‘All judging is arbitrary and personal.’ This was Kate Atkinson’s opening remark in her report as judge of the Bridport short story competition back in 2001. So, some consolation to the thousands who hadn’t won.
I read the report carefully. I intended to enter the competition the following year. What did this particular judge look for? ‘That elusive something that sends us away knowing our lives have been improved in some small indefinable way…every good story is a journey at the end of which the reader and the writer gain the satisfaction of having been taken somewhere. Somewhere else.’
This was inspiring advice. Every one of the short-listed stories published in the 2001 Bridport story collection had achieved this effect. If only one could write like that!
Tobias Hill, the judge in 2002, pointed out in his report that not all good writing makes good short fiction. ‘The short story has its own particular demands and it is not a short cut to a novel, or a poem unpacked from its shrinkwrap, or a play with the exits and pursuing bears all painstakingly painted in.’ Many of the Bridport entries ‘didn’t really understand what the short story is about, or what it is capable of doing.’ Mine was evidently one of them.
Rose Tremain made some pungent – and ultimately helpful – comments in her report in 2003. ‘It is as hard to write a really first-rate short story as it is to write a really first-rate poem. Both need a strong informing idea. Both demand an economy of means… Very few stories…had any poetic coherence. Very few had tight plotting. Very few sounded any original note and very few were either moving or funny.’
What did the winning ones have in common? ‘A sense that the writer knows what she/he is doing. Good writing is like a boat which doesn’t leak, which has a sure hand at the helm.’
A nice nautical allusion for those of us who feel all at sea when it comes to short stories – and something to keep us on course when we enter this year’s writing competitions.