JUDGE’S REPORT – Brooke Dunnell
Judging the Peter Cowan 600 Word Short Story Competition is a pleasure and an honour, and this year was no exception. Over two hundred pieces of flash fiction were entered across the Youth, Novice, and Open categories, demonstrating once again the strength of the genre among local and Australian writers and the passion the participants have for their craft.
In reading the entries I was delighted to be plunged into a range of worlds from the seemingly quotidian to the wrenchingly unusual, set in the distant past through to the disorienting future. Many stories engaged with contemporary issues, including the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, catastrophic results of climate change, and the devastating war in Ukraine. Perspectives included those of humans, animals, and even plants. Some works offered sharply realised moments of comedy, while others delved into the deepest tragedies of everyday lives. The effort and engagement of the writer was evident in every piece.
Those who aren’t familiar with creative writing might assume that writing a two-page story is far easier than one encompassing twenty or two hundred pages, but flash fiction writers know this is rarely the case. They are embracers of limitation, giving up the luxury of space and time. They attempt to establish a world, characters, and conflict in a matter of sentences, then leave them just as quickly. Luckily, restriction can breed creativity, and it has done so here.
When I teach the craft of short story writing, my advice is always to treat the word count as currency. The word limit of this competition can be interpreted as having six hundred words to ‘spend’, with each one needing to prove its worth. As writers, we must budget our precious words as best we can.
So where to splash the cash, and where to pinch pennies? The trick is to have every paragraph, sentence, and even word carry as much meaning as possible. A cleverly presented detail can give insight into a character’s background, present situation, and perspective all at the same time, while also delighting the reader through sound, style, and connotation. The return on investment is clear.
In general, I was gripped by stories that presented uncommon situations or viewpoints; featured original and compelling characters; and/or leaned into the immediacy of scenes rather than more general summaries. Many pieces offered a ‘slice of life’, but the most effective of these contained a sharpness or moment of resonance that lifted them above the realm of verisimilitude. These writers allocated their funds in the most appropriate way, and they should be rewarded.
Winner, Julian Cowan Youth Award:
‘The Masterpiece’ by Eva Cheong (WA.)
This story makes an effective commentary on art and beauty ideals by way of clear imagery and fantastical elements. The physicality of the statue and her reaction to her changed, ‘ideal’ appearance has a strong impact on the reader.
- ‘An Unnatural Beach Day’ by Maya Burns
- ‘Forest Fire’ by Ella Jarvis
- ‘Horoscoped’ by Ella McNamara
- ‘It’ by Iluka Watson
- ‘The Outback’ by Melissa Carstens
Winner, Novice Writer Award:
‘Drying Out’ by Kerri Major (NSW)
This is a melancholy exploration of familial dysfunction, repressed rage, and substance abuse. The narrator’s tone is simultaneously wry and desperate, and the cyclical ending underscores the issues that arise in the story.
- ‘Aisle 17’ by Ciaran Hogan
- ‘Beast’ by Carol Astbury
- ‘Rheta’s Unusual Refugee’ by Bronwyn Boehm
- ‘That Lady Wot Died’ by Teresa Lynch
- ‘The Call’ by Aimee Sargent
‘Speak No Evil’ by Megan Anderson (WA)
This story captures a distinct sense of place. The balance between the protagonist’s performance and what is going on beneath the surface is handled beautifully, and the author enters and leaves the piece with flashes of crisply rendered detail.
‘And the Rains Came Down’ by Sherry Mackay (Qld)
The use of narrative voice in this work of flash is deeply engaging, with the sorrowful and resilient tone helping to bring to life the flooded communities in which the events take place. The writing style is both accessible and lyrical, drawing readers in.
‘Wisteria’ by Laila Miller (WA)
The author of this story has created a protagonist through brief but illuminating sketches of detail. The use of sensory description, especially touch and smell, makes the scene feel vivid, and the character’s feeling of vertigo at the end is palpable.
- ‘Berlin 2018’ by Meghalee Bose (Vic)
- ‘Clean’ by Jing Cramb (Qld.)
- ‘Rest in Peace Dad’ by Sarah Leighton (WA)
- ‘The Pickup’ by Linda Brandon (NSW)
- ‘Aquamarine’ by Alicia Sometimes (Vic)
- ‘Between Them’ by Samantha Boswell (WA)
- ‘My Mate Lucky’ by Martin Chambers (WA)
- ‘Translation to Fire’ by Kristen Roberts (Vic)
- ‘Abandoned’ by Pippa Kay
- ‘Fishing’ by Martin Chambers
- ‘Pow!’ by Kate Maxwell
- ‘Sit’ by Sarah English
- ‘The Picnic’ by Jess Andrews
My sincere thanks once again to the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre for the invitation to judge this year’s competition. I would like to be the first to congratulate all the winning, commended, and shortlisted authors, and send my gratitude to everyone else who entered for sharing your writing and ideas. What a delightful way to spend some time.
13 May 2022