The 18th Annual Short Story Contest
How we made it from 620 stories to one
By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 12, 2010
From a record-smashing 620 entries, nine finalists emerged – and with them, some common themes. At the judges' dinner last week, Jim Lewis noted the prevalence of cars and dead or dying animals. Clay Smith mentioned the class issues. And Erin Pringle pointed out another commonality.
"There are a lot of jerks," she said.
"Good people don't make good fiction," Mary Helen Specht offered by way of explanation.
"And this guy's the leader of the pack," said Smith of the protagonist of John Roberts' "Deliver Me," which would eventually take first place. It's a seriocomic piece about a man named Jim who is on his way back to the town and the woman he abruptly left 10 years prior. Jim's a jerk, without a doubt, but the judges had trouble agreeing on just how much of a jerk he was – and on how much of one the author had intended him to be.
In fact, there was much lively debate at the judges' dinner and very little agreement. It took our four judges nearly three hours to come to some consensus. Every one of the nine finalists was championed by a judge (a 10th finalist was pulled from the competition by its author just prior to the dinner), but not one finalist was championed by every judge. To add further turmoil, another story – a favorite of more than one judge –had to be pulled from competition late in the game when it was discovered it exceeded the contest's allowed word count.
In the end, Roberts' "Deliver Me" took the day; it was commonly considered the most professionally executed story of the lot – though Specht called it "the safe, electable candidate" – and the judges admired both its imagery and its finely drawn characterizations.
Lewis was the most enthusiastic champion of second-place winner "Cribdeath: Bellocq's Girl," which had the other judges' respect but not full-throated endorsement. (All agreed that its final sentence was a misstep.) F.J. Schaack's story, a monologue set in a Storyville brothel, distinguished itself by being the only historical story in the batch, as well as one of the more inventive ones.
Kerri Mullen's "Rendezvous," about a fraught birthday dinner in honor of a dearly departed father, took third place. Specht in particular praised the story for being "very sophisticated and very controlled."
Ben Roberts' "Mother" made several judges' short lists of favorites, but Smith railed against the "faux-biblical language" – the very same quality that Lewis liked most in the story – while the judges returned repeatedly to Jason Lee's "A Time and Times," a slim three-pager with a knockout first two paragraphs that Pringle called "hard to shake." Both stories netted honorable mentions.
Big thanks to the judges, who freely gave their time, careful consideration, and dinner companionship. Thanks also go to marketing wiz Erin Collier and her first lieutenant, Logan Youree, and to an army of first-readers, who with minimal complaint accepted what felt sometimes like a Sisyphean task of tackling submissions: Nora Ankrum, Nick Barbaro, Sarah Jean Billeiter, Wayne Alan Brenner, Jessi Cape, Lei-Leen Choo, Wells Dunbar, Mark Fagan, Liz Franklin, Cassidy Frazier, Anne Harris, Michael King, Matthew Patin, James Renovitch, Monica Riese, Pamela Ross, Audra Schroeder, Amy Smith, Darcie Stevens, Jason Stout, Kristine Tofte, Tim Warden, and Richard Whittaker. And thanks to the 620 brave souls who submitted. I am impressed by your creativity and inspired by your pluck. See you next year.