2019 takahē Short Story Competition Judge’s Report

A total of 187 stories were submitted for this year’s competition. They varied in length from less than 300 words to the maximum limit of 2500. Contributors covered a range of topics, though some common themes were seen. Several stories about gardening in retirement were received, some arriving on the same day. It’s possible a writing group had been working on the idea. More likely, it was just a coincidence. Oddly, two stories that appear in the long list featured vomit laced with pieces of sausage, (not a commonly observed literary trope). This was probably coincidental too.

Individual pieces were judged on their own merits, irrespective of whether the subject matter was original, or had been covered ad infinitum. However, it was probably not a bad thing that there weren’t too many sausage-vomit stories.

Authors incorporated some novel ideas, such as re-working a classic short story with a modern twist, or marinating bodily organs in vinegar before presenting them to a lover. Whilst fresh ideas are always a pleasure to read, some commonly used concepts were handled with originality, giving them an element of surprise. One long-listed piece featured a character with dementia, a subject frequently covered by contemporary writers. Viewed through Tongan eyes, the story showed a fresh approach.

Is it possible to have too many pieces on one subject? The proliferation of earthquake stories in Aotearoa after 2010 seems to have plateaued. Towards the end of this submission period, pieces featuring gun violence began to appear, for which quick-thinking authors should be acknowledged. It’s likely we’ll see more of these. Both subjects can be covered in a poignant way, provided they are approached with sensitivity and originality.

Choosing a long list was difficult. Some good stories didn’t make the top twenty-five. Winners and the short list were even harder to select.

How could stories that came close have made the grade?

  • The occasional typographical error won’t prevent an otherwise strong story from being selected. However, some pieces were sent without evidence of having been checked.
  • Verification of facts creates plausible fiction. Some overt inaccuracies made otherwise good stories less appealing.
  • Show rather than tell, where appropriate.
  • Check for consistency in tense.
  • Vary sentence length. Pay attention to rhythm and pattern of sounds.
  • Use figurative language sparingly, choosing relevant imagery.
  • Omit superfluous words.
  • Control adjectives and adverbs. Use concrete nouns where possible.
  • Pay attention to story structure. Consider pace, areas of heightened and relaxed tension.
  • Leave room for the reader’s response, whilst not making the story too obscure.
  • If told through multiple points of view, transitions should be smooth. Only use this technique if it enhances the storytelling.

A judge’s role is to identify well-constructed stories, evaluate their overall meaning and assess the use of language without bias. Personal preferences should not influence decisions.

However, we aren’t always invisible, (and writing in a passive voice for too long is a drag.) So I wanted to say, there’s a team behind the scenes at Takahē who process your submissions. Spare a thought for the competition secretary. Compared with some contests, Takahē’s requirements are not overly strict. Even so, there were multiple non-compliance issues, which created a lot of extra work.

I have written this ditty to remind people to read the rules:

Oh Tedious Symphony

(With apologies to the late F. Hg)

Writing from real life,
Or only fantasy,
Should I try Landfall?

Or will it be Takahee?

Let’s improvise,

Use ‘i’ before ‘e’, post ‘ceeee’.
I don’t use spellcheck. I have ability,
Because I like to go, with the flow.
Though I try, I don’t know.
They said to use attachments, doesn’t make much sense to me. Agree?

(Such) drama! I broke the rule,
Instructions I misread,
Pasted in my mail instead.

Yeah, nah! Could have had this one,
But now I’ve gone and thrown my chance away.
Bummer! Oh no!
Didn’t mean write my name,
Can I send once more before tomorrow?
Anonymise; heed my cries, I think it will look better.

Too late, the deadline’s come,
Send payment quick on line,
Or post if I have time.
Goodbye little story, it’s got to go,
Gotta send it in .doc form, not .pdf.

Bugger, oh-oh-oh no!
There’s an entry form to fill

These rules will make me ill . . . etc.

Here is a list other problems we encountered that I couldn’t fit into the song:

  • Sending proof of payment without showing Takahē’s bank number.
  • Writer’s name included as part of title.
  • Copyright sign and author’s name at end of story.
  • Blank entry form.
  • Entry form included in same document as story, requiring cutting and pasting.

In the end, we didn’t penalise anyone, and processed all entries, though for future reference please note we can be placated by offers of chocolate. Toblerone works very well.

The stories that floated to the top had a poignancy that resonated hours after reading. Congratulations to these writers:

Highly Commended:

The last moment − Bernard Steeds

A powerful wartime story that uses only a fraction of the word limit, but never the less has a huge impact. Every word is carefully chosen. Clever use of shifting point of view.

Peach Crumble − Melanie Dixon

A wonderful story featuring gardening in retirement. Beautifully told with crisp, inviting language. Once glimpsed, it demands to be read again.

Second place:

A Birthday − Andrea Ewing

A moving story set against a troubled backdrop in the Balkans showing empathy with the characters without being overly sentimental. Seamless transition between the main characters’ points of view.$

 

Winner:

When Rachmaninov Held My Hand − Kath Beattie

A wonderful piece of writing that examines grief in an original way. Its multiple complexities are handled with the expertise of a juggler.

 

Thanks to all who contributed.

~ Judge, Nod Ghosh.