Over the last few weeks, the Lucent Dreaming team have been busy bees judging the entries for our first ever flash fiction competition. The stories have been read, re-read, read backwards, read sideways and read up-side down between squinting eyelids. And we have picked three worthy winners who all took different inspiration from our prompt word ‘lead’.
Amongst the entries we received, there were stories whose protagonist was a natural born ‘leader’, tales that ‘led’ us into the deep dark woods, and pieces where characters suffered from ‘leaden’ feet. We had dog ‘leads’, electrical ‘leads’, investigative ‘leads’ and ‘leads’ that ‘led’ us through all manner of emotions. Generally, we were impressed at how imaginatively the prompt word was interpreted. There were some lovely stories – but how did we whittle down the entries to end up with our top three?
For all our competitions (and for general submissions as well), we judge against four aspects – premise, quality of writing, character and overall coherence. Premise is basically whether we enjoy the idea being presented and whether the story entertains or moves us in some way. Sometimes, it comes down to which stories stick in the mind. And the entries that did well all had something unique about them such as a journey inside a sinister experiment or a game of Words With Friends with a recently deceased grandad.
Flash fiction doesn’t give a huge amount of scope to make a story move from A to B but we were still on the lookout for some nugget of narrative journey – some sense of passing time, of things happening or of circumstances changing. Quite a few of the entries fell down on this point. They contained wonderful scene-setting descriptions or painted vivid characters but we didn’t feel there was enough to drive their stories forward.
For me, all good stories need a sliver of emotion at their core. In reading the entries, we were introduced to some wonderful characters from odd-ball eccentrics to relatable next-door neighbours to green-skinned spirits. Sometimes, though, we felt we didn’t get enough sense of the characters’ personalities or what they were feeling in a particular scene. On the other hand, it sometimes felt like the emotional dial was ramped up to one hundred and we were told what emotions were flying around rather than being left to work it out for ourselves. That probably sounds like a contradiction: what can I say – we’re a fussy bunch!
Where we felt characterisation worked well, details were picked out in interesting ways. For example, in one story that we loved, the arrangement of books on a bookshelf and how their spines were cracked from overuse shone out as giving glints of character detail. In another story, thoughts, dialogue and actions combined to show a narrator’s trepidation as she went to meet her boyfriend’s mother for the first time.
Other odds and ends
If I were to take one thing away from the experience of judging this competition, it would be to always come up with a memorable title. Logistically, judges of writing competitions have to read through a lot of stories. It’s quite a pleasurable experience and you read some fascinating tales. But then you’re asked to comment on a piece you read several hours/days ago whose title is ‘Lead’ or ‘The Lead’ or ‘In the Lead’. It’s easy for these stories to fall through the cracks. On the other hand, an inventive title can really stick in the mind and boost that story’s chances.
One thing that I wrote a few times when preparing feedback to unsuccessful entries was that there was little sense of contrast in the narrative. This was something we looked for when judging quality of writing. Were there varying sentence lengths? Were there splashes of dialogue in amongst the description of places, people, actions? Were there some interesting images, metaphors woven into the narrative to provide little highlights without going overboard?
Hopefully, the above gives some idea of how we went about judging this competition and how much fun we had reading all the stories. If you entered and weren’t one of the winners, there are perhaps some pointers above as to why we didn’t pick your story on this occasion. As previously mentioned, the quality of the stories was high and narrowing the field down was tough. However, here’s why we chose our top three:
Katie Higgins – Primal Energy
This story takes a relatively run-of-the-mill situation (a power outage) and adds a fascinating twist. The setting is painted as much through the brilliant tone of voice as it is through economical little details splashed throughout the narrative. There are twists and turns aplenty and some lovely images that stand out as highlights in a beautifully written piece.
Alexis Wolfe – Two Hairdressers
This story about two hairdressers has all the elements of great flash fiction. There is an initial hook to reel the reader in. There is a wonderful sense of narrative journey. And there is a lovely twist in the tail as all the strands of the story are cleverly brought together. We loved the perceptive details such as ‘crunching toast’ in the first paragraph that hint at below-the-surface tensions. The little splashes of humour really shine throughout the piece.
Helen Laycock – Split Decision
The writing in this winning story is poetical at times. ‘Her whispers coiled around my ears like serpents’ is a beautiful example from early in the piece. The story itself is a slightly twisted tale and Helen brilliantly builds a sense of urgency and tension towards a denouement which cleverly hints at future iterations of the scene. The characters jump off the page and are easily relatable. Reading this, I could feel their emotions. And once I’d finished, I wanted to read the story over again.
All three winning stories will be published on the Lucent Dreaming website in the next couple of weeks and will also feature in Issue 5 of the print magazine alongside some other brilliant stories and poetry.