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Stories on the Verge

The Eighth Annual Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest: Introduction

Near the end of the dinner held for the final judges of the Short Story Contest, where they hash out their likes and dislikes about the stories and decide upon the winning entries, a little voice from the corner of the table said, "Let's just go home and write short stories." It was Carolyn Osborn's voice, and it eluded the detection of most of the people at the table. It wasn't sudden inspiration from this year's stories that prompted Osborn to utter that suggestion but one of the relatively frequent lulls in conversation that always seems to happen during the final judging, after someone offers their opinion and someone else offers theirs and then the table becomes still and there's a bit of silent staring.

Being at that table was like being in a really vibrant undergraduate English class, with all the enthusiasm and eagerness that suggests, only everyone really seemed to know what they were talking about and money was involved (money not for the making but for bestowing; it's at the judges' discretion how the $1,500 in prize money is to be divided among the winners). There was the usual vivacity and tenacity at the dinner. This year's stories forced our judges to ponder whether the stories were to be judged against all of Literature, with a decidedly capital "L," or whether a different standard should be employed, one that presupposes that, for many of our entrants, this may be a first foray into submitting short stories. "It's just a contest," some of the judges responded to the assertion that we had to uphold the ideals of Literature by refusing to award stories that didn't entirely merit being awarded. The Literary camp held its ground. Each of the four stories we are publishing had its champions, and the merits of each were discussed at length. "A Day" had everyone at the table either rooting for it or liking it; some judges declared that the time span in "Hard Water" was too expansive for a short story, which is when we debated the nature of time in short stories and decided that "Hard Water" succeeded too well at its shifting time frames to not award it; "Miss Montana's Wedding Day" and "Bruised Egos" both earned kudos and champions for the unique, lively characters and situations they present.

Every entry in the Short Story Contest has two initial judges (many thanks to Bill Carter, Denise Hutto, Gus Gonzales, Kim Mellen, Lindsey Simon, and Deborah Wilson), so each story has two grades of 1-5, "5" being a stellar short story. Marketing director Tommi Ferguson and I then look over the scores and choose stories that, numerically speaking, should be passed on to the final judges. Then between the two of us we look over every story again to make certain that we're not missing any standouts. There's no avoiding the presence of subjectivity, either among the initial judges, Tommi Ferguson and myself, or among the final judges. Many stories are character sketches or an evocation of a particular place, but few combine those elements with a plot that a reader can credibly engage in. These four stories do all of those things.

Thanks also to our co-sponsors Borders Books and Music, the Austin Writers' League, Zoetrope Short Stories, and Jeffrey's, where the dinner for the final judges was held. We'd like to invite everyone to listen to the winners read their own stories at Borders North (10225 Research) on Sunday, September 19, from 4-6pm.

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