Behind the Scenes

Writing sThis week saw the results of the New Roscommon Writing Award I judged recently, so I’m going to take you behind the scenes of the selection process.

Congratulations to all the shortlisted writers, and in particular to winner Neil Tully.

If you enjoy entering writing competitions, you might like to hear about the adjudication.

But before we get to that bit, for today’s weekly creative writing prompt/exercise I want you to imagine going behind the scenes – your choice of scene. Take a different slant on what might be expected.

Instead of writing a review of a play, watch the actors putting on their makeup and costumes. Instead of picking up a bag of spinach at the farmers’ market, go out at dawn with the grower and see what it takes to pick the leaves.

Instead of the person getting a Covid vaccine, try the point of view of one of the legions of volunteers handing out leaflets and watching for reactions, clearing up after everyone’s gone home.

This will be a creative non-fiction piece – go for 500 words this time.

Back to Roscommon.

When the parcel of stories arrived on my doormat, I dived in straight away, eager to see what would catch my eye. It was a very difficult task and took ages!

Although there were no specific rules about presentation (there are sometimes competition requirements for particular font styles, sizes, margins and spacing, always check the guidelines!), the entries presented in a way that was easy to read immediately went to the top of the pile.

I had to disregard some good writing that didn’t fit the memoir or short story requirement, which was a shame. I weeded out ones with serious syntax, spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes – a writing competition is looking for good writing and something that is clearly a first draft that hasn’t been checked for typos shouldn’t be a winner. If you love writing but your English skills let you down, find someone to read your work before you send it out, or join a writing group where members will offer critiques.

I had such a difficult task to choose just five from that pile of 55 entries! Memoir and fiction are, of course, quite different animals, but it was writing skill I was keen to identify, and the winning entries stood out right from the start.

At the time of judging, I had no idea of who the writers were, since all their work arrived with me anonymous and numbered, not named. All competitors had to have a strong link with County Roscommon in Ireland. In the end, I was very pleased to see who was who – congratulations to all!

It takes guts to send out your work for strangers to pick over and comment on, and I commiserate with those writers who weren’t amongst the winners. Some were only a whisker away from the shortlist, so my advice to anyone who entered is to try again next year. 

See if you agree with my selection – you can read the winning entry here: Infinite Possibilities by Neil Tully.

This is what I had to say about the winner:  This short story was memorable for several reasons. It is written in the voice of second person (‘you’), which can be tricky to pull off, but here it is very well done. And there is very little dialogue, which would normally be essential to help define characters and move the story forward, but it somehow isn’t missed here. The immense dramatic scope of the story – the milestones in an unnamed man’s lifetime – are framed very casually to draw in the reader and I kept reading, wanting to know what happened next. When I’d finished, I found myself thinking about what I’d read. I loved some of the language used: ‘A pamphlet was sticking out of the letterbox like a sharp white tongue’, and describing children leaving school for the day: ‘(you) marveled at hundreds of them flying in all directions like sparks from a table saw’. I also liked the ending, which didn’t so much finish the story, as stopped it as if there might be more ‘infinite possibilities’ to come. Very enjoyable, a worthy winner.

Incidentally, the maximum number of words (excluding the title) was 2,000 – Neil’s story was 1,999 words!

The excellent runners up were (in alphabetical order):

Coming Home by Carol Beirne (short story)

The Chapel of Ease by Trish Bennett (memoir)

Paths in the Garden by Helen Cunningham (short story)

Gunfire in Room 109 by John Mulligan (memoir)

I loved them all, and any one could have been a winner, it was very hard to settle on one above the others! Of course, enjoyment of literature is very subjective, but I hope others will agree on my choices, and again, congratulations to everyone involved!

New here? Find out more here – but the quick version is I post a new creative writing prompt/exercise here every Wednesday at 5pm, Dublin time.