Notes from The Slush: 2018 Winter Short Story Award
“I agree we saw a lot of really polished work, it was difficult to compare the strengths and weaknesses of so many wonderful stories. That’s something you and I struggle with with a strong group: what are we valuing in this particular contest and what pushes a story forward?”
S: We just finished reading for our Winter Short Story Award for New Writers. As always, we received a large and strong crop of submissions. And, as usual, the stories we received surprised me. All three winning stories startled me for their sharp tonal contrasts and the way they subverted my expectations. I wanted to start by calling out our second-place story “A History That Brings Me To You” by Katie Flynn a bit, because that story basically toggles between two different POVs. While stories with shifting POVs often make it far in our deliberations, it’s actually pretty rare for them to be among the winners. So I thought I would ask: what are the challenges of stories with multiple POVs? What makes them succeed and/or fail in your eyes?
K: A changing POV story is so fun to read when it’s done well because it allows for a close look at multiple characters in a versatile way that can really add depth to a story. It’s a very specific narrative choice and can be a difficult technique to do well, so as you said, even though we see a lot of submissions with alternating POVs, it’s rare that one makes it to the winners circle. Alternating POV stories need to have distinct character voices and character development, clear switches in perspective, and both points of view need to be necessary for the story. We see writers make mistakes in each of these areas, but for me the biggest challenge we see over and over again is confusion in the narrative when points of view are switching. Too often writers are ineffective at presenting the new point of view and I’m taken so out of the world of the story, it undermines my trust and interest in the piece. To me this speaks to the work a writer puts into the story before she begins writing: understanding why each perspective is important, developing a strong anchor for that perspective, and seamlessly folding it into the piece. I’m not sure if you agree, but another area we see in toggling points of view is when one perspective is so much weaker than the main narrative. The result is an imbalanced story. Katie Flynn’s piece, on the other hand, did a great job of presenting a story that required both POVs and both were anchored in fully developed and flushed out characters. What mistakes do you see in this technique? What other reasons did you see that we rejected stories this round?
S: I agree that one of the biggest challenges for a story with a shifting POV is simply the transitions themselves. It’s also important that each POV feel essential to the story, and we do see a lot of really well-written pieces struggle in that department. “A History That Brings Me To You” only had two different POVs—and the toggle between two characters who we came to know well ended up being extremely effective. Now, we see a whole lot of really well-written stories that take on many more than two POVs. In fact, there was a vivid story that made it to the finalists round and included sections told from many different perspectives all united by their location in a particular summertime beach town; they also centered around a particular tragic event. While this story was really well done, it failed to go very deep. A story with many different POVs can sometimes feel like a panoramic camera shot—it covers a lot of ground well, but doesn’t stop on anything long enough to have staying power. We saw this with a few stories this round: they were structurally compelling and well-written, but ultimately they didn’t zoom in deep enough on any one character or emotion. There was one story that alternated between two different times—decades apart—in a characters’ life when she had run over an animal. There was another that told the story of the dissolution of a family’s relationship in a series of short vignettes that jumped forward and back in time. In both cases, the format ended up getting in the way of the deep character work that needed to be done. Still! It’s an honor to read so many great stories. What trends did you notice this round in terms of theme and content?
K: I agree we saw a lot of really polished work, it was difficult to compare the strengths and weaknesses of so many wonderful stories. That’s something you and I struggle with with a strong group: what are we valuing in this particular contest and what pushes a story forward? It can feel like a difficult metric, but you and I always come back to thorough, deep, and thoughtful stories with excellent character work, polished writing on the line level, and a solid, narrative arc. Some of the stories we were considering had holes in one or more of these areas: the logistics of the narrative weren’t clear enough or the character work wasn’t deep or satisfying to the right degree, or even, there was some confusion in place and time. I thought we saw a lot more experiments in form and in the premise of the story this round, and most of them were really satisfying and complete. I loved a story about God living in a domestic neighborhood and following the struggles of God’s neighbor who desperately needs a favor. There was another good piece about a strange high school where the girls are exploring their sexuality by getting naked as part of a class, and even, a modern Virgin Mary story, which all have obvious related themes. However, we also saw quite of bit of traditionally structured stories and ideas. One that I really enjoyed explored a man and a woman and the slow disintegration of their relationship. That is a pretty familiar idea, but it was presented in a really fresh way and extremely well written. One if its setbacks, however, was the story circled around the same emotion time and time again, to the point it didn’t feel like there was enough emotional development for the piece. It’s so interesting how unique and special each of the stories we see are. What did you think about some of the more traditional pieces we saw? What were some of the reasons those pieces were declined?
S: I agree with all of those comments about the content we saw this round. We love a good experimental or magical realist story but most of the pieces that made it to the final round this time were very traditional in form and content. It is interesting that we had that story about God living in a regular suburban neighborhood and the retelling of the Virgin Mary story. There were also a lot of pieces that explored different facets of female sexuality. We saw a whole lot of very strong traditional stories that lacked true staying power. There was one told in the retrospective voice from the point of view of a young woman whose friend had been killed when they were teenagers. There was another one that illustrated the story of a relationship and another in which a woman bluntly reflected on her romantic history. All of these stories were really readable and very well-crafted and we did discuss them. However, when it did come time to talk about them, I found that these stories had not stayed with me as powerfully; they hadn’t really gotten under my skin. I think that this was, at least partially, due to a lack of reflection on the part of the protagonists. They all did an exquisite job of telling their stories, but I wasn’t as sure what their stories meant to them. I’d like to give you a chance to talk about our winning story “Drop Zone Summer” by Nick Fuller Googins. What stood out to you about this piece?