Matt Wixey, winner of last year's competition in two (!) categories, has joined the judging panel for this year's short story competition. His short story Tenacity Penguin and screenplay On The Bench were a hit with the judges. Find out more about how Matt wrote an award-winning short story here.
Hammond House team member Alex chatted to Matt about what he's looking for in a short story.
What do you most enjoy to read?
My favourite genre is probably horror, but particularly work that deals with the 'uncanny' and the ambiguous, and walks the line between realism and the supernatural. I'm a huge Robert Aickman fan, but Shirley Jackson, Stephen Gregory, and Paul Tremblay are also brilliant. I read a fair bit of science fiction – Philip K Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison are my favourites. I will read anything by Donna Tartt – every sentence has a weight and rhythm to it which is so perfectly balanced. However many times I read 'The Secret History' or 'The Goldfinch', I am in awe of her writing, and it makes me absolutely furious that I will never be that good!
Finally, as a playwright I read a lot of scripts (especially now theatres are closed!). Sarah Kane was an amazing writer, and I think under-appreciated in her time. Anyone looking for tips on subverting audience expectations could do a lot worse than read her play 'Blasted', or another play I read recently that's stuck with me, 'Fairview', by Jackie Sibblies Drury.
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.
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.
Find out more about Matt on his judges page.
Read the article on Matt's award-winning short story Tenacity Penguin here.
Read the article on Matt's award-winning screenplay On The Bench here.
Inspired to do some writing? Find out more about the 2020 competition and enter here.