Announcing the Winners of the Character-Driven Tale Contest
It's been a marathon few weeks for our intrepid contest judge, David Corbett. This has been one of our biggest contests yet, and as a result, he's had more than a novel's worth of writing to read! But he didn't just read the entries; in the true Scribophile spirit he also took time to give each mention some great feedback on how to improve the next draft.
And without further ado, on to David's picks and remarks. Remember to check out David's new book, The Art of Character, and join me in congratulating the winners!
An Unbreakable Heart, by Lucy Gregg Muir: I started this story convinced it would leave me cold but it won me over with its command of language and scene and its clever reinterpretation of what happened in Oz. But that made it more dependent on concept than character, and it seemed more a deftly executed idea than a story.
Nights at the Brown Table by Paul Toth: I admired the sheer audacity of the language in this piece and there was an intriguing plot turn amidst the blizzard of words, but the characters got lost in the whirlwind. Would love to see this writer tell a straight-ahead story.
The ring of Gyges by Eliza Loizides: This story had too many missteps to make the top three, but it had two of the most well-drawn and realistic characters I came across in several hundred submissions. In the end, though, it promised more than it delivered—something I think another revision or two (and the freedom to expand beyond 3,000 words) can solve. First and foremost, several themes are introduced and either abandoned or mishandled. The story begins with a tribute to Athens, but at the story’s end the main character inexplicably wants to leave the city behind forever. The narrator claims to love the rudeness of Athenians but when she herself is accused of rudeness that fact isn’t tied in to her earlier observation. The narrator, who claims to believe in justice, proves to be a thief—a potentially dramatic and interesting turn—but she lacks any real insight into her own hypocrisy, or how the story of Gyges, which clearly means a great deal to her, applies to her own crime. Each theme is stated but not meaningfully developed or resolved, and the contradictions lack the narrative insight to render them convincing. That said, these characters compelled me, and I found myself thinking about both of them long after I’d finished the story—always an excellent sign.
Hoshiko by Wilson Hara: This wistful, witty, and almost surreal piece enchanted me with its searing economy of language. But the ending felt a little too magical for the tone of restraint that had been so wonderfully established. A subtler turn at the end is what’s needed. And I found the uneven space breaks confusing—were they intentional? If so, why? But this story and this writer have real promise.
The Last Two People in the World by Seonaidh Ceannéidigh: A beautifully written tone poem, touching and elegiac. Very close to my top three. But it seemed more driven by concept than character, and stopped short of dramatizing the action that could have truly decided the issue at the heart of the two characters’ conflict, and therefore felt less like a story than a thematic moment in time. Also, I couldn’t convince myself the sudden shift from present tense to past tense in the last line was meaningful instead of mistaken. That said, I loved this piece.
A Rebel's Hell: Confessions of a Broken Hearted Punk Rocker, Chapter 1 by Nessie Strange: This story was very nicely written with some wonderful, memorable lines, and provided an intriguing look at a deeply troubled young man and an equally troubled friendship. The narrative voice was interesting and compelling, the scenes were well drawn, and the haunting tone hooked me. But the ending felt forced and insufficiently motivated — a shortcoming caused or at least exacerbated, perhaps, by the word limit — with a “moral of the tale” tacked on that felt unworthy of what had come before. This story has great potential, though, and I’d love to see the author wrap it up convincingly—and I believe he or she can and will.
Third Place (a tie!)
A Bag of Snakes by Jeff Suwak: This was an almost perfectly executed comic piece with a superb narrative voice that never faltered. The action built from disaster to disaster in a seamless if loopy way, and the narrator’s asides were wickedly funny. Despite its many virtues, though, it was more about the situation than the character(s), and the ending went on a touch too long. But I could easily read more from this author—a lot more.
Dreary by Jonathan Koolaid: Despite a few language lapses (“shudders” instead of “shutters,” for example), and a few other rough spots, this story had well-drawn scenes, excellent and natural dialog, several nice plot turns, good follow-up and continuity, and biting wit. The narrator felt like a real person (if somewhat a type) making a bold action with insight into his hopelessly confused motives. It had a nice double turn at the end, one poignant, the other comic, and it wrapped up with a button ending. Nice.
Each third place winner will receive a copy of The Art of Character and $50 cash via PayPal.
Sweet William by KJD Donovan: Though I was distracted by the number of misplaced commas in this piece and a few other minor mistakes, the story and narrative voice pulled me through. There was wit and intelligence and pathos throughout, with keenly observed details and excellent dialog. Though recounted in reflection the story felt lived in the present, and all the people in it felt real. I wanted to award it first place, but the ending was problematic—and I don’t believe the 3,000 word limit can be faulted. William’s suicide felt forced and melodramatic (just the narrator’s turn against the boy is cruelty enough), and the final sermonizing remarks felt out of tune with the intelligent restraint so nicely exhibited in the rest of the story. I saw a possible ending that wouldn’t have required much more language, and would have brought the coveted Annette back into the picture: What if the narrator had called out “Poof!” without realizing Annette was in earshot? And what if she pushes through the rowdies to slap the narrator viciously in front of all the others he was trying to placate? In one single gone-to-hell moment the narrator not only cruelly betrays a friend out of cowardice but loses all chance at what he’s been secretly, craftily angling for all along—and with no need of a rushed and maudlin (if credible) suicide or a moralizing coda to tie it up. We’ll get the full devastation of the moment instantly. But even with the mishandled ending, this piece stayed with me and was a joy to read.
The second place winner will receive a copy of The Art of Character and $75 cash via PayPal.
My Dear Katy by Belinda Mellor: The language in this piece is antiquated (”on the morrow”) and at times seems to strive too hard for literary effect, but that eventually reveals itself to be an element of the narrator’s voice, which places the story’s time somewhere in the not-too-distant past. Still, there were times when this effect seemed a bit overdone and threatened to lose me. With that one caveat, this piece delivered without question the most devastating reveal of any of the stories I read. The ending is truly unexpected and crushing, and the tale of the two sisters and their misspent lives is vivid and affecting even though recounted in reflection—something that’s incredibly hard to pull off. Without the writer’s excellent use of detail and command of voice—an essential element of character—this story would collapse under the weight of its language. The fact that it doesn’t testifies to the writer’s skill. The narrator is both haunted and haunting while also being utterly, convincingly real.
The first place winner will receive a copy of The Art of Character, a 50-page manuscript review from David Corbett worth $350, and $100 cash via PayPal.
And that's all, folks! Thanks to David for his hard work judging all of these great entries, and stay tuned for more great writing contests!