MULTI STORY SHORT STORY COMPETITION RESULTS

This blog post contains the full adjudication of the Multi Story short story competition for March/April.  The winners and short list may be seen on the Multi-Story website http://www.multi-story.co.uk/.  This blog contains the full long list, including items for which my comments have not previously been published for reasons of space..
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to judge this competition, because the 16 short-listed stores have been without exception an interesting read. Having taken the risk of showing their work to others, the authors are entitled to a considered review and I’ve done my best to summarise their entries so they may see if I’ve understood them, and I’ve commented on the strengths and weaknesses. Except for the winners, the order of the reviews simply reflects the order of my reading and not the merit of the stories. There are many forms of short written pieces: essays, blogs and reviews, for example. This exercise has made me think about the specific qualities of a good short story, and some of the entries failed to make the final cut only because they did not exploit the form to its best advantage.
The winning entry is a gem. It is too dark to be the most enjoyable story, but to my mind it was near perfect in harmonising all the elements of the form and the writing was very assured. The runner-up is also very accomplished. The specific quality that attracted me was the story’s truthfulness and its imaginative use of the “container” trope. The third prize goes to a story that exploited the brevity of the form to deliver a tense, dangerous narrative. The use of the present tense and the “count down” was very effective and the ending is intriguing. I ought to mention one of the also-rans. The Very End of the Affair is a brilliant comic piece and worthy of a prize, but I didn’t select it because I thought it was a review sketch masquerading as a short story and not the real thing.
So here they all are in more detail

FIRST PRIZE – The Artist’s Wife
Summary
The story is set in 1937 and inspired by a real painting. The Narrator is the wife of a famous painter and she mentally rehearses the story of her marriage – her husband’s philandering, her stillborn child, her attraction to a German friend, Kurt – all while sitting for an elegant portrait. Contemporary political events are mentioned and this is important not just as period background but because the Narrator intends to run away to Germany with Kurt after first poisoning her husband.
Comment
This is a super story that fully exploits the form and harmonises all the elements. The cool but impassioned voice captures the character of the Narrator perfectly, revealing both her sufferings and her cruelty. The style is flawlessly adapted to its objectives. The setting of a portrait is an excellent device for contrasting the illusory surface of the Narrator’s life with the reality beneath it. A terrific piece of work and worthy winner of the competition.

SECOND PRIZE – My life is spent containing things
Summary
A middle-aged woman, evidently suffering from mild depression, meditates upon her life, including an inadequate and philandering husband. She frames her thoughts around the trope of the “containers” that enable her to exercise control over her life.
Comment
I liked this story. I found the voice convincing and thought that the use of the trope of “containers” was original and insightful and that the tale as a whole had a psychological truth. This quality attracted me even more than the writing.

THIRD PRIZE – Down Time
Summary
In the middle of a storm, an unnamed, unlikeable captain of commerce contemplates his past while enjoying a glass of wine and a picnic before descending into a specially constructed underground chamber that sits in the path of the hurricane.
Comment
The style is very spare and uses the present tense to convey a sense of tension and immediacy. The use of a countdown towards an event that is not obvious to the reader until the very end creates a sense of danger. The style is in harmony with the only character, about whom we are told very little except that he is a rich, risk-taking shit – which is all we need to know. This is very effectively done.
This is a dark story and its conclusion is open to interpretation. It isn’t clear if the underground room is a tomb or an engine by which the “hero” asserts the triumph of his will over Nature and his enemies. One suspects that both interpretations are true.
I chose this story for third prize for its general competence and I thought it original and provocatively ambiguous.

Kissed by the Muse
Summary
The Narrator is a middle-aged garden furniture designer who takes himself to a Greek island to recover the artist of his youth. His work is lifeless until he meets and is kissed by the mysterious Cali, whereupon he discovers that he can see and depict the characters of other people. He becomes a lotus eater making a living by drawing portraits of tourists.
Comment
I do not like to criticise this piece because it is a competently written with an effective sketch of the setting. However it has serious problems and the writer needs steering in order to deploy genuine ability. (1) The narrative structure is a confused by several time frames and the location of the character Anthony is not made clear initially (curable and well within this writer’s ability); (2) the concept of a muse is stereotypical and the character of Cali does not plausibly exist and this has an impact on the dialogue, which is inauthentic (this is conceptual and cannot be cured in this story); (3) more fundamentally, the Narrator comes over as self-centred without the nous even to question Cali about who the hell she is (which he can’t without unravelling the mystery that she is a “muse”) so that I frankly do not believe he can see and depict the characters of strangers and this contradicts the premise that he acquires insight as a result of his experience. The story is founded on an untruth. The truth is we understand others through empathy and thoughtful observation, not magical kisses, and the writer needs to reflect whether he/she is going to engage with actual rather than fantastic relationships – life as we experience it being generally more fascinating to an adult readership unless one is John Fowles writing the Magus (and even here there is a truthfulness ). The real if unintended message of the story is that middle aged men would like to laze around on an island and have sex with beautiful Greek girls. It has my vote.

Nerissa
Summary
The location is an unnamed but probably Mediterranean island. Nerissa, a vibrant girl in her teens (I imagine), meets a boy, Pablo, on a beach. Strangers, they are immediately and innocently attracted to each other and spend the day cycling and enjoying the island. At close of day Pablo invites her to meet with him again and Nerissa says she will. However it is revealed to the reader that she is in fact a mermaid.
Comment
The style, settings, dialogue and characterisation are all consistent in conveying the innocent charm of this story. The narrative is direct and immediately comprehensible. The writing is competent though the author has the common beginner’s failing of not being able to see a noun without attaching a retinue of adjectives – easily corrected.
Enjoyment of this story demands that the reader buy into a world of teenage magic. In the real world, Pablo would have interrogated Nerissa more about her background and tastes, but, if mishandled, this would have blown the mystery. Nevertheless the opportunity could have been taken to make Nerissa’s responses equivocal or evasive and so deepened it.
What is this story trying to tell us? Nerissa’s attempt to negotiate the boundary between mermaid and girl can be seen as a metaphor for teenage sexual awakening, and girls in this age group would be the readership for this nice story.

The good part of a rotten apple
Summary
We are in a post-Apocalypse Britain, where a tyrannical government hunts down and kills young girls in order to reduce the population. The unnamed Narrator is on the run with his daughter and scavenging for food and shelter. They encounter an old woman who in a manner reminiscent of the witch in Hansel and Gretel takes them in. The Narrator prevents her attempt at treachery, kills her and takes over her house for the time being.
Comment
This is written in good prose and uses the present tense to build up an atmosphere of menace. The setting and the background of the Apocalypse are vividly sketched and credible. The characters and dialogue are sparse but appropriate to the story. The apple of the title figures in the story as a metaphor for the light and shade of Life. Today the Narrator has a house – which is good. Tomorrow he may not have – which is a bummer.

Living the life
Summary
The Narrator is a female Coca Cola bottle trapped on a shelf and dependent on others for a life. We are given a brief insight into the hierarchy and snobbishness of bottle society before our heroine in bought by Terri, carted round the shops and finally taken home, where Terri pours her remains down the sink after Terri’s boyfriend suggests her bum is too big. Bottles are reincarnated, and a girl can dream. This one hopes to come back as quality crystal.
Comment
This is a humorous story of a whimsical rather than satirical kind, though the social observation is there. If one buys into whimsy, the style is effective at conveying it. Our heroine bottle is sufficiently characterised and the dialogue is naturalistic and credible. The final punch line, revealing the Narrator’s dreams, raises a grin.
The reader relates to this story because one can respond to the enforced passivity of the Narrator as a spectator of her own existence: the bottle is a metaphor for the humdrum life. However there is a problem in that her response to Terri’s handling of her is a sexual one, and the description feels masculine rather than Sapphic, and this confuses the intent of the story. It might have been more effective if the response had been more sisterly: girls jointly facing the world. That would have underlined the identity between the passivity and vulnerability of both the Narrator and Terri.

Keeping the village open
Summary
The village church needs repairs and the female Narrator describes the characters and antics of the committee that is dealing with the matter.
Comment
This is a very well-written comic tale of village life. The Narrator has a distinct wry and sometimes waspish voice, the other characters and dialogue are excellently done, and the setting and the dynamics of the committee are well realised. Its weakness is that it feels like a vignette rather than a story: I had no sense of where it was going: what point it was making; and to this extent I didn’t think it made best use of the form. That said, I enjoyed this piece very much. I thought it very accomplished writing failing only in exploiting the format of the short story.

The Organs
Summary
The organs of a body discuss the merits of euthanasia and the dominant role of the brain in decision-making. The body is invaded by a tumour who mocks the regular organs but is seen off by a dose of chemo.
Comment
This is a whimsical story largely in the form of dialogue, and the voice is that of a group of not-very-bright men talking in a pub about The Important Things Of Life. I struggled to find the point or what the conceit of anthropomorphic body organs contributed to the debate. The subject of euthanasia is too complex for this treatment and the argument is minimal and inconclusive. The debate about the dominance of the brain over the other organs is nonsensical since it presupposes that the other organs can think. The intervention of the tumour is to no purpose: he doesn’t contribute to the debate and his fate has nothing to do with the other “characters”. Ultimately this story is misconceived and this is a shame because the writer hints at abilities that are simply not displayed in the piece. He or she should nevertheless persevere and find a better vehicle to show his/her stuff.

Fat girl – thin girl
Summary
Though told in the third person, this is a study of how a girl suffering from bulimia sees her own condition.
Comment
This piece is heartfelt, well written and convincing to an outsider. However it feels like a portrait for inclusion in a larger novel and lacks the development and kick in the tail for a good short story.

Not a flying chance
Summary
It is wartime. Gordon, rear-gunner in a Lancaster, reviews his home life and relations with his mother, father and twin brother in a series of vignettes. It ends in a narrative scene. Gordon is shot down and killed.
Comment
The strength of the piece is its effective use of detail to create a picture of wartime working class life. There is a commendable attempt to write in a very spare style, but I felt it was too spare for this subject and at times rather jerky. The main problem is that the structure, with its multiple characters in whom we are meant to be interested and its various frames of time and location is over ambitious and difficult to pull off in a short story unless one is very accomplished. The final air raid did not seem to flow narratively from anything before, so the story as a whole was not very coherent. Ultimately the writer has not understood the form of the short story and has tried to force a novel into it.

Mind games
Summary
The Narrator is a divorced banker with a small son, Luke. He sits by the Solent and remembers the day when, by a moment of in attention, he allowed his son to drown. Now all he can do is play with his son in imagination.
Comment
This is a lament written in a haunting voice. The writer has an excellent eye for vivid figurative language: “the breeze runs curious fingers through my hair like a barber searching for bald patches” is truly wonderful. However this facility of imagination has become a vice. Modern critics, rightly or wrongly, don’t look favourably on this skill, and by my rough count, in the space of 5 pages there were 11 similes and 7 metaphors. This is way over the top – like something that, if it were over the top, would be so to a considerable degree. It tends to be a beginner’s fault but is curable, except that there is a psychological penalty to be paid for slaughtering so many of our beautiful children and some of us struggle to rise to the challenge. More specifically in the context of this story there is a contradiction between this type of language and the character who is presented to us. He’s a banker ferchrissake!

Infestation
Summary
The Narrator thinks he is going mad. He is a middle aged window salesman who is being displaced by the ruthless younger Jeremy. He invites Jeremy to his home, ostensibly to settle their differences and bond, but he kills Jeremy and is horrified at what he has done.
Comment
This tale is competently and clearly told and works with the short story form. The Narrator is narrowly described but this is appropriate. The dialogue is persuasive. The weakness of the piece is the banality of the subject and the lack of any final kick or spark so that the writer’s abilities are not shown at their best.

Substitute
Summary
James is a teenage serial killer with necrophile inclinations. One night he picks up a vulnerable girl at a dance hall, kills her and is discovered the following morning with her body, and surrenders without resistance.
Comment
This is a well written atmospheric piece. The characters and the situation are clearly drawn and are plausible because they fit how we imagine such people and situations to be, though nothing more. Initially there is a little uncertainty: perhaps James is only looking for a date. However this is quickly resolved and so there is no real suspense and there is no surprise in the ending. This is a very competent piece but its flaw is that it isn’t adapted to the short story form. It is paced more like a scene lifted from a novel.

The very end of the affair
Summary
Dan and Pia decide to end their passionate affair by a suicide pact. They will inhale exhaust fumes in the garage. But should they wear seat belts in order to stop the racket of the car alarm?
Comment
This is a simply brilliant piece of comic writing: high farce of professional quality, written in sparkling dialogue. It is a comedy review sketch and should be grabbed by someone on radio or at the Edinburgh Fringe. Unfortunately I’m judging a short story competition. I would willingly give this piece a prize – but not under this format.

A delicious journey
Summary
The female Narrator encounters a stunningly sexy man on the underground, but when he tries to pick her up she declines over an issue about chocolate.
Comment
This made me laugh. Minor quibbles aside, even as a man, I recognised this situation and thought it was plausible and well realised in all aspects. The problem is that the punch line, though hilarious, is so because of its incongruous triviality, which on analysis plays to a stereotype. This is a joke or a sketch, not a short story. But behind it is real talent.

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