Our judge's feedback 2004
Read the best stories from our 2004-2006 competitions in our anthology 39 Emergency Exits
Read our judge's feedback below and pick up tips for your own writing.
2004 Winning entry: Getting It
Full of dialogue, revealing not only the character of both the husband and wife but virtually the whole plot through this mechanism. Generally speaking, the danger of dialogue can be the inclusion of bland sentences that do not add to the overall story, but this story manages to avoid that pitfall expertly and makes sure that all of the dialogue contributes to our understanding of why he 'gets it' in the end!
Right from the beginning we get a measure of Eddie- thanks to a brilliant exposition of his relationship with his 4x4. From this alone we feel we know him inside out, and as the dialogue goes on we get more and more confirmation of an initial sense that he may be a character to hold at arm's length. The reader is not meant to have become too attached - as we find out at the end!
The story is centred around global warming and is set by a swimming pool. Although the references to both the spider and the rocket launch at first appear to be abstract, they in fact return at the end as key components of the plot. The hostage picture is included in the newspaper, albeit as a tenuous link to the terrorist sniper, but it is considered that as a slight weakness this should not be allowed to outweigh the overall strength of the story.
Having spent the bulk of the story developing the main characters, it is a surprise to find a change of scene at the end - but the narrative deliberately plays on this perfectly. We read through the final section puzzling out exactly what is happening, but with enough information to funnel us to the end- where the story finishes with a fittingly powerful punch that draws everything together. WELL DONE!
First Runner-up: Whitewash
The overriding impressions of this story are its beautiful descriptions and inventive colloquial third person style- a narration that includes the fugitive's personal insights within a predominantly omniscient viewpoint. An editor's proof-reading would have helped improve the flow of a couple of sentences here and there but this does not detract from the similes and metaphors that bring the setting to life.
Considering that the constraints of the story do not allow for any dialogue, there is a very smooth unfurling of necessary background information which presents us with a picture of the prisoner's character - and we slowly gather a measure of his pride, which clicks into place when he turns out to be a megalomaniac intent on destroying the world. The narrative allows us to identify fully with his quest to escape, and the imminent danger of the spider before the explosion.
The spider and the hostage, a picture which is introduced very unobtrusively, are central features of the plot, and the rocket is brought in well with the twist at the end. However, the issue of global warming is only included as an aside, and the mention of a swimming pool is merely a passing reference.
A classic twist, not in the fate of the main character himself, but in how we perceived him: having been led to sympathise with his predicament, we realise we shouldn't have been on his side after all, and need not feel disappointed at his demise.
Note for readers: After Laura Dawn came to prominence with this short story we have now published her first novel Envelope of a Letter.
Second Runner-up: Imprisoned - for life
It is a credit to the writer that this story feels very readable even though there is a lot of use of the past perfect tense, whereby some of the possible urgency is lost. More tension could be created with a narrative of the scientist trying to get the launch postponed - and in this way explaining some of the key points of the plot through the use of dialogue in that context.
Is the scientist a recent convert to the environmental lobby and the 'Butterfly Effect'? Is he struggling with a dilemma about being willing to sacrifice all he has worked for? The trigger to the story does not tell us what we 'want' for him in the narrative, and it is difficult for the reader to get inside his thoughts- something that could again be helped by the use of dialogue.
The specified pictures were comprehensively covered, and this was the only entry (of all the entries in the competition!) to describe the Global Warming picture in full. If anything, however, as the tarantula does not significantly contribute to the plot or the ending, the references to spiders are over-used, and in this minor way the pictures may have overly determined the content of the story.
All the potential of the story is revealed here - with the reader not realising until near the end that the scientist has been tied up all along. The story could be re-ordered a little, however, to make more of this, and would be improved if the reader, encouraged by early dialogue to want the launch to be postponed, then finds out at the same time not only that it has happened, but also that the scientist is tied up: the technique of gradually increasing the adversity facing a character. It is a little far-fetched to infer that the rocket launch has suddenly caused such a huge increase in sea levels, but with the recent tsunami in our consciousness it brings out an important thinking point regarding global warming.
Note for readers: many of these comments have been taken into account in the edited version of this story which has been published in 39 Emergency Exits.
A very explanatory narrative, with sufficient description for us to picture the futuristic setting. However the story lacks dialogue and even a short exchange could have brought the story more to life. The reader is nonetheless drawn on to the climax of the story by the environmental narrative and events, but in fact the main character's 'crisis' of being tied up in a chair is probably resolved too soon.
The main character in the story seems possibly too nicey-nicey for the harsh environment he has to survive in. As mentioned above, a little dialogue would help us to see what kind of person he is - and possibly solve this problem - as it is hard to bring characters out with narrative alone. I do not want to sound harsh as this story had enough impact to make the shortlist but as feedback I feel the narrator seems emotionally to be a little too detached from the troubles he is facing. Nor does the feel of the story make it seem that he is in danger - he is safe once tied up in the chair: we would identify with him more - and the story would almost certainly be more gripping - if it started with the raiders and the struggle.
All the pictures are used to relate to things that happen in the plot - the swimming pool is still there and the picture of the children, splashing in the happy past, helps us picture the setting. The pictures have also prompted the strong main theme of the story, climate change, creating a striking image for the reader to consider the issue of global warming.
There is a wealth of ideas in this story, although unfortunately this actually leads to a disjointed effect between the individual and the global - and the link between them - which could be drawn out further if the word count was not limited. The ending, however, is one of the strong points of this entry: a very effective twist, of the kind which solves one problem but leads to another for the reader to be left to think on, and is successful because it comes as a surprise that has not even been hinted at.
The dual viewpoint makes this story interesting, and with the use of italics and a double space this technique is not confusing for the reader. However, when the story goes back to the customs officer on surveillance the first paragraph is in the third person when technically it should still be in the first person. This is an oversight that could of course be corrected by an editor but it does take away from the successful use of the dual viewpoint.
It is difficult to develop various individual characters fully in a short story and, partly as a consequence of the dual viewpoint, whereby no individual is prominent, characterisation is limited even though attempts have been made to let us see inside the three main characters. In addition it is not clear who your readers are meant to identify with - ie is the viewpoint of the courier meant to make us feel sympathetic at the end when he is caught or do we want the customs officer to catch him?
With regard to our requirement of imaginatively linking the 5 photos, it must be noted that the only picture to feature strongly in the plot is the hostage - which is well brought in to the very climax. There are only passing references to the swimming pool, global warming and the space rocket, and a tenuous link to the spider, none of which have contributed to the main story line. In this way the story has not linked the pictures together sufficiently to win our competition.
This imaginative finale not only uses one of the specified pictures but is an upbeat ending which brings together the hard world of crime with the kid's world of cops and robbers. All the same it might well be that the customs officers have let the rendezvous player slip - when he was presumably the one they were really after - and in this sense this story is a good example of the importance of weighing up whether a plot line is realistic enough to justify a 'brainwave' idea that we want to fit into our writing.
Congratulations to the £120 winning author, Steve Jeanes of Brighton!