As promised here is Atthys Gage’s text accompanying the result of the first Book a Break Short Story Competition. I’ve modified nothing, except to add the authors’ names after the corresponding numbers. I reiterate my thanks to Atthys for his time and commitment. I don’t know how many of you submit regularly to literary competitions, but I think you’ll agree that his offer at the end is extremely generous and supportive. And of course, like Atthys, I thank and congratulate you all for your contributions. You’ve made this first edition of the competition a resounding success, way beyond what I’d imagined – thank you!
First off, I was greatly impressed by the quality and quantity of the submissions. Seventy-five stories! Congratulations to all of you for perseverance and diligence. I could tell you not to give up, but I’m not worried about that. You have each received the sacred and blessed wound that bleeds fiction, and for that there is no known cure.
When this contest first began, we had no idea how many submissions it might get. We thought maybe five or six? When we hit ten, I thought, “Okay, well this is respectable.” That respectable ten quickly ballooned to a daunting thirty and then an unwieldy forty. Then the damn broke. More than thirty stories poured over the levee in the last few days of the contest. I think Curtis feared I might bolt. I didn’t. And the deeper I waded into this pile of pages, the more I found myself liking what I saw. Ultimately, chore became privilege, and I thank each of you for your contribution.
But not every worthy story could win. If Curtis awarded prizes to every one who wrote a good story, he’d be booked solid from Easter to Bastille Day. There were many close calls and near misses, but judgments had to be made. I had to pass on the elegant prose of number 33 (Yvonne Payne), the creepy knockout ending of number 28 (Nic Hamilton), and so many others. Subjective judgments? Sure. But that’s the way it goes.
After much agonizing, I winnowed the seventy five into a short list of eight stories, all of which deserve a shout out. First, the honorable mentions:
Number 52 (“Cat Art Catharsis” by Sue Ranscht) is an especially compelling and imaginative tale, and well-written, too.
Number 68 (“A Rainy Night Back Home” by Nick Parr) establishes a somber mood with panache and style (bonus points for using the cats from the prompt in an especially creative and touching way.)
Number 27 (“What They Want” by Jill Barth) is beautifully crafted with a distinctive, nuanced voice and well-made characters.
Number 11 (“The Cats” by Mzwandile Poncana) wows with a truly surprising ending, made all the more effective by the understated delivery.
And number 67 (“The Cats, the Box and the Paradox” by David Brennan) has a crisp, economical style I found bracing and clean, and a nice knack for dialogue. (Not forgetting an utterly convincing teen protagonist.)
I could go on. But choices must be made. So here are my two first runners up (in no particular order) and our grand prize winner.
Number 69: “The Cats.” (Aimee White). (Yes that title got used rather a lot.) A particularly poignant story, elegantly written. I love the way the writer holds back the reveal that the cats are stuffed cats, and I love the scene with the girl with the penguin. The sequence of things Lawrence worries about over the successive years is very well done. The pacing throughout is brisk without being brusque, and the last paragraph is a stunner. Very nice.
Number 14: “Bleu and Ti Blanche.” (Sandra Jackson-Opoku). Good writing. Excellent pacing. A nice use of short, pithy episodes. With very few words, the author gives us a complex picture of family and society that is sad and painful without ever spilling over into sentimentality or crass political statement. Vivid sense of place. I found the portrayal of Jacques particularly effective. It’s never easy writing children without falling into cliches. Jacques has a subtle strangeness about him that I found very intriguing and very convincing.
And finally, the first prize:
No. 39: “The Cats of Tetsugaku-no-michi.” (Ingrid Jendrzejewski) Yeah, the title is a mouthful, but there’s nothing overwritten about this story. The language is fresh and bright and polished. There is an eager energy to the story but at the same time, a poised, elegiac sadness. I loved the way both the past and future are telescoped down, as if the protagonist’s whole life’s story hinges on the simple, ephemeral events of this one day (and again, here, the writing of the kids was wonderful.) Drawn in deceptively simple lines, the story is precise, elegant and lovely. A fine accomplishment.
So there you have it. It was my pleasure to serve, so who knows, maybe next year?
(By the way, if anyone would like a more in-depth appraisal of what I found effective (or ineffective) with his or her story, I’d be glad to offer my opinion. I can’t promise more than a few comments, but if you’re interested, drop a line down below or send a message to Curtis and we’ll make it happen.)
So there you are – thanks again one and all. I’ll be in touch personally asap. And in the meantime stay tuned here for further news and updates. May the muse be with you! Curtis.