12+ In their heyday, the Ian St James Awards offered the biggest fiction prize in the UK and Ireland. Launched by the thriller writer Ian St James in 1989 to encourage new writers, the awards were open to 5,000-10,000 word short stories by unpublished writers.
In addition to the prize money, Harper Collins published the twelve finalists in an annual anthology.
I submitted several short stories to the awards when I lived in England. The delivery deadline was the end of February for a double-spaced typed copy of the entry with a self-addressed envelope to return the critique from the first round of judging. January and February are cold and bleak in England, and the daylight hours are short — perfect for writing.
My routine was to flesh out a story outline by mid to late January, type it up by mid-February, and edit and revise furiously before the deadline.
Not that short a short story
I struggled with my first entries. A 5000-10,000 word story is not that short. And this partly explains why I submitted the same story twice.
However, I did rework the second entry based on the judge's critique of my first story and what I had learned from another twelve months of reading and writing (for instance, I introduced flashbacks). Both were semi-autobiographical pieces about a young man who sets out to find himself through travel but realises he carries a hidden quest within him.
Inspired by a popular Phil Collins song, my third entry was more ambitious. I wrote four vignettes as backgrounds for news items and pulled them together with a fifth story that reflected upon the accounts and tried to make sense of the character's actions in each.
The fourth and final entry again drew from my life, travels and desire to return home to Australia after eight years of living in England. The main character, a family man who has never travelled, is befriended by a new work colleague who has lived overseas for several years and seems to be his antithesis.
Each of the short stories I submitted to the Ian St James Awards received positive and constructive critiques from the first-round judges:
The First One (1992)
Very few stories score all four ticks for plot, pace, dialogue and characterisation. And this story is excellent, with well-drawn characters, convincing dialogue and a fast-moving plot. Entry passed forward for the next round of judging.
The First One — Take II (1993)
You write well and capture the atmosphere of Bangkok effectively. It would be improved if you worked on the plot, which is rather disjointed, but I like your use of flashbacks, which reveal much about your central character.
Both Sides of the Story (1994)
A well-written, ambitious and impressive piece of writing. The author's flair for language is considerable, but I think plot-wise, this entertaining story exceeds both the limits and the rules of the genre. Thus, I feel this would be better suited for a novel, and as a short story, it isn't quite self-contained enough.
A Fine Pair (1995)
I enjoyed your main storyline; in the end, both protagonists have become convincing and likeable characters. However, your theme needs more emphasis - there's a tendency for other minor plots and characters to compete for attention.
Thanks for the encouragement
None of my short stories was a finalist, let alone a winner. But the professional critiques provided by the Ian St James' judges inspired me to keep writing! And they still motivate me today.
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Towards the end of 2019, I revisited my 1994 Ian St James Awards entry, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2020, taking on board the judge's critique, published it as a collection of interconnected short stories. And I also narrated them as individual episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast.
So thirty years on, a belated thanks, Ian St James Awards, for your advice and encouragement!
© 2018, 2020 Robert Fairhead
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.