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SWLF 2024
Judges' Report

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Creative
Non-Fiction

Gwyneth Box

I have often wondered about judges' reports that start by stating how good the standard of entries to a competition was and how difficult it was to choose the actual winners: are they being honest, or just hoping to encourage and console those who didn't make the grade? But this year, I can honestly say that I was delighted by the general high standard of the entries to the SWLF creative non-fiction (CNF) competition and genuinely found myself faced with a difficult task in making my final choices. There were so many well-written and moving entries that I had to reject pieces that were probably technically as good as others, but simply weren’t “my kind of writing”. That, of course, means that even some of those that didn’t make the long list might do better in a competition with a different judge.

The first round of eliminations was relatively simple. There were some pieces that simply didn't fit my understanding of what counts as CNF. There wasn’t very much excuse for this as I delved quite deeply into this subject in last year’s competition report and the report was available on the Festival website. This emphasises the desirability of researching the judge wherever possible, if you are entering a competition: if information is out there, either expressed in previous reports, or simply inferred from their own writing, it could give you a head start!

It can also be worth finding out about the judge’s age, their experience, their publicly admitted likes and dislikes. For example, a couple of entries talked about music from my youth and this naturally conjured personal associations for me and helped to keep them afloat in the “possibles” list, even though they were eventually outswum by others. That doesn’t mean that I rejected everything that didn’t immediately have a personal resonance: although we do all have favourites, reading should be about meeting new ideas and themes and expanding our horizons, not just reinforcing our existing ideas. Of course, the key here is that the writing has to be relatable, even for a reader with no hat in the ring: a well written piece on the care and keeping of tarantula spiders should be able to overcome the objections of the most hardened arachnophobe.

 

My personal belief is that CNF doesn’t necessarily have to have a beginning, middle and end, and I have a particular liking for "non-events" – the tiny unhappenings that rely on good writing to shine a spotlight or bring them into focus, the simple banal details of everyday life that are well observed and brought to life by the telling.

For that kind of writing, the content isn’t going to be ground-breaking or earth-shaking, so it's no wonder that I think language matters. The specific language of a craft or an activity, the private language of a relationship, the writer's own idiolect and speech patterns… these are the things that make a story unique and appealing. After all, almost everyone had a best friend at school or a pet, or could tell a story about going for a walk or about a chance conversation with a stranger, or an anecdote of a family scene or something that happened to them on holiday. To mis-quote Frank Carson, “It’s the way you tell them” that will make them successful.

Some pieces used just the right vocabulary; nothing complicated, nothing self-conscious, but it was clear that the words came naturally to the writer, that they knew what they were doing: they had selected specific words from a wider vocabulary – they hadn't just chosen the only one they knew. You wouldn't normally notice this as you are reading – unless you're reading as a judge – but it makes the reading so much smoother.

Although I don't think there has to be a traditional three-act story arc to CNF, I do believe that the "shape" of the writing matters: using repeated phrases, sometimes with variation, is a powerful tool to hold the piece together and give it structure.

One frequent problem was the pieces that were overly complex for the space available. Eight hundred words isn't very much and most entries pushed the word count to the absolute limit. Reading some of these, I felt that they had been cut short at 800 words, as if they had been extracted from a longer piece. While it is possible to take a longer piece and cut it down to adapt it to a competition’s requirements, the finished piece still needs to have integrity and balance: if the end result is to be less than 800 words, perhaps you can only use 600 words of the original and then write 200 new words that restore coherence and make the finished piece read as a complete text.

Sometimes, though, you just have too much to say to make a piece conform to the restrictions. You wouldn't enter a poem into a short story competition, so why enter an article into a competition that is only asking for 800 words if you actually need 3,000 words to do the piece justice?

The fact that the rules allow up to 800 words doesn't mean you must use up all the allowance. This is not a competition that demands a specific word count. Some of the strongest pieces said just what was needed in far fewer words.

Some entries took too long getting to the point, or spent too long on the build up to make an impact with the actual message. There were poignant pieces, and pieces that had messages and morals. These were more effective when they shone a light on a subject but left me to make up my own mind and didn't preach or hammer home the point. Less can definitely be more, and it's as well to allow the reader some freedom of interpretation. Before submitting a piece, leave it for a while and then go back and check whether you've started too soon, wasting words on excessive background or an unnecessary lead-in, or whether you can cut the final sentence or paragraph and leave the reader to make the final inference. There is a fine balance to be drawn between leaving your reader unsatisfied and stuffing them full of explanations.

 

Some of the personal stories were obviously very important to the writers, but failed to reach out across the unshared experience and touch me personally. There were other pieces that informed, but didn’t really add insight or entertainment value: they were more what I would class as non-fiction reference and seemed to have forgotten the need for creativity.

 

Titles matter. They need to relate to the content in some way, to intrigue the reader, or perhaps add a key that will allow them to unlock a further meaning. They aren’t part of the word count, and can be incredibly powerful as a way to set the reader on the right path – or even mislead them and then force them to rethink and revise their expectations.

 

Proofreading is absolutely essential. You can get away with some mistakes when you're writing blog posts or emails, and even when you're writing articles things are not likely to be absolutely 100% perfect – hopefully if you submit for publication, there will be an editing phase where minor errors are spotted and corrected. But when you're entering a competition and it's only 800 words, if your grammar isn't perfect (unless this is clearly part of the voice of the piece) you’re going to be up against another entry that has been fully corrected. At the end of the day, competitions are about prioritising the best. Your entry doesn’t have to be just good, it has to be better than the others.

 

There were too many pieces where it was possible to say this piece is fine, but that was where it stopped. There was nothing more than: yeah, there is nothing to object to here. In very small competitions this may be enough, but once there are a good number of other contenders, your work needs to be more than “nothing to object to” if it's going to win.

 

Watch the use of tenses. If you're writing about the past, it's perfectly acceptable to use the present – the narrative or historical present – but this needs to be consistent. The voice, too, needs to be consistent: if you’re writing about a childhood memory, the writing needs to sound either like the child you were, or the adult you are, not half and half without any method when you swap between voices. In both cases, tense and voice, it is in fact possible to change halfway through, (though difficult in such a short piece as we’re talking about here) but this needs to be a conscious decision: you need to know why you’re doing so and it will take skillful handling to make it successful.

 

As a judge, I have to find a balance between what appeals as far as the content, the meaning and the story of the piece is concerned, and how the writing is actually executed – the technicalities and mechanics of the writing. On a personal level, it matters to me that the grammar is at least mostly right – or right for the voice. I notice the vocabulary. I notice the way something is written – the structure and flow of the writing. There may be pieces that stand out despite the execution, just because the stories are interesting. Unfortunately, though, this is a writing competition and, whereas these would stand up perfectly well in a competition for monologues or performance, where the text was to be performed, they don't stand up in a competition for written work.

 

The same subjects cropped up again and again. There were a lot of mountains. There were babies. There were friends and family. There were strangers. There was death. There was music. And there were Rayburns (variously spelled). The events dealt with were big and small, personal and political. It was, again, a pleasure to read all the entries, to meet your families and travel with you for a while. Thank you to all the entrants for the opportunity to step inside your personal worlds.

 

 

 

Winner & commendeds

The final choice was difficult, but I have come down to three very personal stories of family. It was not intentional that the winner and two commended pieces should together frame human life from birth, through family relationships, to impending death, but perhaps it isn’t surprising. Creative non-fiction is, after all, a lens through which we look at moments that illuminate the human condition and these are experiences that everyone shares, however different the actual details and perspective.

Commendeds

How I found my parents - Christine Hogarth 

I have no personal experience of adoption or abortion or any such issues, and yet I found this piece reached across from an unshared experience to touch me with its poignancy.

The narrative present was well used and the language was simple, direct and clear for the  “innocent and ignorant times” in question.

 

The full 800 words were used, but there was no feeling of wastefulness or unnecessary digression. The initial set up took time, but this was needed to balance the development of the full story. Then the adoptive parents Ken and Jean were introduced and their characters established in a couple of strong and succinct sentences. This was quite enough – at that point they needed no complex explanatory anecdotes, just a couple of broad brushstrokes that left room for the actual story.

 

Much of the skill of writing is knowing how much to write and how much to leave to the imagination. And with a limited word count, it’s important to understand just how much scope the canvas will allow and which false starts and side paths there is room to explore.

All the things - Letty Butler 

This is a piece about end-of-life dignity, the importance of which is recognised by both the father and the surgeon. It’s about words that we “hear but can’t process” and then about using words to reach out and connect, to reassure ourselves as much as others and “to try and fill an unspeakable void.”

 

It’s very short – just 437 words. This may seem odd for a piece called “All the things”, especially with a narrator who says, “I begin to list everything I remember” and then “When I run out of memories, I make them up.”

 

A less-skilled writer would have told us more. But we all have our own list of “things” and we are told just enough of the past to be able to complete the story with our own ideas to reflect our own experience.

 

The abruptness of the ending was slightly unexpected and brought me up short. But it was very effective and it was absolutely right for what was being said.

Winner:

Bagsy-blobsy, no back answers - Jan Kaneen

The title was one that stood out immediately: although I’d never come across the phrase “bagsy-blobsy”, I remembered childhood squabbles as we’d bagsy the front seat on the bus or the right to choose a TV programme. The vocabulary used wasn’t from my part of the world, but it managed to trigger fond memories: jackstraws would have been pick-a-sticks for my family; plimsolls were daps; we carried our nets to fish for minnows in the brook in the park, not tiddlers in the river. But the atmosphere created was familiar and I recognised the dock leaves – and how marvellously observed were the “raspberry ripple” nettle stings they were used to treat!

 

The language throughout is careful and consistent and creates a true and credible voice. There is love at the heart of this piece – understated as it would no doubt have been by the child narrator – and acceptance, beautifully summed up in statements like, “He’s only a stepbrother, but he’s alright is Martin - never throws the first punch.”

 

The overall effect is simply appealing – and I do mean “simply”: there is nothing dire going on, nothing critical, nothing fatal, just the normal rivalry and establishment of sibling hierarchy. It's a perfectly observed moment of childhood that takes just as long as it needs to establish a setting, to develop and to conclude.

Fiction

Sue Burke

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Flash fiction stories, also called short-short stories, are one of my favorite literary art forms, both to read and to write. So when I was asked to judge stories of no more than 800 words, I had hopes and expectations.

I hoped for plenty of stories covering a wide variety of themes, subjects, and styles — and the competition received 136 entries (they were passed on to me with the author’s name removed, by the way), no two alike, and if they weren’t all prize-worthy, they were all worth reading. Creativity flowed like a river.

I expected to have a tough and exciting time picking the best, and I did. I chose 51 stories for a second read, 18 for a longlist, and finally 5 for a shortlist. Then I had to select the winner and two commendations.

What was I looking for?

I usually write science fiction, but I read as widely as I can, and I study the craft of writing endlessly. If a short-short story were visual art, it might look like what appears on a postage stamp: small, self-contained, and evocative. A novel can elaborate on multiple characters, subplots, and settings, and if it were a painting, it could fill a wall-sized mural. A short-short, however, often only elaborates a single element. The story may have as little as one scene or setting. Like a stamp, a short-short may feature nothing more than a portrait of a single person, but that face can be full of emotion and meaning.

No matter the size, I think a story should have a narrative arc: a beginning, middle and end. One way to think about an arc is as a drama about a problem or conflict that the characters must try to resolve or change. The conflict might be external, and it is resolved when, for example, a person throws away a once-treasured coin, poisons a husband, or finds a safe way to infuriate a cruel mother-in-law. The conflict might be internal, leading to the recognition of lost family happiness depicted in an old photo, rejection of a childhood lesson about “proper” reading, or an aching realization about an unwitting betrayal of a friend during a war.

Most of all — and something I continually struggle with as I write fiction — a story needs to evoke two kinds of emotions. The characters themselves should have an emotional reaction — actually a series of reactions — to what’s going on in their lives. The reader should feel something, too, and the more intensely, the better. Readers want their hearts and minds to be manipulated. That’s the fun of reading fiction: experiencing intrigue and empathy.

Easier said than done, I know.

A short-short story can also support experimentation that might be tedious in a work the length of a novel. A story can be told backwards, starting at the end and leading to the beginning. A questionnaire can deliver the conflict. Fictional essays or reports can explore a situation. An exchange on social media can spark drama. Bare dialogue between characters can power a conflict. Narrators can engage in tense conversations with the reader, breaking the fourth wall. Allegories are a kind of story, and personified animals and objects can make expressive narrators. Poetic prose and judiciously chosen puns and humor can set the tone and pace.

Endings probably take the most skill — and here I ought to make clear that what I am about to say is just my opinion. Other writers may reasonably and rightly disagree. After all, we’re talking about art, a human endeavor, and everyone comes with a unique mind and life experience. In my opinion, however (and in this instance, I’m the judge, so my opinion matters), a great story brings the arc to full completion.

A number of stories in this competition offered a plot twist at the end, and too often those stories ended with the twist at the height of the arc without resolving the parallel arc of the character’s emotion. For example, our heroine righteously doubts the monster’s existence, then the monster attacks, the end. The reader can feel shock but not have more guidance on how to feel — and remember, the reader wants to be manipulated. If I were an editor, I might have suggested adding revealing foreshadowing or another sentence or paragraph to close the story and make it more satisfying, but alas, I was just the judge and had to decide based on what was on offer.

A few stories seemed to be the opening chapter of a longer story, and they ended with more questions than answers.

Harder to fix were stories located on well-trodden ground and that followed a well-worn path dealing with too-familiar situations. They can still be saved with a unique approach that leads to an uncommon or profound conclusion or insight. For example, many stories recounted struggles with a decline at the end of life, and some found a way to move beyond commonplace sorrow and loss.

Sentence-level writing skill mattered to me, too. Could I follow the action of the story? Did the point of view vary in a way that was hard to follow? Were there rich sensory details? Revealing dialog? Strong sentences? Telling images? The quality of the craft tended to be high overall, and still, some managed to rise above the rest.

These considerations got me the 51 stories on the first cut, then the longlist of 18, and if your story didn’t make the cuts, I hope you’ll accept my two-part consolation. First, none of the stories I read were unworthy; it’s just that the competition was tough. Second, writing is a practice discipline, like playing music or teaching class. The more you do it, the better you get. Please keep writing.

So, finally, the shortlist of 5, and as I gave those the final consideration, I recognized something they had in common. It’s an attitude about what storytelling needs, as expressed by William Faulkner’s in his 1950 speech to accept the Nobel Prize: “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Short-listed:

“Strange Birds” by Julie Murray

A woman is caring for her grandmother, who has dementia, and is leading her through war-torn streets in London in the future. The narrator is a medical student helping with the wounded and dead at the local Health Service Hub. Her first-person voice is realistic, aware, and energetic.

The story mostly establishes the setting — builds the world — and describes how the narrator got into that awful situation. We learn about the people with her and the people she misses, and how she loves them all. We also see how hard the narrator is fighting despair and self-pity. Then the author pulls off a difficult trick: The story ends seemingly without a conclusion at the sound of “strange birds,” but we’re so immersed in the story that we know what happens next, and we know how we’re supposed to feel about it.

“Dancing Away” by Jules Goode

A not-quite-elderly woman, a former dancer, now uses a wheelchair and has recently moved to an assisted living home. After a personal calamity, she isn’t sure she wants to go on living.

It’s a quiet, familiar story of loss, just one scene, little more than a character sketch, but the exceptionally lush and loving sensory details transmit an intense emotional arc. At just the right time, a single word signals a delicate change and the possibility of a new phase of life.

Commended:

“A Perfect Day” by David Gilbert

If Hemingway weren’t dead, I’d believe he wrote this. A man and a woman are at a beach at sunset. They escaped from a psychiatric hospital. In small, telling ways, we learn that they’re not well, and they know they’re not well. The story is resolved with a sacrifice that will enable continued love. Friends take care of each other.

I’ve told the story explicitly, but the story shows rather than tells. Using a detached, restrained style, the author has picked every detail with utter precision.

“Diablo” by Jaime Gill

The author maintains unerring control over the distance between the reader and the story, creating space for a larger meaning. It opens with an aloof philosophic observation, “No single mistake was fatal on its own, so no one person could be blamed.” But those missteps lead to a disaster. A woman goes into labor just as a massive wildfire approaches. The mistakes continue, and we grow closer and closer to her struggles.

The story ends with unlikely hope and with a moment of expanded compassion and pity for other people in other disasters who might get the help they need in their own desperate moments. This small story illuminates a bigger world of hurt.

Winner:

“Vivit Post Funera Virtus” by Richard Chapman

Two drunk old men, on their way home in Nottingham in the middle of the night, have a heart-to-heart talk. Or rather, one of them wants to talk, the other resists, and they squabble until they have no choice but to be honest with each other about the meaning of life and death, and how they feel about each other. Their story is told through dialogue that required deliberate, careful craft.

The title is the motto of Nottingham and means “Virtue Outlives Death.” What a universal truth that is, locally grown and harvested. This tale ends with a rowdy celebration of life.

Poetry

Beth Brooke

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First of all I want to say how much I enjoyed reading all the entries; it’s such a privilege to have people willing to share their writing with me in this way.

 

I was looking for poems that had imagery at their heart and that used that imagery in arresting ways, giving me a new perspective on the subject matter. The winning poem, Fossil used imagery so effectively - the scalp as Utah salt flats, a woolly mammoth of hair. The title of Fossil which makes me think about age and something left over, preserved from another time and the way the shaved hair also suggests different points in time from boyhood blond to grey. This poem was deft, wonderfully understated and gave me lots to think about, alongside a narrative that was relatable.

 

Similarly, the poem, Blackbird, aside from its beautifully spare use of language used the imagery of religion and music to explore aspects of the natural world. I write a lot about nature and in particular about birds and it was refreshing to read a poem which made use of Christian mythologies. I read lots of poems about Greek myth, Norse myth but the myths which have underpinned much of the culture of English speaking societies is underused or else used for obviously religious purposes.

 

I really appreciate musicality in poetry.  Poems with internal rhyme and a meter which makes each line sing without sacrificing what the poem wants to say upon the altar of obvious rhyme. One poem from the long list, Two Blackcaps, was a skilful example of the use of rhyme and structure,  using quatrain stanzas and a beautifully measured end rhyme on the second and fourth lines of each stanza.

 

There was musicality too in Dune du Pilat, another poem on the long list. This was unusual because, like Two Blackcaps,  it wasn’t a free verse poem but used a specific form, in this instance a haibun. The lightness of the prose poem section so deftly distilled into the closing haiku stayed with me. I am a very occasional user of the haibun form and this particular entry has inspired me to go back to the haibun in my own work, so whoever you were - thank you!

 

A lot of the poems were written in first person. First person poems where the persona was not human or was not the poet writing about their personal experience caught my attention. One poem from the long list, Bebe The Pomeranian Makes It To Lifeboat Seven, was written in the voice of a canine survivor of the sinking of the Titanic. It stopped me in my tracks because I had never even considered that there were dogs on the ship, nor did I know that some got a place in a lifeboat. Such a clever choice of subject and written in such a way that the personality of the dog was distinct.

 

I like poems that don’t try to wrap things up at the end and tell me exactly what to think. I have learned, slowly and painfully over the years, to avoid this in my own work. I also love poems where the story being told is very open and leaves work for me to do as a reader. The poem Obsession was one such. I like poems that leave me wondering or mulling over different ways in which lines or phrases might be read. More of these please!

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