Short Story Judge | Winner of the 2019 Short Story Prize
Matt recently returned to writing after a long hiatus working in law enforcement and cyber security. He has had several short plays performed at various fringe theatres, and is currently working on his first full-length play. Matt has also won various other short story competitions, including the Pen To Print contest 2019 and the Cast Iron Sanctuary contest 2019. He enjoys writing stories which are inspired by science, technology, crime, and horror, and very occasionally writes spoken word poetry.
Matt lives and works in London.
What advice would you give to people entering the 2020 competition?
First of all - submit! I had no expectation of winning when I entered, and wasn't sure if I should, but I realised I had nothing to lose. You've got no chance of winning if you don't enter! Second - take your time. The first draft doesn't need to be perfect - in fact, it definitely won't be! I am halfway through writing an absolutely terrible first draft of a play at the moment, but I know that nobody's going to see it until at least the fourth draft, so I'm not concerned with making everything perfect just yet - that comes later (when the script editor and director can then point out all the things still wrong with it!). So leave yourself enough time to write a few drafts, and take some time off between them so you come back to it fresh. Third, put yourself in the judges' shoes - they're reviewing hundreds of stories; what's different about yours? What's going to leave them open-mouthed, or laughing, or crying? And finally - two questions I always ask myself before I write anything (sometimes I need to halfway through as well) - a) why does this story need to be told? and b) why am I the one who needs to to tell it? Write the story only you could write.
As a judge, what are you looking for in a short story?
There's a few things, but most important to me are:
Language. I love reading stories and being taken aback by a particular turn of phrase or image which surprises me, but also encapsulates an idea or a description perfectly. I don't come across them often, but when I do I read and re-read them over and over again. I'm looking for images and sentences which are going to stay in my head forever.
A twist or two. It doesn't have to be a huge clever Roald Dahl-style twist at the end - it might be the tiniest or most mundane surprise ever - but I like to see the unexpected and the unusual. I love reading stories where the writer is one or two steps ahead of me and keeps me guessing; it's one of the most rewarding things about reading. Conversely, one of the most disappointing things for a reader is to guess exactly what's going to happen next, and be right.
Characters. I want interesting characters that I care about. I don't have to like them, necessarily, and they might do things that really annoy or frustrate me, but if they want something, are trying their hardest to get it despite various obstacles, and are well-drawn, believable, and consistent, I'll care about them - and I'll keep reading to find out what happens to them.
Finally, a combination of some of the above - what Stephen King calls the "gotta", as in "I gotta finish reading this story before I go to bed/go out/have dinner" - it's a hard thing to describe properly, and even harder to do, but it's basically the art of keeping readers hooked. I'm looking for a story I can really lose myself in, and that immerses me in its world from the first page - ideally from the first sentence.
Excerpt from Tenacity Penguin, Matt's award-winning short story originally published in the 2019 Leaving anthology
Foxtrot Two, Tenacity Base. Are you receiving?
Foxtrot Two, Foxtrot Two, Tenacity Base. Is anyone there?
Foxtrot Two, you don't have to speak. If you can't speak, key the radio, or tap it, or something.
Or cough, or sneeze, or anything. I don't care what it is, but give me something.
I just want to know if someone's there.
OK. OK. Maybe you can't move, maybe there's no-one, but I'm saying this anyway, and if there is someone there, you're going to hear it. Because you lied to me. It shouldn't bother me, not now, but it does. Because you promised me penguins.
"What about Cyprus?" I said to one of you at the recruitment office.
"Forget about Cyprus," you said. "It's overrated. It's hot, and it's crowded, and we've got all the signals people we need out there. You're going to the North Pole. Tenacity Base. You're going to monitor satellite feeds and make snowmen and have your piss freeze into an icicle."
I said: "I'll get to see penguins at the North Pole, won't I? I've always wanted to."
"Oh yeah, yeah, of course there'll be penguins," you said. "Penguins as far as the eye can see. The place is practically infested with them. You'll be sick of penguins by the time your team's relieved. You won't want to see another penguin for as long as you live."
"OK, I've made up my mind," I said. "I'll go to Tenacity."
"We're at war," you said. "You'll go where you're told."
"As long as there's penguins," I said, "I don't care where I go."
It's been eight months, Foxtrot Two. Not one bloody penguin.
And now you're dead, and I'm not.
Read the full short story in Leaving, an anthology of award-winning short stories. You can buy it here.