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How we picked the winners

More than 200 writers took up the challenge to enter The Buffalo News' Spotlight Short Story Contest this year, following our opening paragraphs to all sorts of interesting places.

We were mildly surprised by the number of entries centering on death, disease or divorce, a response to the opening line of our prompt, "He was alone." Car crashes and cancer appeared in dozens of stories. On the other hand, the "gift," also mentioned in the mandatory opening, often took the form of loved ones in angelic form, or speaking from the Beyond in other ways.

Then there were writers who went in totally different directions. We had dogs and cats, gangsters and zombies, magical powers and powerful faith. (However, even though the story was set in 2012, no one wrote about politics.)

The entries were evaluated on several criteria, but the two most important measures were creativity and literary technique. After narrowing down the entries to about two dozen, a group of judges on The News' staff read through those and made the difficult decisions over which would rise to the top.

It was a fun, if lengthy, process. In the end, though, the stories we present here stood out for their well-developed characters, clear and engaging writing style, and the fact that virtually all our judges said they were really interested to see how they would end.

"Minute Hand," by Chris Cummins, takes our top spot this Christmas Sunday. We liked the story because, while it contains a "mysterious stranger," the change the main character experiences -- the gift -- comes from within himself. The writing gets us so close to the characters, we almost feel as though we are peering inside the old clock with them.

"Some People Have All the Luck," by Kyle A. Smith, is a darker story with an O. Henry-like twist at the end that impressed everyone who read it. Smith wrote his cautionary tale with an effectively sharp tone, taking the idea of change that "went under his skin, as deep as his soul" to a very scary place.

Our thanks go out to all who took the time to enter our Short Story Contest, with special congratulations to the winners. What better gift than a good story, well told?

-- Melinda Miller, Features Editor