Judging the Bath Short Story Award
You’ve done your bit: created, written and edited the most fabulous piece of fiction, so you might well wonder what happens to your story once you’ve let it go. Basically, there are 5 stages:
- Processing: done by Steve, our administrator, who separates contact details from the stories. He then sends the stories to a central account from where they’re forwarded to the reading team.
- The readers: currently we have 10 on our team, both sexes, a range of ages, spanning 5 decades of reading experience. Most are writers, published and unpublished, some with an MA in Creative Writing. All have a common goal – to find the best story of the year. Each story is read by 2 readers who give it an independent mark to show whether it has longlist/shortlist/ winning potential. The 2 readers don’t have to agree; if one reader feels strongly the story should go forward, then the story is sent to another reader until a decision is made. We have no formal criteria but a winning story has to ‘knock your socks off’.
- Longlist/Shortlist: about 6 -7 weeks after the close Jude, Anna and I meet to discuss the potential longlist (usually c. 4-5% of the entries). Invariably, we have to eliminate about 30 – 40 suggested stories. The best bit is sharing and enjoying the writing. Each story reaching the longlist table is a contender for the main prize. What a privilege to be entrusted with a writer’s potential. This is a long all-day ‘meeting’ which can spill over into a second day as each story is read aloud; this allows us to focus on language, rhythms as well as content. Sentences that jar really stand out, which is why my top tip is to read your work out loud before sending. Usually, a tentative shortlist emerges at this point. And, a bit like the Man Booker, we all have our favourites!
That said, for the past two years, we’ve been in agreement about the shortlist. There is also the tedious process of entering all the marks into a database (still anonymous) so we can be sure we’ve not missed an entry. At this point we publish a list of the longlisted stories, followed a few days later by the shortlist.
- Judging the winner: nothing to do with us! We send our shortlist to the judge – this year, we’re privileged to have literary agent Carrie Kania from Conville & Walsh – and wait excitedly for the results c.3-4 weeks. It’s only when the shortlist has been decided we find out who the authors are and that’s really thrilling. Perhaps they’re people we ‘know’ from Twitter, writers we admire, local Bathonians or authors from ten time zones away. Maybe they’ve already been successful or possibly this will be the first step on their writing path?
- Results: there’s nothing more exciting than phoning the winners as Anna found last time when she called Elinor Nash to tell her ‘The Ghost Boy’ had won 1st Prize
That was a wonderful day – spreading a little happiness.
The local prize, sponsored by Mr B’s Emporium, one of our great indy bookshops, was presented at the shop itself to Anne Corlett for ‘The Language of Birds’. Other prize winners, who live too far way, were sent their prizes by post.
Finally: what makes a winning story?
It’s difficult to define but a story that lingers and remains with the reader has to be special. Winning stories change the way we think about the world; they teach us something new; make us laugh or cry – move us in some way. They can be of any genre but, to be a winner, they must be exquisitely written –the prose must sing. Voices will be secure and we, the reader, will feel confident in the writer’s skill to follow his or her path and make it our own.
And, on a final note, good luck to you all. We’re writers too and know exactly how it feels to wait for the congratulatory phone call or email – that never comes. Oh well!
BSSA co-founder & co-organiser
Write a story in four weeks?
The Bath Short Story Award 2015 closes on 27th April, so there are four weeks for you to draft, edit and finish a story. It’s possible. I’ve gathered tips from interviews with the last three authors we’ve posted on the interview pages – Paul McVeigh, Tania Hershman and Antony Doerr, to help you start and finish.
So here we go:
Before you write: You may have had the story in your head for years, like Paul McVeigh. It’s been percolating and can come out now. Paul also keeps a travel journal – ‘the stimulus shakes his brain’ If you have one, check it for ideas that really interest you. Another way to get going is to warm up with free-writing – five minutes of uncensored non-stop writing. Memories and ideas which have energy can emerge.
In competitions, Tania Hershman has seen many stories on certain topics – elderly parents with dementia for example. Have you a new take on a familiar topic? What do you want to say? For the Bath Short Story Award, the limit is 2200. But you can still write a much shorter piece for the competition. There is no lower word limit.
Paul writes: ‘Beginnings are crucial to keep me reading’. Your first draft story may begin in the wrong place –so always go back to check the beginning when the draft is finished. Even in the first draft, it is good to remember not to begin with long winded rambles, descriptions of dreams or the weather. If you begin by rambling or with a cliched situation, you can lose energy as a writer and will never hook the reader to read beyond even the first paragraph.
A story does need an event, a dilemma, an action. Paul quotes Australian writer Cate Kennedy who says at the beginning of a story, the writer makes a promise to a reader and that promise has to be fulfilled or the reader will feel cheated.
Before you write, you may have the title in your head, or you could title the story when it’s finished and the story has finally emerged. Tania says a good title is important in a competition to help the story stand out from a huge pile of entries. If it is the tenth time filter readers have seen a story called The Visit or The Day It All Changed they may feel jaded. She adds that a story needs to live up to the title – so be careful not to make it too interesting or creative. Paul says a ‘good title enters my head subliminally, like someone hitting a tuning fork before the music begins.’
Progressing the story and redrafting.
Tania says she loves stories that make the reader work and don’t give too much away. The more she works, the more she becomes involved with the story. If you’ve written the story one way, rewrite in a different tense or pov. Tell it backwards, or as a list. You can have fun with this. Paul wants to be moved, to laugh, to feel enriched. He loves it when a story makes his ideas about the world become more three dimensional. Antony Doerr argues that “we write to learn what we don’t know, we write towards the mysteries, the things we can’t articulate but believe are there, feel are there”
Something needs to happen in the story, to the protagonist, in you as the writer and also in the reader. You may want to spend a least a week going back to the story, tinkering with it, adding bits, removing characters, putting in sensory details. Think of the stories that linger with you, some for many years. Why?
Ending and Editing.
Tania reads a lot of unpublished stories where the story has stopped, but has not ended. In a short story the ending is vital – a story is almost all about its ending – the conventional wisdom being that it should be ‘surprising yet inevitable.’ Paul suggests endings can be a space for a reader to ‘take a breath so that the story is alive afterwards and not shut down.’
Antony writes about the importance of fine-tuned editing before you send a story out into the world ‘Examine every single word in your story and ask yourself: Is it a lazy choice?’ Make your prose absolutely worthy of the reader’s time. “Make the dream that unfolds inside your sentences so persuasive, seamless and compelling that your reader won’t put it down.’
There’s many more writing tips and advice from the authors who’ve we’ve interviewed during the past three years on the interview pages.
Finally, we suggest ‘sleeping on your story’ before you send it in. After one night, something might come to you which will add the finishing touch. After that, don’t leave it too long. Send it off. As Tania wisely says: ‘If the deadline has inspired you to write something new, then you’re already a winner.’
March 26th, 2015
Titles and first sentences – 1. Five women writers
To get you thinking about how the two go together as a hook, I picked some short story collections randomly from my shelves. As it happened, they were all collections by women. (I promise to choose a group of male writers tomorrow). I read the stories long ago and now can’t remember what happens next. I’ve noted my reactions and why I’m hooked to read on.
Alice Munro – Save The Reaper (from her collection The Love Of A Good Woman)
“The game they played was almost the same one that Eve had played with Sophie, on long dull car trips when Sophie was a little girl”.
Here, I was hooked by how they would play this game, and whether its name was “Save The Reaper”. Reaper also has associations with the Grim Reaper. We also know from this sentence that Eve is likely to be Sophie’s mother Where is she going? Why are they making a long journey?
Grace Paley –Wants –(from her collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute)
A simple one word title. I think it sharpens the impact of the first sentence which is:
“I saw my ex-husband in the street.” Immediately I was interested in what the narrator might want from the ex, if anything and what does he want from her although none of this is said.
Tessa Hadley –A Card Trick – (from her collection Sunstroke)
“It was 1974: not a good year, clothes-wise if you were an eighteen-year-old girl, tall with thick, curling hair and glasses.”
Here the character hooks me – someone out of place. I wonder what the card trick is? Does she play it? Is it a metaphor? Is there a sleight of hand in this story?
Edith Pearlman – Binocular Vision – (from her collection Binocular Vision)
“For his fortieth birthday, my father was given a pair of binoculars”
The title is the first big hook because of the phrase ‘binocular vision’, which suggests both seeing things from a great distance and close up. Also, we’re given the age of the father and in the first sentence, we don’t know whether he likes the binoculars. I’m intrigued to find out what happens to them, how old the narrator is and his/her relationship with the father.
Lorrie Moore – You’re Ugly, Too. – (from her collection Like Life)
“You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal.”
I like the humour in this and wonder if this character (seems like a woman) thinks she is ugly. The towns are likely to be ugly. The inclusion of the word, ‘occasionally’ makes me wonder if she is going to go back or if the action will take place in one of these towns,
( A nod here to poet and Bath Spa MA tutor, Carrie Etter, who comes from the Illinois town called Normal)
In a bookshop, most people read the first paragraph of a story to see if they are hooked. I think all five writers above do a great deal to help us become involved with just the title and the first sentence. You could check your own short story titles and openers to see if they work together well. If you haven’t written your title yet, check how it goes with the first sentence/paragraph and adjust accordingly. You might also want to alter your first sentence to fit with the title.
Jude, BSSA team, February 18th.
Titles and First Sentences 2. Four male writers
Antony Doerr – Memory Wall (from the collection ‘Memory Wall’)
“Seventy-four-year-old Alma Konachek lives in Vredehoek, a suburb above Cape Town: a place of warm rains, big-windowed lofts and silent, predatory automobiles.”
The first sentence has such a strong sense of place. It’s the adjective ‘predatory’ connected interestingly with automobiles (rather than their owners) that hooks me. Chilling. And, as Alma is seventy-four, is she losing her memory?
You can read an interview with Antony Doerr on on the interviews page. (Scroll down a little). I asked him about the collection, ‘Memory Wall.’
Raymond Carver – Elephant (from the collection ‘ Elephant)
“I knew it was a mistake to let my brother have the money.”
Straight in there with a situation between two siblings. That’s a hook – simple and brilliant. The title is intriguing here. It doesn’t obviously go with the first sentence, but it made me wonder how an elephant is connected with the narrator’s relationship with his brother. There is also the idea of ‘the elephant in the room’. Is there something in this family that is secret or never discussed?
Colin Barrett – Diamonds (from the collection ‘Young Skins”)
“I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown looking only for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come.”
Here the strong voice and the marvellous use of language hooks me. The title seems ironic Can this character (must be male) as described, find something as precious as diamonds in his life? Maybe, but maybe not. And we have the phrase ‘prospects blown’ in the sentence, which makes me think of prospecting for diamonds without much luck. What is going to happen to him during the winter? I don’t imagine it will turn out well.
(This award winning story is online if you want to read on. A google search will easily find it)
Haruki Murakami – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
“When I closed my eyes, the scent of the wind wafted up towards me.”
I like the juxtaposition of ‘Blind Willow and Sleeping Woman’ I don’t know what ‘blind willow’ means but can see a Japanese ink drawing. The title, with its associations, is as poetic and dreamy as the first line.
If you check through all these first lines, you’ll notice a variety of view points and tenses. You could also consider if a particular view point or tense hooks you. It maybe worth trying out different view points and tenses in your story.
Jude, BSSA team, February 19th 2015