Competition Seven Judges Report by Rachel O'Cleary

23rd January 2022

 

Flash fiction is deceptively difficult to write well – in so few words, to tell a story that feels complete, while leaving an impact. To create rhythm or paint vivid images. Most importantly, to make readers really feel something. It's not easy, and everyone who sent a story should be applauded for having the courage to try it.

This long-list contained stories about love, about grief, about intergenerational trauma. There was even a wonderfully whimsical – yet haunting – story about a whale. There were straightforward narratives and experimental forms. When I got the list, I greedily read all of the stories in one go. The next day, I read them again, closely, paying attention to how the authors used specific words and sentence structures to scaffold their stories. As I did this, a few of them naturally rose to the top. A few too many. I had to mercilessly cut from my shortlist stories that I loved, but which I could see on my second or third reading still needed a bit of work. But in the end, I was left with these five beauties.

The shortlisted story, Call me, tell me it was you, haunted me from the first reading. I love the way it makes us question what is real, the hazy stops and starts, and the contrast of sharp details with the vague uneasiness of the narrator. My other shortlisted story, How to Defrost a Heart, on the other hand, is direct, crisp and clear. The use of this authoritative voice to navigate the reader through a messy and painful situation is incredibly effective. And it is a rare pleasure to read an impactful piece of flash fiction about the rediscovery of joy.

My Highly Commended stories both play with form and narrative structure. In SCRABBLE (14) the use of a board game as a framing structure is meticulously done, and I was impressed by how much of the story is folded into each move. However, it is not merely a clever device – it adds to the narrative and extends the metaphor, deftly illustrating how a playful relationship can become a competition, a painful struggle to avoid being the loser. The Xylophonist's Tune uses musical vocabulary, rhythm, and punctuation to allow readers to become immersed in the mind of the titular xylophonist as she struggles, to feel we are there with her, a part of the percussion section ourselves. And the simple pleasure of the glimmer of hope for this quirky narrator at the end was a delight to read.

The winning story, The Griever's Horror Film Club, grabbed my attention with the unusual concept, and then won me over completely with its unexpected emotional resonance. The opening section makes excellent use of repetition and narrative voice to lull us into the impression that we know what the story will be about. Then it pivots in an unexpected, darkly humorous moment which then shifts the tone of the piece to something totally different from what we have been preparing for. Finally, the haunting closing line lingers, leaves us pondering the world the Club's members inhabit on the other six days of the week. It is a wonderful example of how much can be achieved with only 300 words.

Rachel O'Cleary

@RachelOCleary1

List of publications-rachelocleary.wordpress.com

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