Those Who Live by the Word by Andrew Ball

Winning Story

As I awoke on New Year’s Day 2020, I felt my dreams scurrying away like mice to hide behind the wainscoting of my mind. In a moment of unusual clarity, it occurred to me that my thoughts were doing that more often of late, even when I was wide awake. A word, a name, a train of thought, would suddenly evaporate, leaving me helpless and grasping. I knew they were in there somewhere, hiding, but could I find them? Of course I couldn’t. There was no escaping the fact that my mind was beginning to wobble as I stumbled towards the finish line in the egg-and-spoon race of life. 

The night before, I had gone to bed early, sober, and alone, but not without first filling my tea-kettle. This nightly routine had become a touchstone for me, a tiny act of faith that I would, in fact, survive the night and fancy a cup of tea in the morning. Over my breakfast bowl of Cornflakes, I pondered what was to be done. Single, superannuated, and skint, I found the future rather bleak. ‘I should marry a rich widow to keep me company in my old age,’ I thought. ‘Pity I don’t know any.’ The solution, when it came to me, seemed obvious: I’d write, and become rich and famous like J. K. Rowling. She must be worth a bob or two. After all, writing was just a matter of choosing the best words and putting them in the right order, wasn’t it? Piece of cake! 

Flushed with enthusiasm for my new career, I cleared off the table in the kitchen -- hereinafter to be known as my garret -- and opened my laptop. Ah, the allure of a blank screen begging to be filled with my honeyed prose. Three days later it was still blank and still begging. It dawned on me then that mere words would not be enough to bring me the fame and fortune I craved; I needed a genre. All the best writers had a genre, but which one paid the most, pounds-per-word-wise? I concluded it must be ransom notes, but even I could see the drawback of seeking literary fame through writing ransom notes, however lucrative they might be. Also, I wasn’t sure that ransom notes were a recognized genre, as such. 

The choice of genre wasn’t the only problem, either. I began to realize that in order to write, you actually needed to have an idea, something to write about, and I’ve never been that good with ideas -- my own, that is. Other people’s always seem better. Once again, the solution when it came to me was obvious: plagiarism. But that’s not as easy as it used to be. Back in the day (whenever that was), plagiarism could often pass undetected, but Google has changed all that. What I needed was a source of unpublished literary works to cannibalize. 

And that was when I had my inspiration: I’d run a writing contest! Every month I’d offer a huge prize (that I had no intention of ever paying), charge a carefully-calculated entry fee (large enough to cover my rent and groceries, but not too big to discourage anyone from entering my contest), offer critiques (for an additional fee), and then sit back and let the stories and the money roll in. I’d take the best stories and submit them under my own name to other contests. What could possibly go wrong? 

In no time at all, my money troubles were over. Every month, I posted the names of those talented writers who’d made the longlist, the shortlist, the runners-up and the grand prize-winner, names I picked at random from an old phone-book. The winning story titles I culled from the morning newspaper.

The part I enjoyed most was writing the critiques. Let me give you an example, one of which I’m particularly proud: 

Dear Aspiring Author, 

Thank you again for submitting your short story to our Fabulous Fiction contest. Regrettably however, I must correct my previous email telling you that you had won, the result of my inadvertently hitting ‘Reply All’. The statement on our website that ‘Every entrant will be a winner!’ was meant as hyperbole, not to be taken literally. Had you not missed the deadline and gone way over the word limit, I feel sure your story ‘Dead on Arrival’ would not have been. You should take a measure of encouragement from this. 

Despite being forced to disqualify your entry, I accidentally read it in a distracted moment, and by way of an apology for my email error I would like to offer the following critique. Who knows? Maybe it will help you develop a more complete skill-set as a writer. 

Opening sentence: There is a fine line between homage and plagiarism, but I feel the opening of your story -- ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ -- catchy though it is, falls on the wrong side of that line. 

Style: Maybe you should strive to master a simpler narrative voice before tackling that of an Omniscient Narrator suffering from dementia. 

Location: Victorian London! Well, there’s a novel idea for an exotic setting. /S

Characters: I feel the character of your protagonist ‘Tiny Tom,’ although developed in totally unexpected ways, is nonetheless somewhat derivative. 

Plot: Convoluted plots are generally laudable, but yours was so twisted it left me feeling positively pretzelesque, or maybe even pretzellian. While the consequences of contracting COVID-19 (in Victorian times?) are varied in the extreme, the idea that the infection could enable Tiny Tom to win the Olympic decathlon gold medal is a trifle far-fetched, don’t you think? Surely recovering the use of his legs would have been sufficiently dramatic. 

Proofreading: The importance of careful proofreading cannot be overstated. Did you really mean to write that after Tiny Tom’s success, his alcoholic parents turned their livers around. 

Best wishes from all of us here in the editorial team at Fabulous Fiction, as we eagerly await your next submission. 

As 2020 wore on -- and what a wearing year it was -- my competition went from strength to strength. Every month, more people sent me their best efforts and paid real money to receive their inevitable disappointment. Who knew there were so many masochists in the world? Meanwhile, my own submissions were beginning to achieve the recognition I felt they so richly deserved, providing me with a second, albeit modest, income stream. Those other contests were not nearly as lucrative as mine, the cheapskates. As I sent each story out into cyberspace, I felt as I had as a young lad when I pushed my model sailing yacht out into the middle of a boating pond. I began to care deeply about the fate of my recycled stories. 

Then one day, the unimaginable happened (you can’t make this stuff up). Shortly before the deadline for the July contest, I received a submission that looked vaguely familiar. Sure enough, when I checked my records I found it was a story I’d sent to another contest just the month before, word for word, submitted back to me by an author I’d never heard of. I was incensed and outraged; what a nerve! Was there no honesty in the world anymore? I blamed Donald Trump, but that’s another story. 

What should I do? Initially I tried to ignore it, but the injustice of having my work stolen -- well, you know what I mean -- was too much to bear; and it wasn’t even one of my best stories. I felt compelled to act. After several sleepless nights, I decided that for the next deadline of the scoundrel’s contest, I’d submit this story -- the one you’re reading right now -- unfinished though it was at the time. Subtle? I thought so. 

I waited anxiously for the response, but my August deadline came and went with no submission from the fraud. Had I scared him off, perhaps? Then one of the other entrants’ names caught my eye: ‘Rich Widow’ had submitted a heart-rending story of isolation and loneliness, and her search for a soulmate with whom to spend her declining years. She described how the nightly routine of filling her tea-kettle before going to bed had become a touchstone for her, a tiny act of faith that she would, in fact, survive the night and fancy a cup of tea in the morning.

It’s cozy in our bubble. We work together in the garret, she at one end of the kitchen table, I at the other. Between us, we’ve already squeezed many of the other writing contests out of business. Our next target is Secret Attic, run by someone in the UK. 

They say that those who live by the word will die by the word. Maybe we will, but no longer alone. Happy days.

Published in Issue #13

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