As a boy, I loved a story about a football player whose team had just won the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium. Sitting in the dressing room after the match, the player complained he'd lost a contact lens out on the pitch. One of his team-mates is supposed to have said, 'Well, this is our lucky day – why don't we go back out and find it?' According to the story, they did just that, and found the contact lens within moments!
I've never known whether the hunt for the lens ever happened, and I don't care – because the story's full of some weird ancient storytelling truth that I trust.
Now I often remember the tale when I'm entering writing competitions. The pitch at Wembley is vast, and success seems impossible.
Yet sometimes the luck is with us. Sometimes there's a glint in the grass.
This story is not only a parable for anyone entering writing competitions, but also for their judges. Faced by such an enormously impressive field, the job of selecting a handful of winners can be bewildering.
If your story was included in the longlist of 50 flashes (chosen from writers in 34 countries), I want to emphasise how well you did. Every single flash I received from Jude Higgins and her wonderful team possessed qualities I admired and envied.
In the first stage of judging, I had to kick out nine or ten extremely good pieces because I thought they needed a bit more drafting – and/or because they felt like they weren't quite as succinctly 'flashy' as the ones in my top 20.
In some cases, I reluctantly put aside entries containing beautiful writing – because I wondered whether they'd work better as sections in longer pieces of prose, or perhaps as poems.
So I guess I was searching for the pieces that struck me as being the purest flashes – the ones that couldn't really be anything EXCEPT a flash!
Also, I de-selected a few because of errors in lay-out, dialogue conventions, spelling, etc. When the standard's as high as it was in this batch of 50 pieces, I'm afraid that small errors tend to stand out, and this can undermine the flash. The moral here: proofread the hell out of everything you write!
The flash I really hated ditching from my top 20 was 'The True Cost of Carpeting Luxembourg' because it's one of my favourite titles ever! But I wondered whether the twin storylines were working off each other with enough resonance...
Ultimately I went for the flashes that moved me on first reading – and then still did their little magic tricks on second and third and fourth and fifth encounters: the flashes I felt ON my skin, and which then worked their way UNDER it!
But, as the list was refined, I started to wonder about my own tastes and prejudices, and I remembered wise advice from a judge who once told me that the selection process starts off being quite objective, but becomes increasingly subjective as the list dwindles towards its most outstanding entries.
In other words, there's an element not only of skill, but of luck, in winning a competition – just as there is in finding a contact lens on Wembley's acres of turf. You have to hope that your tastes line up with the judge's. You have to pray that he or she didn't spot the tiny lapse that you don't know how to correct – or hope that the lapse has been forgiven because the story contains some greater magic.
In essence, I guess what I'm doing here is consoling those who didn't quite make it into the Top 5. If your work keeps getting onto longlists and shortlists when the standard is as high as it was here, then you are doing something right – and you may not be very far from locating that tell-tale glint in the Wembley turf. Keep the faith, brothers and sisters! We've chosen a hard road, but it's a road that rewards those who love it enough to go on learning from their setbacks.
Alphabetically, the stories in my top 10 in the Bath Flash Fiction Competition were: 'The Chameleon', 'Disney', 'Faultlines', 'The Hierarchy of Substances', 'Not For Want of Trying', 'Pony', 'The School Centennial', 'Six Months Yesterday', 'What If Nothing Hurts Us More Than Imagination?', and 'You're It'.
The act of choosing winners from such a beautiful and incredibly varied collection of stories was almost impossible, and came to seem increasingly absurd. I was moved and impressed by all ten stories.
'Pony' (First Prize) took my breath away, several times. This flash uses language so sparingly that it earns the right to indulge itself in one grand phrase, which shines like a silver coin from a pocketful of small change. There is beauty and mystery here, counterpointed by the mundanity of the setting. If the creature in the poem speaks to the character of vocation, then this flash speaks to me of all the wild potential that surrounds us in everyday life... and yet which is so difficult for our flawed species to access. Haunting and elusive, yet simultaneously plain-speaking and precise – a story I won't ever forget, and my clear winner. Tremendous.
'The Hierarchy of Substances' (Second Prize) is an aching meditation upon the UK's lost world of deep-pit coal mining. Perhaps it works slightly too hard to squeeze in a metaphysical seam? Well, I settled with that – because it also digs up chunks of black humour from its dramatisation of the generation gap that has opened up since the pits were shut. And there is elegiac poetry throughout. At the end, when the story loops back on itself like a pithead lift, I felt I'd been given the privilege of inspecting a tiny, shining crystal, perfect in form and structure.
Whereas 'Pony' successfully secures itself to a single image in a few moments of time, 'Not For Want of Trying' (Third Prize) spreads out to tackle the long, harrowing odyssey of a refugee. It would be easy for a sprawling narrative like this to squander its energy, but the writer skillfully locks the story into a current time-frame where the stakes are high, and zeroes in on each stage of the journey with deadly precision and economy. A moving piece, and an important one – and an empathetic corrective to anti-immigrant bile spouted by 'The Daily Mail' and 'The Daily Express'.
The two commended stories were almost impossible for me to separate from the others on the list. Ultimately, I found myself returning time and again to 'Six Months Yesterday', 'The Chameleon', and 'What If Nothing Hurts Us More Than Imagination?'
On another day, all of these flashes would have made it into the Top Three, but I opted in the end to award Commendations to the extraordinary emotional intensity of 'What If Nothing Hurts Us More Than Imagination?' (all the more impressive for being balanced against impressive structural precision) and the gorgeous imagery of 'The Chameleon', a story that reminds us of flash's ability to find significance in the tiny and the overlooked.
In turn, these decisions meant that I was forced, myself, to overlook a small treasure: 'Six Months Yesterday'. I hated doing this – because it's a superb piece, written with true emotional intelligence. I was also angry at myself for sidelining 'You're It', 'Disney', and 'The School Centennial' – stories that used humour and dreams to access complex inner-worlds.
A few hours after writing this report, I went back again through all fifty flashes, just to make sure I hadn't gone mad when making my selection. In doing so, I marvelled once more at the form's ability to permit such a range of approaches – from slices-of-life to epic narration to poetic experiments, and beyond... There were a surprising number of flashes about earthquakes, and plenty more about dogs and road-trips – as well as quite a few that used photographs and technology. By the end, I felt once again like a very small figure in a very big field.
I would like to thank all the writers who made me laugh and gave me goosebumps, or made me think again about things I've taken for granted. It was an honour to read your work. Thanks, also, to Jude and her team for creating an environment in which flash can flourish, and for being such a pleasure to work with.