline is the narrator’s death, then you’ve created a paradox and probably want to think about the closed third person.
  2. Pay attention to setting. Don’t wax too lyrical – you don’t have much space – but don’t underwrite either. Aim for tight description, looking out for those little details that trigger recognition in the mind of the reader in evocative ways.
  3. Structure your story. Give it a beginning, a middle and an end. Build towards some sort of revelatory climax (James Joyce called these ‘epiphanies’) followed by a crisp denouement.
  4. Limit your cast of characters – you don’t have much space – and to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, start as close to the ending as you can.
  5. Don’t rely too heavily on dialogue at the expense of setting and figurative language.
  6. Always show, never tell. Avoid the passive voice aside from the odd brief summary between dramatic scenes if required. Think about narrative pace – make your story breathe.
  7. Tell a story – don’t be too cryptic or experimental.
  8. Polish to perfection. To quote Bernard Malamud: ‘I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times – once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.’

I hope this helps! Anyway, there was no ‘bad writing’ here; I was simply spoiled for choice. So, stick with it, all of you; keep writing and submitting your fiction to competitions, magazines, and anthologies. You’ll get there in the end, I promise. The secret is to keep telling stories.

OK then, here are the results. The runners up, in no particular order, are…

HOMECOMING by Christie Davies

This is a beautiful character study of working-class ‘numbness’ that artfully unfolds stories in the past and present of the protagonist until you dovetail them together in a surprising and brilliant way through the death of the swimmer and the revelation of his identity. You structure this story superbly and keep it readable despite the fact that the narrative is almost entirely reflective. You overcome the problem of passivity by having such a vividly realised and tragic protagonist and a powerful sense of place. Trish’s bleak world is utterly convincing, and symbolically balanced by the wonderful setting of the off-season seaside.

LOST AS ALL THESE STONES by Phillip Vine

There was something of the prose poem about this that appealed to me as an audacious structural choice. Normally, trying to cover a life in a short story overloads the text, but your structure and narrative voice makes it work, and the episodes in the life are crisp and vivid. The evocative opening description of the woman sets up what is, in effect, a love letter presented as a biography, leading to a powerful if not unsurprising denouement. You portray the alternative woman at various stages in her life well, with each iteration becoming more extreme without ever ceasing to be realistic and compelling. The voice of the devil holds it all together like the voice of Death in The Book Thief, though you shouldn’t give the game away with the Rolling Stones references. The ‘classic rock’ line is sweet, but you gild the lily with the song. Try revising so he just likes the Stones; the meaning will be clear enough. Similarly, lose the epigraph; it adds nothing and spoils the surprise. Otherwise, very nicely done.

LOST IN THE PAST by David Goodfellow

I love the structure here – the second person voice of the ‘guide’ revealing their life and the history of the family through the exhibits in the hoarder’s ‘museum’. I was hooked immediately because of this device, and the revelation of the text did not disappoint. Many entries took on the death of a parent and the sorting of the deceased’s possessions, but your exploration was by far the most quirky and original. The narrative voice is strong and funny, as well as self-deprecating and vulnerable, and I love the memories you develop out of the artifacts themselves, while all the while moving a central through line (plotline) forward that we don’t even realise until the end!

RESURRECTION by Iain Andrews

A very powerful story indeed, with a beautiful balance of political commentary and redemptive human interest. Your sense of place is excellent and conflating the Bosnian – I’m guessing – war with a natural disaster is an excellent premise. There’s a sort of a ‘return of the repressed’ here, with the protagonist reliving the loss of his family in a bombing raid while mechanically digging politicians out of a wrecked city hall; the implication being that these people are hardly worthy of being saved, having been either responsible for the war or the same kind of people that were responsible for the war: the ‘old men who couldn’t agree how to worship a common god’. The protagonist and first-person narrator is angry and rightly so. I love the way you shift him from cynicism and indifference to agreeing to help Ivona, and there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending either, which reintroduces hope to the narrative. This is structurally tight and well written.

SONG OF THE CHARNEL SQUARE AND THE VALE OF VOLES by Peter Hankins

This is a story that constantly surprises, and I love where you take it. It starts out like a conventional domestic hiking trip and then veers into a kind of satiric magic realism, with a bit of the ‘Sadeian Woman’ thrown in, sort of Jonathan Swift meets Angela Carter! It’s darkly comic as well; having the chauvinistic Roddy suddenly eaten was a wonderful move, after which the story takes an epic turn as years pass in the ‘interior’. Both protagonist and narrative voice are rich and compelling, and I like your world building a lot – it’s slightly fantastic and timeless but never over-the-top, with an atmospheric sense of setting that skirts between reality and fairy tale, creating rich symbolism. This is structurally solid with a good sense of pace, and your hero’s final decision not to return to civilisation is an excellent denouement.

TALES FROM THE LOST AND FOUND by Georgia Cook

This is just a lovely piece of magic realism: very tightly plotted, with a rich sense of place and an original and startling twist. You follow H.G. Wells’ law that there should only ever be a single fantastic event in a fantastic story, after which every other element should be realistic. By underplaying the fantasy, you really sell the premise. I loved the idea of the fairy warrior and the brief glimpse of the vanished world communicated with a kiss. You’ve structured this very well: it’s crisp and vivid, with not a word wasted but never underwritten. All I’d change is your third act, from ‘Jeremy slumped against the serving hatch’. I don’t think you need it. Try ending on ‘Then she was gone’ and see what you think. Otherwise, very nicely done.

TWO OF A KIND by Liz Andersen

This is a beautiful and tragic character study and is very well structured indeed. I love the way you weave in and out of the Tamsin’s memories to build up a portrait of a harsh and abused life all the while holding the story together with the frame of the lost sheep and the baby. By dipping in and out of key episodes in her reflective narrative, you are able to cover a lot of biographical ground without overloading the text. The pattern of abuse is heart-breaking and authentic, the final obscenity coming when the old man she is caring for tries it on. You show this with the wings of a butterfly wrapped around a hammer – your written style is superb:

Two days later Jack McClelland was found in the yard, slumped in a pool of blood, a knife embedded in his side.  

“Must ‘ave fallen on it,” was all Tamsin said when they came to collect his body.

This says it all: her strength, the way the world of men constantly betrays her, and her ultimate indifference to them all. People don’t understand how short a scene can be while still packing such a dramatic punch. The third act is poignant and inevitable, as good tragedy must be, with the baby dying and Tamsin showing signs of something terrible. This is a powerful and deeply moving story.

Finally (drumroll), the winners of the 2021 Olga Sinclair Prize for Short Fiction are…

In third place, MAZE by Phillip Vine

You have a crisp written style and an excellent sense of pace. This is thus a very punchy story, the prose suiting the edgy, abrasive natures of George and his family. There’s a starkness about your writing, a ‘stripped-down’ quality that at the same time is never underwritten because of your eye for striking detail and your ear for authentic dialogue. The opening line immediately hooks the reader, and your follow-through does not disappoint. I love the way you describe George, with a kind of relentless physicality that has never really lost the long-buried child within, and the way he interacts with his family and Merciful Flower. This is not a likeable man; he’s a bit larger than life, which suits your genre, but you never push him into the clichés of horror or melodrama. Not only is this an original and intelligent premise, you play it out beautifully in your structure, leading to a striking denouement. All I would change are the epigraphs. You don’t need them, the story does all this for you. Try a version without these. Needless front matter gets in the way in novels, but in short stories it really gets in the way.

In second place, THE WITCH by David Butler

As far as placement goes, this was a tough choice! The structural integrity and balance of the winning story just edged you into second place, but it was very close. I was immediately taken by the narrative voice of this story, which is rich and poetic, making the prose at once authentic and evocative. Your setting is thus beautifully realised and atmospheric, and you play on the codes of the gothic to build up the tragic pariah Bridie Hegarty through the eyes of the kids, while their parents see something different but equally outcast. There’s a strong sense of post-war rural Irish community and you convey a lot of information about the locals without ever overloading the narrative or your main story arc. The little flashes of the ‘real’ Bridie are wonderful: her background as a war nurse, then the story of the ‘treasure box’, while you’re also moving Siobhán’s story forward too, until both dovetail in a startling climax. Ending on the kid thinking the abortion is the ‘witch’ getting her is a masterstroke. Very nicely done.

And, in first place, CROSSING THE BAR by Jo Tiddy

Although up against some formidable competition, this was the clear winner for me for several reasons. This has everything I want from a short story. It’s structurally beautiful, with a distinct beginning, middle and end, each act representing an unexpected but in retrospect inevitable turn of the plot leading to a powerful and evocative ending. As a character study it’s impressive, with Billy’s situation vividly revealed through his inner and outer processes – his thoughts and memories, and his actions in the present of the story. You really catch his love of the sea as well as the trap of it: it’s low-paid, hard work and you can see where he’s heading in old age through his irascible uncle and his broken father. Setting is equally well realised, with some vivid and authentic description building Billy’s working class world. The central premise – the mermaid – is a lovely piece of magic realism, and I like the way you keep every other element of the story realistic. It really adds depth. The final line is haunting. Even your title is perfect! Congratulations!

Again, thank you to everyone who took part in this competition. As far as I’m concerned, you’re all winners. And, as I said, please don’t worry if you didn’t place this time. Just keep writing. You’ll get there. And thank you, too, to everyone at the Norwich Writers’ Circle that made this happen, especially Helen, Phyllida, and Iain. As ever, it’s been a pleasure and I look forward to the Anthology!

All the Best

Steve

Photograph by Johnny Briggs

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