'Last Chance Saloon' winner announced! Tom Chatfield judges Hour of Writes a year on...
5th December 2015
I went with the readers' most popular choice for my winner, here: 1405: "November 21st...." It's easy to understand why this was top rated, and although it's not perfect (in such a short span the research felt almost over-signalled, the detail a little too dense) there was a lot of thought and talent behind it: some great phrase-making and interest in voice, and a nice angle on the title that has a flavour of the American west without being too literal-minded. As you'd hope for something written in an hour, it felt like a sustained single act of speech: truly excellent at moments, and never less than good.
Perhaps in compensation for agreeing so entirely on a winner, I found myself picking two less obvious runners-up. These were the pieces that lingered with me most as narrative threads after a couple of readings through all the entries - stories I wanted to hear more about, that began to sketch a world and its lives. My first runner up - 1403: "The stranger was sitting at the bar..." - impressed me by taking a completely straight approach to the title, and then managing to make this feel better than pastiche. Along the way, it fitted in some restrained and atmospheric dialogue, some fine lines, and a scenario that kept me reading and engaged. The ending was the weakest element, but I valued the handling of the dialogue and the narrative momentum that took me there: plot and pace are, I always think, rather harder than "good" writing that doesn't move anywhere.
And then there's runner up number two, 1420: "Chasuna is the only woman I ever asked to marry me...". This was an odd one, with a flat, ironical tone and some strange grammar in places. But I found it arresting, evocative, natural and alive in its dialogue, and with a rich sense of place and character provided without over-writing. It's far from perfect as a piece - again, I liked the ending less than the journey that took me there - but for something written in an hour I thought it had many pleasures and line-by-line surprises, married to a proper sense of plot and movement.
I admired many other entries, I should add - from a vision of an ultimately forgiving purgatory to vignettes in various more earthly bars - and as much as anything I suspect the judgements above reflect my own limitations as a writer. Scene-setting is all very well; ideas are nice; good phrases are great when they come; but to set things in motion, to move characters through speech that does more than tick and tock, through a narrative with shape and movement and surprises and delights; all this seems to me fantastically hard, and a minor miracle when it's achieved.
I'm especially privileged to have been the first judge at Hour of Writes - and, a neat year later, to have returned, glad and grateful to see it thriving. The best of seasonal wishes to you all; and, with luck, I look forward to returning in another fifty-two weeks or so to read, re-read, and see which words remain ringing in my imagination after.
About the judge
Tom Chatfield (@TomChatfield) is a British author, broadcaster and commentator. The author of six books of non-fiction - most recently Live This Book! (Penguin), How to Thrive in the Digital Age (Pan Macmillan) and Netymology (Quercus) - his work has appeared in over twenty languages. He's especially interested in the relationship between technology and culture, the future of the book, and where his next cup of coffee is coming from.