LoveReading Very Short Story Award 2022 - A Chat With Our Winners

After a thrilling few months reading and discussing a record number of entries, we’ve just announced the two wonderful winners of the 2022 LoveReading Very Short Story Award on our Awards Page.

Our 2022 Judges’ Winner is Pembrokeshire’s Rachel Rees for Love in the Time of Corona, while the People’s Choice Winner — voted for by you, the LoveReading community — goes to Chris Cottom for Johnny Seven.

Once you’ve enjoyed reading what our winning writers have to say about their inspirations, writing process, and a whole lot more in the following interview, find out what our judges made of the winning stories here, read Love in the Time of Corona here, and read Johnny Seven here. And, if you fancy getting ready to enter the 2023 LoveReading Very Short Story Award, check-out our tips for writing show-stopping short stories

Without further ado, we’ll hand you over to Rachel and Chris…

Judges' Choice Winner 

I’m Rachel, I’m 29, and I grew up by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. I studied English Literature at Cardiff University and last year undertook a PGCE. I was shortlisted for the Love Reading Very Short Story Award in 2020 with my entry Millennial Madness and I also write book and art reviews for Buzz magazine.

Have you always loved writing? When did you write your first short story?

Short answer? Yes! As a child I was obsessed with reading and, from that, came a desire to write my own stories. I’ve still got whole folders stacked full of my early attempts - although most of them are shameless rip offs of my favourite children's books. The first short story I really remember writing was about a circus clown who got locked in a cupboard by his father and ended up suffocating to death. I’m not sure where such a morbid idea came from, given I was only ten at the time, but I’ve never forgotten the pride I felt when my Year 6  teacher - whose love of creative writing had a major impact on me - cried after reading it. That’s the first time I discovered I had the power to affect people’s emotions with my writing, and it was such a heady feeling that I just wanted to do it again and again. 

Where did the idea for your story come from? Did you write it for the award, or was it an idea already in mind, or perhaps a finished story you had to hand?

I wrote it specifically for the competition. I’d entered the LoveReading Very Short Story Award in both 2020 and 2021, and I knew I wanted to give it another go this year. I wasn’t sure what my entry would be until I was sitting on the sofa looking through the news on my phone and the line ‘she scrolls down her newsfeed, articles on the latest climate crisis, government cock-up and Coronation Street spoilers flashing past’ popped into my head. I love taking small, relatable details and weaving them into my stories and, from there, the questions of who exactly this woman was, why she was so focussed on her screen, and what it was she was too afraid to look up and see/not see sprung to mind. The story just snowballed from there really, in that lovely, wholly satisfying way they (so rarely) do.

Did it undergo many re-writes?

No, mainly because I didn’t leave myself enough time to rewrite it! I’d like to say that was a stylistic decision on my part but, in truth, I knew I wanted to enter the competition but I wasn’t sure of the closing date. When I checked, I found out I had just over forty eight hours left to submit an entry, panicked a bit, and then settled down to get my ideas in order and hash out the plot. I do prefer to write to a strict deadline though as I feel the words flow better when there’s a sense of urgency in producing them. Plus, it has the added benefit of preventing me from rereading every sentence on an endless loop - something I always do if given half the chance!

What kind of impact do you hope it has on readers?

When I write, I almost have to convince myself that no one else will read it or I find my work has a tendency to become self-conscious and inhibited. With this story I was aiming for a combination of humour and yearning, so if I managed to make any reader laugh or feel a little wistful then my job is done. 

Do you have a particular affinity for short stories? Who’s your favourite short story writer?

Growing up, I loved to become totally immersed in a story and so, for me, it was always a case of the bigger the book the better. Since trying my hand at writing short stories though, I’ve found a new appreciation for the form and have discovered some real gems. Yann Martel’s The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios is a particular favourite of mine. It takes full advantage of it’s short length and abrupt end to mirror the injustice of a young man’s life being wiped out by Aids and somehow manages to be both heartbreaking and life-affirming. I’d also highly recommend Take Six: Six Spanish Writers. I recently reviewed it for Buzz magazine and it completely blew me away. 

Please can we have a peek at your favourite bookshelf?

As you can see, I’m a sucker for a bestseller! I remember when I was studying English Literature in university and a lecturer asked us what we’d read for fun over the Christmas break. Most of my seminar group answered with authors such as Proust and Joyce and then I piped up with John Green’s A Fault in our Stars! I suppose I’ve never stopped viewing reading as my favourite hobby, and like all good hobbies it should be entertaining above all else. While I love a good piece of literary fiction - I’m reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet at the moment and devouring every word of it - I’m never going to pretend to enjoy a stodgily written tome just because it’s hailed as a classic, or feel bad for rushing out to buy the latest Mhairi McFarlane book because others dismiss it as chick lit.

What book have you re-read most often?

The book I find myself going back to every two years or so is The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. My copy is filled with pencil marks from where I’ve underlined my favourite sentences, and every time I reread I have to underline a few more! It’s such a clever, subtle book and my opinion on the characters and their motives changes every time I read it. I’m also a sucker for a good last line, and this book has got one of the very best. 

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of entering next year?                                                 

It sounds trite, but just be yourself. Trust in your own voice and the type of stories you want to tell. After being shortlisted in 2020, I found myself trying to emulate the style and tone of that year’s winning authors when I came to write my 2021 entry. The result was a short story I wrongly thought the judges would prefer and which didn’t end up making the shortlist. This year, I forgot all about what I thought I should be writing and instead created a story that I would want to read. To find out I’d won with it was both a wonderful surprise and a lesson in the importance of staying true to yourself. 

What’s next for your writing journey?

Back in the days before any of us had heard of corona, I’d just finished my first full length novel and I was very excited when it caught the eyes of a literary agent and a publisher. However, because it was set in a university, when the pandemic caused lectures to move online and pubs and clubs to shut, both felt it was no longer marketable at that particular time. Now that life is slowly getting back to normal hopefully I’ll finally be able to get it published. And, if nothing else, being able to say I'm the Judges' Choice winner of the LoveReading Very Short Story Award should add some extra oomph to my cover letter!

People's Choice Winner

Chris Cottom won the 2021 Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize. He’s had stories placed third in a Cranked Anvil competition; shortlisted or longlisted thirty times; published by Retreat West, Cranked Anvil, and Streetcake, and broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds. Previous convictions include Harrods handbag seller and Christmas hamper packer. In the early 1970s he lived next door to JRR Tolkien.

Where were you and how did you feel and react when you were told that you had won?

Sitting at my PC, trying not to be disappointed after hearing the same afternoon that I hadn’t made the longlist with either of my entries in another competition. Ecstatic and validated. Am I allowed to say proud?

Have you always loved the written word, when did you first start to write?

I was well grounded in the classics: The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Just William, and ‘The Fat Owl of the Remove’ (Billy Bunter). I’ve written for businesses or voluntary organisations for decades, including a twelve-year stretch as an insurance copywriter (think ‘Key Features of Your Stakeholder Transfer Plan’). I started writing other fiction in earnest after I retired in 2018.

How did your Very Short Story arrive on the page, did you write it for the award or was it already in mind?

I was very struck during lockdown by the use of the second person singular in ‘To the Measures Fall’ by Richard Powers (published in the New Yorker and available in The Best American Short Stories 2011). I wrote ‘Johnny Seven’ as an attempt to harness the distinctive point of view of a ‘you’ voice. 

How and where do you like to write? 

How: the best bit is when a character speaks directly onto the page and I have little idea where their words came from. I prefer editing and rewriting to writing first drafts. Let’s face it: writing is rewriting. Where: desktop PC in what used to be the kids’ playroom. My laptop at a pinch. But lots of it in my head while I’m cycling my bike for hours or unable to sleep (because I’m thinking about people who don’t actually exist).

How has Covid 19 affected your reading and writing habits?

I read 140 books in 2020 and 2021, compared to a previous yearly average since 1975 of 18 (yes, I keep a list). I initially struggled to write anything for months, probably because of reduced stimulation from humans and places.

Do you have a particular affinity for short stories, do you have a favourite author or collection?

Yes, yes, yes. Three-quarters of the books I’ve read in the last two years have been short story or flash collections, or novellas-in-flash. Alice Munro; no one else comes close. Except Jhumpa Lahiri. 

Can we have a peek at your favourite bookshelf please.

What is your most beloved and well-read book?

After the Bible (talking donkeys, sea-monsters, Jesus), I’d say Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas. Extraordinary, funny, and wonderfully human.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of entering next year?

  • Write three words and delete two.
  • Let your story simmer over the summer. Keep returning to it to adjust the seasoning.
  • Don’t submit without first using the Read Aloud facility on Microsoft Word (or equivalent).

What is next for your writing journey?

  • Complete my third novella-in-flash (currently pushing 18,000 words). 
  • Stop and think in response to themed competitions, rather than immediately concluding I have nothing to say about, for example, ‘mud’. 
  • Submit to literary (although I dislike that word’s elitist connotations) journals more assiduously.
  • Write more stories. Keep reading. Keep learning.

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