Mary-Jane Holmes’ report for our 15th Award

As chief editor at Fish Publishing Ireland plus running over five courses on writing flash in its various forms, I can say that I read a lot of Flash, and when I read the BFF longlist, I thought there had to be some mistake, I must be reading the shortlist instead so high was the quality of work I was looking at. This made the judging process incredibly enjoyable on one hand – to see so much variety, so much stimulating and original work, a wonderful willingness to experiment, and on the other hand, so difficult to choose, so difficult to say this piece is stronger than that piece. So how to choose a shortlist and then winners and commendations? When the work is this strong, it is hard, in fact almost impossible. You might think that subjectivity plays a part, that a judge will be drawn to certain themes and certain styles, but those are two things I never really consider, perhaps because of my editorial background. For me it comes down to two things – primarily that the craft not just the idea drives the work – the title is working for the story, the first line raises expectations and won’t let the reader go, the beginning asserts pressure on the ending, every word is pulling its weight. Secondly something that that writer Sam Ruddick sums up more concisely than I could, the joy of finding a new way of seeing, or a new way of saying something you’ve seen and been unable to articulate. I lived with these stories, read them over and over again at different times of the day. If I could, I would have kept them all.

Comments on the five winners:

First prize, 'Sea Change'

I think it was Nancy Kress that said that a piece of short writing should contain four things -conflict, character, specificity and credibility. 'Sea Change' contains all these and more.
The scale and physical presence of the flash creates a robust tension of containment and expansion that brings to the fore the flux of life represented by growing these small mollusks against grief’s vastness (like the sea) and the death of the narrator’s loved one. This play of scale and the prose’s control of movement and soundscape shows significant confidence and poise.
Details anchor your story in concrete reality. Here, this story’s strength lies in its fresh, sensory observation of this unusual craft married with the surreal quality of the actions – the person returned from the dead, the kitchen objects that appear. Gabriel Garcia Marquez stated that one striking and true detail may be enough to lend credibility to the entire story, but it only takes a single piece of information that doesn’t ring true to invalidate a whole narrative. Bruce Holland, in his excellent article “Get Unreal” explains why:
Start with an emotional truth that you can express with a metaphor. Make the metaphor objectively true. Let the characters act out this reality as if there were nothing unique in the situation, as if this were the very thing that happens. That is, don’t let your characters think it is no stranger to float on the ceiling than it is to fall in love.[have a dead loved one return and grow sea creatures] How the metaphor develops, how the story ends, is simply a question of how such emotions work themselves out in the characters.
The writer of 'Sea Change’s' ability to suspend disbelief has been extremely successful in this regard. Original, concise, and poignant.

Second Prize, 'The species of pangolin compromise their own order: Pholidota.'

The title was an immediate draw. Titles are your first conversation with a reader/publisher and
if you read as much as I do on a professional level, something a little different works well to catch the eye. The second plus point is the form. I consider this to be a Hermit Crab flash, a term coined by Brenda Miller. As she explains: ‘This form appropriates existing forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It deals best with material that seems born without its own carapace—material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.” This story of the endangered pangolin (even more so now I imagine with its link to Covid-19) and a mother and daughter’s exit from an abusive relationship has exactly filled this remit. The information about the pangolin marries wonderfully with the emotional, factual and physical actions presented by the narrator, while the ending drawstrings the fate of both parties to bring a dramatically satisfying ending, one that feels inevitable and yet totally surprising.

Third Prize, 'The Man you didn’t Marry'
Time-compressed flashes and second-person-perspective flashes are both challenging forms and yet 'The Man you didn’t Marry', compresses with brio, a great deal into a short space while the perspective brings great immediacy. The pacing is perfectly pitched and the writing in terms of flow is doing what it is essentially showing - spiralling like a body swirling down into the depths of the sea. David Capella’s thoughts on what makes crafted poetry I think are relevant to what makes crafted flash. He says ‘it is above all a physical experience. It is the stuff of sound and rhythm and speech…of breath and pulse. It affects us physically when we speak it and listen to it.’ This is what I felt we have here, and so gracefully ended with that beautifully choreographed last line.

Commended, Not Now Universe
This piece’s ability to guide the reader’s perception of mood is well-crafted in this Flash. There is a real sense of voice and connection between the speaker and the confidante. The writing is making sure that the reader is an active participant in this story; it is almost as if we are eavesdropping on the conversation and this gives the work real immediacy as well as giving rise to a strong sense of empathy that underscores the emotional arc of the piece. There is a real feeling of what Jennifer Peroni calls ‘smart surprise’ here driving the animating tension: the way the girl’s underwear is removed and then posted back, the near crash, the lobsters, the karaoke club – images when placed side-by-side produce something out of the ordinary. The open-ended last sentence ensures that the story lingers. Nice Touch.

Commended ,The Price of Gingerbread
Myth, fable and fairy-tale when repurposed, subverted or retold are all effective shorthand methods of telling a story and therefore particularly suited to the confines of Flash. This story effectively frees the original from its confinement to bring a deliciously unsettling transformation. The strong opening paragraph, in three short bursts, gives us both the dark surface conflict and a hint of a troubled backstory. The elemental strength of this piece is how the writing negotiates the horrors of what is happening to these children by not tackling them directly but letting them bubble up from under the surface of the actions and images presented. This Hitchcockian approach, along with the tight pacing and poignant last line, left a great impression.

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