Just in case you need a reminder, the four words that had to be included were: plague, magazine, sleep and reluctant.
First, the ‘Newbies’:
There were 20 entries in the ‘New Writer’ category (I know I said 18 before but I counted again!) and the shortlisted stories, in alphabetical order, are as follows:
• Philippa Bowe – On The Pier
• Ray Claus – It’s Time
• Sara Kellow – Waiting
• Maggie Storer – One Chance Only
• Jo Tiddy – Besieged
I also liked ‘The Late Ride’ by Miriam Hanah, Colin Ross’s ‘Captain Alexender Gunn’ and Julie Hiscock’s ‘A Good Dose of The Plague’. These 3 only just missed out on the shortlist.
If you’d like to read the 5 shortlisted stories, they’re at the end of the post. The winner has already been chosen, so any comments you make will NOT influence the decision, but if you’d like to say which one is your favourite, that might be interesting!
I completely understand the desire to get something written and sent off quickly but too many of the entries in the New Writer category read like first ideas and first drafts. Some (not many!) also had spelling mistakes and changes of tense and point of view, which could have been spotted with some careful editing.
Writers have to be skilled in areas that seem, on the surface, to have nothing to do with writing. You have to be organised and give yourself time to check and revise your work.
Trying to be original is a really important part of being a writer, too. So don’t go with your first idea – it’s bound to be someone else’s. There were an awful lot of rats, post-apocalyptic worlds and festering dead bodies. There were also quite a lot of dreams and sleeping people. There’s a limit, to be honest, as to how interesting dreams and sleeping people can be. In something as short as 250 words, you need to be very skilled in order to make it effective.
And one final point: think about character. Even in a mini saga, the reader wants to identify with the person in your story. Many of you wrote in the third person -which is fine – but didn’t give your characters a name (you just spoke about ‘he’ or ‘she’).
I’d have liked to know the character’s name. It would have convinced me more. ‘Marjory’ is going to be a very different person (in age, class, nationality, religion) than ‘Aisha’. ‘Alfred’, very different from ‘Manuel’. Names are shorthand, they tell the reader a lot – use them!
Here are the shortlisted 5 stories. The winner will be announced tomorrow and the shortlisted ‘Open category’ stories will appear shortly….
1. ‘On the Pier’ – Philippa Bowe
Is that it? I can see something, just a speck, but it could be the boat. Tommy’s boat. Yes, it must be… Tommy, you’re nearly home!…How can I get through the hours ’till you get off the boat and step into my arms?…Oh, but I can wait a few hours more. My darling Tommy. My sweetheart…
The rain pounds the deserted beach, splattering off the pebbles. A forgotten deckchair bulges with water. The skirt of the woman standing on the pier flails, plagued by the wind. She stares out to sea. Her headscarf clings to her face and she pulls it off. Her hair escapes, long snakes writhing against a grey sky.
Two waiters squint through the rain-smeared window of the Millennium Café on the seafront.
“That woman out there must be insane.”
“You’d say so. That’s Sarah Jane. They wrote an article about her in the local magazine. She’s waiting for her lover.”
“Where’s he got to then?”
“He never came back. He was on one of the Dunkirk boats. It sunk. But she’s still out there waiting for him, day in, day out. Since 1940.”
Another woman appeared, compact and brisk beneath a large umbrella.
“Sarah Jane? It’s time to go in. Come on, love, it’s time for your afternoon sleep.”
The old woman reluctantly swung her gaze from the sea.
“It hasn’t arrived yet, Hetty. I think there must be a storm at sea. Tomorrow. It’ll be here tomorrow.”
2. ‘It’s Time’ – Ray Claus
The old man sighed deeply, and placed his hands on his knees. He knew it was time, but he didn’t want to yet get up off his park bench. The plague that had been his life was coming to an end. He felt like he had been sleep-walking through it all, but what did he have to show for it? A wasteful shambles. He had been a successful business man, but now that Liz was gone, what more was there for him?
He reluctantly rose to his feet, when a young boy skidded his bike to a stop so forcefully in front of him that the old man sat down again with a thump.
“Hey mister,” the boy said. “Have you heard the news?”
“What news is that, boy?”
“That you don’t have to go to Hell. Jesus died for your sins, so you can go to heaven.”
“Humph. Not interested, boy,” the old man said, struggling to his feet once more.
“But God loves you.”
“So I’ve heard, or read, in a book or magazine, or something. Doesn’t mean much to me, though.” The old man turned his back to the boy and gingerly took one step, then another.
“But it’s your time,” the boy said.
The old man stopped. “Time for what?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Time for you to hear the message.”
The old man turned and considered his young visitor. “It may be at that,” he said, and sat down again on the park bench.
3. ‘Waiting’ – Sara Kellow
When the pandemic is over they are supposed to send a signal, but there has been nothing. The code will be sleep no more, followed by further instructions. Until then we stand guard over the food, medical supplies and ammunition which our leaders will need when they emerge to build a post-plague society. I am in command now since the Captain tried to blow up the magazine. My first proper command and no one left to be proud of me. I thought I knew him, but I never guessed he would lose it like that. Lieutenant Barnes says it was survivor guilt. He also says if I hadn’t known him I could never have talked him down.
At least there are no more refugees trying to get in. Turning them away may have driven the Captain mad, but I am more afraid of the survivors. We were told that no one on the outside would survive the superbug, but every day we see more smoke on the horizon and hear distant gunfire as well. They were left to perish and now they are burning and looting their way through the remains of the society that abandoned them. How long before they come for us? And could we really hold them off without engaging them? I don’t know about Barnes. Sometimes he backs me up; sometimes he seems reluctant to take my orders. I wish I were not the only woman.
4. ‘One Chance Only’ – Maggie Storer
Bernadette woke with a start. She heard the locks clicking open, getting closer. She knew he would be here any minute.
Slowly the horror of her whereabouts came thudding back through her drug induced sleep and the familiar damp smell filled her nostrils. How many days now? She was losing count, but she must keep a grip. Her eyes began to adjust as she made out the peeling grey walls and sparse furniture. She lay on a ragged mattress, raised from the ground on wooden pallets and old magazines.
Something was crawling on her skin. She brushed wildly at her arms and legs. Sleep was futile against a plague of blood sucking flees.
She thought of her family often. They were the only reason to escape this hell hole, and she vowed to see them again soon. The thought of their grief brought tears to her eyes and was almost as hard to bear as her own suffering.
She was calmer now than when she’d first arrived, lashing out and screaming. She’d gradually learnt that to keep quiet subdued him too, and her cuts and bruises were healing. He’d brought her warm water and a towel and reluctantly she’d had to eat the food and water he’d placed inside the door. Let him think she was being compliant. She knew she never would be.
As the key slotted into the final door, she readied herself. She knew she would have one aim and one chance only. She was ready.
5. ‘Besieged’ – Jo Tiddy
She thought she’d never sleep again, but somehow she has snatched an hour in the cool dawn before the cannon start again. They are aiming at the magazine, but the stores are carved deep into the living rock beneath the citadel, and in any case the city ran out of ammunition two days ago.
“We will be fighting off the infidel with rocks and dead cats,” her mother grumbles. She doesn’t remind her that the cats have all been eaten.
Reluctantly she leaves the sanctuary of the house – it feels safe, but Josefa’s place got flattened last week, with Josefa inside. She hugs the sides of the street as she walks to the well. The whine of a shell, a breathless pause, then the crump of the explosion, rocking her on her feet, clogging her eyes and throat with white dust.
‘Missed,’ she thinks with a hysterical giggle, vision clearing. Women scurry, scarves round their faces as if ready-shrouded for their own tombs. Men and boys, those who remain, are on the battlements regarding the relentless enemy pushing ever closer to the walls.
She notices the first corpse as she nears the well, then another, distended belly grotesque. Rats, dead rats, and with them the promise of a slower death. She realises then that there is no hope, for if plague has come they are finished. She goes home, kisses her mother, then climbs to the highest of the city walls, spreads out her arms, and flies to oblivion.