There were a number of people I could have asked. Well, theoretically, I could have asked anyone, but would Kate Atkinson have accepted to judge the Book a Break Short Story Competition, even if I told her (truthfully) that she’s my favourite author? The competition is in its first year, and something of an experiment. On the other hand, I did want someone whose writing and judgment I hold in esteem. Not a literary star, then, but simply a fine writer who knows what he’s doing and talks a lot of sense: Atthys Gage.
We ‘met’ through the Book Country website, where writers post their work for peer review and critiques. I read Atthys’s novel, Spark, and was impressed. I’m currently reading The Flight of the Wren, in which the high standard is maintained. To be honest, it’s not quite my genre, veering as it does into fantasy. But then, so do some of Atkinson’s books, and Atthys has a similar knack of making the fantasy convincing.
“I suppose I ought to tell you, insanity runs in my family.”
“Yeah. On my mother’s side. I guess it could be on my father’s side too, but he didn’t stick around long enough for me to find out. I guess that says something for him, right? I mean, at least he wasn’t crazy enough to marry my mother.”
I’m talking too much. I’m nervous. Why the hell am I nervous?
The man reaches over and stabs a little round potato with his fork and makes it disappear into his mud-colored beard. Mouth full, he says, “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, Miss Drake.”
I, on the other hand, am not so sure.
He spears a scrap of meat and dips it in drippy brown gravy. While he chews, I keep right on talking too much. “I’m only telling you this because if it turns out this is my first full-fledged psychotic break, and you’re really the doctor in the loony bin, well, you know, then it seems like important information.”
He looks up again, one brow raised, the fork hovering near his mouth. “Miss Drake, I can assure you, I am not a doctor.”
That’s the opening passage of Flight of the Wren. Distinctive voice, authentic dialogue, an intriguing situation. But it isn’t just his fiction that attracted me. What he has to say about the writing process itself is possibly even more relevant. Does he have a secret recipe? No, because there isn’t one. What he has is the sound judgement that lets him, every so often, bend – or break – the rules and get away with it. Which is why, when coaches and editors say “Nothing fancy!”, he might not always agree (you can read his observations on the matter here).
So yes, I’m pleased and grateful that Atthys has accepted to judge this first edition of the Book a Break Short Story Competition. Though the prompt itself tends towards the dramatic, any treatment of it will be welcome. What Atthys is looking for above all is good writing. But rather than have me waffling on about what I think that is, I’ve asked him to share a few ideas with us himself. Watch this space – coming soon!