Judge’s report, Novella-in-Flash 2020

Michael Loveday, who is judging the Novella-in-Flash Award for the second year running, has been busy reading and re-reading the long list of twenty-seven novellas blind for the past seven weeks. We thank him very much for his very thorough work and can recommend anyone on the longlist or shortlist approaches him for his editing services if they want to do further tweaks to their novellas as he will have a good sense of them all. We agree with him that the standard was very high and we so appreciate all those who tackled this form of fiction and sent entries in to us in this our fourth year of the award. It is so exciting to see who the winners are this year. Many congratulations to our first prize winner, Mary Jane Holmes from the UK with Don't Tell The Bees and our two runners-up, Tracy Slaughter from New Zealand with If There is No Shelter and Erica Plouffe Lazure from the USA with Sugar Mountain. Michael has given special commendations to five authors this year. From the UK, Eleanor Walsh, our 2019 winner from the UK, with Tears In the Paku Paku, Alison Woodhouse with The House On the Corner, Karen Jones with When It's Not Called Making Love Louise Watts with Something Lost and from the USA, Nicholas Cook with Elvis In The Back Yard. We will post bios on all these authors on the website soon. Read Michael's initial comments in the first paragraph and his full report and comments on all the novellas-in-flash below that.
Michael's comments on the longlist

Every manuscript had genuine merits and I feel for those authors who haven’t made this shortlist; there were some very marginal calls.

My initial “long shortlist” of manuscripts I thought might make the final shortlist (based on a first read) had two-thirds of the novellas on it! There are some astonishingly good novellas in the list of fourteen. The overall consistency across the longlist made for some tricky/tough/brutal [delete as appropriate] decisions. My expectation is that many of these novellas, including some on the longlist, will eventually find publishers and that other readers will experience the same visceral thrill as I did when encountering these stories.

Michael's full report, April 11th 2020

The overall consistency of quality in the longlist this year made for a near-impossible judging process. Even beyond the shortlist of fourteen novellas, there are manuscripts on the longlist that I believe will interest publishers and with barely a little tinkering will read beautifully. It was noticeable this year, when compared to 2019, that many authors were now grappling with the novella-in-flash form almost as a novelist would – conjuring sustained story arcs across individual pieces, creating convincing ensemble casts of characters, and immersing the reader in fully developed world-building. This of course isn’t the only way a novella-in-flash can be written, but it did suggest an increasing commitment to treating the novella-in-flash form as something more than a collection of flash fictions – a unified story-world. Each novella on the longlist felt unique, utterly its own, and had qualities that drew the reader in. When judging, I’ve been trying to balance criteria such as readability, quality of characterization, linguistic surefootedness, flair, formal innovation, world-building, shaping of story arc, depth after repeat encounters, and insight into human experience. Looking at any single measure alone would surely create a different winner each time. It isn’t feasible to reach final decisions by any measurable ‘scientific’ process and ultimately judging comes down to such fractional margins that it’s almost absurd to proceed. I’m mindful that the process inevitably disappoints more authors than it pleases. It takes courage to write a novella and submit it to a competition, so my commiserations go to those who have missed out, including those who didn’t make the longlist that I read. It’s been a privilege to act as judge and I’m grateful for all the writers who were inspired to share their imaginative worlds during the past two years. I’m very glad that they made my role so difficult. Readers will have so much to enjoy and admire when this year’s manuscripts eventually make their way into the world.

Winner – Don’t Tell the Bees
The winning novella is a story of a young girl (called No-more) and a village community in France, around the time of the Second World War. It’s full of nostalgia for old rural ways, and, in passing, a nuanced description of the impact of industrial progress. There’s a charming fairy-tale quality, a satisfying come-uppance for a villainous character, and every page positively oozes with fondness for its characters. The novella adopts a classic novella-in-flash form, with each chapter a self-contained world of its own, a distinct moment in time, but its absolute originality is expressed in the characters’ eccentric qualities, the richly textured language, the blending of history with fable, and the way that its fragments collectively evoke the whole story of a village and way of life. Amongst a raft of brilliant manuscripts, this was the story I found myself most eagerly returning to, cherishing each time the writer’s deft skills.

Runner-Up – If There Is No Shelter
A remarkable story of a woman’s life in an unnamed city in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes. It’s written with claustrophic, relentless and urgent conviction. What’s most compelling is how the story is gleaned mostly through flashbacks, as though, like the city’s buildings, it’s been broken into fragments and we are picking our way through rubble. Gradually, like rescue workers, we uncover the situation of a hospitalized husband, a lover lost to a building’s collapse, and the tender domestic bonds the woman shares with her father and his colleague. Other haunting scenes leap out from the overall portrait of a ruined city – almost like twisted updates on Wordsworthian “spots of time” – a neighbour with a dead bird in a birdcage, a couple glimpsed making love in an office building at night, a street artist daubing impressions of the surrounding wreckage onto canvas. This is a dark, oppressive story but, through it, the writer explores how humanity responds to crisis – and has produced a metaphor for our own times.

Runner-Up – Sugar Mountain
A stunning sequence of stories about childhood shot through with irresistible yearning, beauty and humour. It’s written in a freewheeling prose that unfurls with detail after gorgeous detail piling up in the sentences. Quirky behaviour, teenage mischief, letdowns, unfulfilled dreams, romance – this novella really gets to the heart of what childhood feels like. The writer has a real gift for endings – chapter after chapter ends on a lovely resonating note that succeeds in creating the “speaking silence” of the unsaid – something so important to the experience of powerful flash fiction. Vivid chapter titles include: ‘Saved by DJ Big Man with Beard’ ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’, ‘Why My Mother is No Longer a Hairdresser’ and ‘Why We Stole the Disco Ball from Satellite Skate’. A sentence from the latter offers a glimpse into this novella’s skillful evocation of childhood experience: “And then as the end of ‘Thriller’ began, I thought maybe this sparkle ball was a time machine, and all we had to do was skate backwards long enough to undo the awful of the awful week.”

Special Commendations –

I feel like each of these novellas deserves to be published. Although they didn’t quite make the top three, the quality of the writing was extremely high and they deserve a wide audience.

Special Commendation – Elvis in the Backyard
Simultaneously a narrative about family life and an affectionate boy-meets-boy love story. Quirky characters and written with a sense of humour and charm. Gotta love a story that mentions an Elvis wig.

Special Commendation – Something Lost
A clever and entertaining first-person tale of family strife and growing into adulthood, where the reader enjoys reading between the lines of the teenage boy’s narration. Funny, disarming and deep.

Special Commendation – Tears in the Paku Paku
An ambitious, startling psychological portrait of a teenage girl obsessed with the photo of a refugee from the Bosnian war. Haunting insight into the main character, written with elegant skill.

Special Commendation - The House on the Corner
Personal tremors large and small unsettle the foundations of a middle-class, nuclear family. Exquisite sentence-making, with each individual chapter beautifully sculpted and shaped.

Special Commendation – When It’s Not Called Making Love
Vivid, raw and immediate - a poignant story of a bullied and harassed girl’s struggle towards adulthood. Left me bruised and heartbroken. But also written with great wit –made me giggle many times.

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