Judge: Brooke Dunnell
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of reading over 300 works of flash fiction entered into the Youth, Novice and Open categories of the 2021 Peter Cowan 600 Short Story Competition. So much about judging this competition has been heartening: the number of entries, the quality of the writing, the range of approaches, and the very fact that the competition exists and has been promoting flash fiction and emerging Australian authors for such a long time.
Entrants to the Peter Cowan 600 set themselves the difficult task of creating something recognisable as a story in six hundred words or fewer. In two to three double-spaced pages, characters appear and move and speak; their surroundings solidify; their hopes and dreams are shared, questioned, shattered. They experience events and sensations both mundane and extreme. They are left changed in major, minor, or even barely perceptible ways.
Many, many submissions across all three categories were impressive, and for a variety of reasons. I encountered beautiful descriptive writing, snappy dialogue, moments of eye-widening familiarity. I was allowed to dip into lives I would otherwise have no concept of. I read endings that left me stunned at the author’s perceptiveness or that forced me to immediately return to the beginning to see how it all came together. Every single story had something going for it, if not several things. To the many submitters who haven’t ended up with an award or acknowledgement, this doesn’t mean your story failed. The competition was very strong, which is exciting for the flash fiction genre in particular and the writing community overall. In order to reflect this, five pieces have been shortlisted in each category to accompany the winners.
For those looking to improve their creative writing skills, there are a few areas where weaknesses are more common. The strongest pieces of flash fiction are those that feel self-contained and provide a sense of awareness, realisation or change for the characters. This is, of course, extremely tricky: how does a writer convey a meaningful moment with so little space for description, backstory, and stakes? For me, the answer is specificity: choose those details that tell readers a lot in the shortest amount of time. Stories that were very general or that spent too many precious words on extraneous detail were less likely to do well.
The beginning and ending of a story are also extremely important in throwing us in and then pulling us back out. It’s much harder for a story without a distinct ending to have as strong an impact. (This doesn’t mean that everything is resolved, but rather that readers are left with a sense that the moment being narrated is now complete—more difficult to achieve than it sounds.) In reading the submissions, I was sometimes disappointed by strong stories that petered out in the final paragraph. Conversely, some that were humming along fairly well delighted me with the deployment of an ending that felt well-earned and just right.
If your story wasn’t chosen this year, don’t be disheartened. Think of how many other moments you could capture and shape in under six hundred words—thousands, right?—and please submit again in 2022.
2021 WINNERS AND SHORTLISTS
Julian Cowan Youth Award: ‘Please Hold’ by Eva Mustapic (Western Australia)
Written with a clear eye and steady pacing, the events captured in this story are made all the more suspenseful and chilling through the effective use of the first-person point of view, leaving readers and the narrator equally unsettled.
‘A Case of You’ by Joel Keith (Victoria)
‘Forever’ by Olivia Nigido-Scott (Victoria)
‘Inalienable’ by Christina Quan (Victoria)
‘It’s That Simple’ by Erin Williams (Western Australia)
‘Mother’ by Meh Menush Menhood (Western Australia)
Novice Award: ‘Fuel’ by Katy Knighton (Victoria)
This piece of flash, like its narrator, is unique, quirky and endearing. The protagonist’s efforts to play it cool around a celebrity feel familiar, and the simple clarity of the ending fits the story and its characters.
‘Eating the Virgin’ by Andrew Macleod (Western Australia)
‘Hashima’ by Indyana Horobin (Queensland)
‘Serrations’ by Andrew Ward (Western Australia)
‘Still Life’ by Tanya Edlington (Victoria)
‘Tin Shed Antiquities’ by Mitchell Suursaar (South Australia)
First place: ‘In the Womb of His Truck’ by Kit Scriven (Victoria)
The shifts between photograph and memory, adulthood and boyhood in this story are deftly handled, creating a sense of desolation and melancholy. The precision of the detail is remarkable, allowing readers to understand the situation through careful implication.
Second place: ‘Girl in Short, Red-Cotton Pyjamas’ by Shey Marque (Western Australia)
The writer’s effective use of second-person point of view gives readers sharp insight into a sensitive and important issue. The protagonist’s reactions to her traumatic experience are distinct and realistic, as, sadly, are those of other characters.
Third place: ‘Some Things About Laundry’ by Sarah Leighton (Western Australia)
This rumination on ‘things about laundry’ appears deceptively commonplace at the start, but by the end readers come full circle to share a sense of sadness at the realisation at what has been taken for granted.
‘Boi’ by Donald Linke (Victoria)
‘Glitter’ by Emily Winter (Queensland)
‘It Had to be Love’ by Carolyn Parker (Western Australia)
‘Serenade for End Days’ by Scott-Patrick Mitchell (Western Australia)
‘Clear Blue’ by Susan McCreery (New South Wales)
‘Names’ by Alan Fyfe (Western Australia)
‘Punch Up’ by Isaac Abbott (South Australia)
‘Siren of the Sea’ by Sherry Mackay (Queensland)
‘Air Fantasy AF34’ by Ross Jackson (Western Australia)
‘At Your Table’ by Carmel Lillis (Victoria)
‘Free-camping’ by Peter Perkins (Queensland)
‘The Poetry of Sunrises’ by Carmel Lillis (Victoria)
‘Three’ by Therese Lloyd (New South Wales)
Congratulations to those writers whose work has been recognised. You should be very proud of your achievement! My sincere thanks to Gayle Malloy and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre for asking me to judge this year’s entries and for collecting, anonymising and sharing them so efficiently, making my part of the job seamless in the process.
Brooke Dunnell, 17 May 2021