If we thought arriving at a long-list of fifty-six stories from the 1,124 we received for our inaugural competition was difficult, it was nothing compared to choosing three stories from that long-list. Every one of those fifty-six stories would have been a worthy winner. If you’ve been following along as we’ve been publishing the long-listed stories, you probably have your own favourite. That’s great. We all have different tastes and our tastes change over time. There’s an element of luck involved in winning a writing competition. Not toss of a coin luck, but the kind of luck that means you put the right story in front of the right judge at the right time.
Here’s what we look for in great flash:
- We like stories. The poetry of a piece is important, but something must happen. It doesn’t have to be much but don’t leave us asking, “So what?”
- We like to have an emotional experience. We don’t want to be left a gibbering wreck at the end of every story but we do want to be moved in some way.
- We like well-chosen words. They should be appropriate and consistent with the setting and character. We also like being surprised with original word use and unusual combinations. You’ve only got 360 words to play with. Choose them well.
- We like room to think. Don’t give us it all on a plate. Make us work for it.
- We like originality. It’s hard to be truly original but we like stories that offer a fresh perspective on a familiar topic.
And here’s why we chose the three flashes we did:
Barely Casting a Shadow by Alicia Bakewell
This flash stayed with us from the first time we read it. Each reread, and there have been many, offers something new.
What went wrong in this mother–son relationship that has led to this situation? We like how the contrasts of the son’s physical appearance echo the breakdown of the relationship: cherub lips versus dry, childlike eyes versus glassy and tired, pure white silk against an unwashed cheek.
The son’s fond memories and love for his mother are seemingly at odds with her coldness towards him (“Jesus loves you,” she writes in her letters. “But do you?” he wonders.) There’s a lot of backstory here that is only hinted at (“every little foil packet”, “the living room seems angry at his presence”) suggesting a much bigger story.
The author does a wonderful job of making us experience the same discomfort as the son. Our senses are overwhelmed by smells in the opening paragraph and later the streaming sunlight and dust particles and the chintzy sofa that enters his nightmare, the latter showing the son’s drug-induced delirium.
It would have been easy to have the son steal money from a drawer or an antique to sell and lead the story to a predictable close, bursting any sympathy we have for the character. Instead, he flees at his mother’s return and it is her that takes from him suggesting it is her selfishness or inability to forgive that is to blame for the breakdown of the relationship while all he longs for is “that same unknowable essence of home that he looks for in the folds of every little foil packet.”
We also learn the significance of the title at the close. Barely casting a shadow could refer literally to the emaciated body of the drug-addicted son or figuratively to the little significance he now has in his mother’s life. Beautiful, thought-provoking flash.
Midsummer’s Eve by Ros Collins
Never open with a weather report, we’re told. But in this case, the weather is important to the story and is handled beautifully: the haar “knuckles into crannies and makes it easy to forage unnoticed.”
The mist adds a wonderful mystical atmosphere to this flash. It is almost folkloric with its descriptions of finding the baby under a blackcurrant bush and gifts of herbs as “blessings for the infant sprite.” The naivety of the superstitious locals, the contrasting cleverness of the main character, and the description of a lifestyle long forgotten give this flash an irresistible charm.
And who can resist an ‘aww’ moment when baby Sorrel tousles her mother’s hair and the look of delight when she receives a pea? We particularly like the occasions of the baby’s conception and birth described in sober terms in contrast to the overall mystical feel of this flash.
The ending raises a smile when you imagine the shock the captain is about to get when this smart girl tracks him down. The ending is particularly effective because it uses the motif of contrasting the mundane (“shoulder his responsibilities”) with the mystical (“end his days cursed on the high seas”) that runs through this excellent flash.
Addendum to the Art Loss Register by Heather McQuillan
Many flash pieces aim to hit the emotional bullseye with tales of loss, grief, and despair. Huge subjects that are difficult to contain in the space of a flash. This flash deals with loss, but it’s a small loss—no one’s died—which allows a lighter treatment of the theme.
This flash makes us feel sympathy for a petty criminal (or underground artist depending on your point of view). We warm to the character because of the multiple obstacles he encounters: the wino dismissing his art, the policeman’s unveiled threat, and the ‘experts’ discussing his work as someone else’s, work he cares about so much he’s attached anthropomorphised emotions to it: “She sirened out to him . . . she wept at the stenciled-on signature.”
This piece has a strong sense of place with a great urban atmosphere, from the choice of name of the main character (Drexel) to the “oily orange” glow of the night, the “shipwrecked ribs of a shopping trolley” and “shadowed concrete canvas” of the underpass. Even the rhythm of this flash has a quickness to it, created with short sentences and clauses, that echos the breathlessness of the city.
The piece ends quietly with Drexel wavering “half-in, half-out of the shadows.” A perfect metaphor for his very existence.