One of Aotearoa's top writing prizes is back with new judges, new categories and more prize money.
Helping launch the careers of well-known writers such as Kirsten McDougall and Eleanor Catton, the Sunday Star-Times Short Story competition is an opportunity for up and coming writers to have their work published in the Sunday Star-Times and on Stuff. It is now in its 38th year.
Writers will also have the opportunity to receive critical feedback from this year’s judges, acclaimed writers Patricia Grace, Rosetta Allan, Megan Dunn and Amy McDaid, and to be awarded a monetary prize from a prize pool of $9000, courtesy of the Milford Foundation and Penguin Random House.
There will be one winner for each of the four categories: open, emerging Māori writer, emerging Pasifika writer, and under 25. For information on how to enter or to learn more, read the competition terms and conditions here. Entries close on October 22, 2021, so get cracking!
To help you put pen to paper (or finger to key), we asked this year’s judges to share with us their rules of writing. Read on for their invaluable literary advice.
1. Play with your shit! The author Michèle Roberts told me this years ago when she was my tutor. She had noticed students came to her embarrassed their first drafts were shit. Michèle thought this was because babies and toddlers learn quickly that shit is abject, not to be eaten and mussed with one’s fingers, but disposed of, flushed down the loo. So her advice - play with it! I’ve been playing with my shit ever since. I need to play with it more. You can never play with too much shit. Thanks Michèle!
2. Set the timer…and outrun your thoughts. The average annual earnings for writers are…shit. So you are most likely working another job, like me, and time-poor. The good news is you don’t need a cottage by the sea (though if you have one, great.) Set your timer: 5mins, 10mins, 15mins. Write, uncensored, without stopping until the timer goes off. This is also a great method for those who have a stringent inner critic. Outrun that critic! If what you produce is shit, you know what to do.
3. Accept unexpected results. When you begin writing in your own voice, in a way that is as unique to your DNA as the lines on your palm or the patterns on your fingertip, it might not look like your idea of what a story is or should do. That might be okay. Or it might be shit. Either way you know what to do.
4. Put some “Strunk in your trunk” i.e. stock up your toolbox. I am a junkie for books on the craft of writing - The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a staple - and for other writers’ books on how to write and for lists like these by writers waaaay more famous than me. Books on the basic tools of the craft can be the best place to start. Forget plot, how do you write a great sentence, a great paragraph?
5. You are the lotus, blooming through the mud, trying to speak in symbols the universe will understand, to make something beautiful, born from the sheer distress of simply being alive. What will matter most to you as a writer is already within you. Don’t be afraid of clichés - no mud, no lotus! - the shit you’ll produce and the shit flung at you. That is the story!
6. Read your work ALOUD. (And if you don't win a prize, keep writing, no mud, no lotus.)
Patricia’s recent book From the Centre is full of observations about writing, one in particular giving rise to the title of the literary icon’s memoir:
“The first draft [of her first novel] was linear and arduous both to write and to read, I thought... I decided to sit myself in the middle of the story and move it back and forth around me. I found this to be a way that works for me - placing myself at the centre, keeping characters and ideas close, and from the centre reaching to the outer circles, in any direction, for what I need in order to bring everything together.”
Amy is the author of Fake Baby, her debut novel published in 2020, and a neonatal intensive care nurse at Starship. In September she was awarded the 2021 Todd New Writer’s Bursary, to work on her next book, Black Kite. She shares her five tips for writing short stories.
• Don’t wait for inspiration. Most writers don’t wake up feeling inspired on a daily basis. We just turn up. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when we feel we’d rather stick needles in our eyes, we sit in front of the computer and type out a word. That word becomes a sentence, that sentence becomes a paragraph, and god-willing, eventually you have a story.
• If you’re stuck, go for a walk. Leave your phone at home. Most of my ‘blocks’ are not solved sitting in front of the computer, they are solved when I am out walking. There’s something magic in the repetition of one foot in front of the other.
• The power of the short story is in its economy. Revise over and over, read aloud, scrutinise every scene, detail, word. Ask yourself if it’s needed. Does this add to characterisation or build the story? If not — rewrite or cut.
• Sylvia Plath said, ‘it’s hopeless to ‘get life’ if you don’t keep notebooks’. Observe things around you. A snippet of dialogue, a detail in someone’s appearance, or the way the sky looks. Write your observation down or pop them in your phone, and use them to bring life to your story.
• It sounds obvious, but if you want to write a good short story, you need to read them, and read them closely, or you will not understand the form. They are not the fairy tales we were told as kids. They are not mini novels. And if you want there to be a market for short stories, make sure you’re a part of that market, and buy short story collections from your local independent bookstore. We have many wonderful short story writers in Aotearoa.
In August, Rosetta released her latest novel Crazy Love, adding to her bibliography that includes Purgatory (published in 2014), The Unreliable People (2019), and various volumes of poetry. She was the first New Zealander to take up the St Petersburg Art Residency, in 2016. Here, Rosetta shares her thoughts on the idea of ‘writing rules’:
Plunge me deep into your character's fears, hopes, and desires at a pivotal point in their life. John Matthew Fox said we should write what terrifies us. To find the most significant trauma, regret, or terror and structure your story around it, that way, the story will have heart and heat. But there must also be a balance of subtle beauty and care.
If I think of Gina Cole’s Baby Doll, from her short story collection, Black Ice Matter (winner of the Hubert Church Prize for Best First Book of Fiction), a child works long hours in the horrific environment of the Barbie doll factory in Northern China. Other children and women are dying from the ‘pink in the air’.
‘I wish I have costume like Barbie. Her life so big life! We no have Barbie. We no have Barbie costume. But she have so much! She have own house, own pink car, own pink wardrobe la. Lucky I clock time card so early: 4.50 this morning.’
I can feel the desire of that child, her wish to be like Barbie and live Barbie’s life, the East and West, are juxtaposed. Barbie is used allegorically to build layers of meaning without showing them — no explanation is needed.
When I think of Airini Beautrais’s Psycho Ex, from her Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction 2021 collection Bug Week, it’s the twist at the end that, to me, is the ultimate bombshell. The final collision is not what I expected. But it’s a stunning resolution to the stalker getting caught.
‘I am going for a run. I pull on my leopard-print tights, my black sports bra, my hot pink singlet, zip up my hot pink jacket. Shoes, a little worn and in need of replacing. Which footwear manufacturer is the least evil nowadays? I lock my back door, slip the key into the little pocket on the side of my hip. It presses into my skin like a secret.
I am not going up, or anywhere near, Mount Victoria.
So I head up the hill away from the stretch of shops, because uphill is where trees are.’
She has gone to the effort of making herself look good while ‘going for a run’ with no intention of going past the house of her ex, but she just can’t help herself. I feel the pull. I want her to go. Or do I? Should I call out to her, don’t do it?
The remarkable element of short story writing is the space. Or the ‘Superpower’, as Harriet Allan from Penguin Random House, calls it. ‘With a limited number of words, something limitless is conjured up. We, the reader, have the freedom to overlay meaning to the writer's metaphorical and allegorical language.
“I think the thing about short stories,” Gina Cole tells me, “is that because they are short, there's nowhere to hide. Every word matters. They can seem like a long prose poem in that way.”
Both of these stories are precisely written and heartbreakingly beautiful. They move me, and I admire them for it.
• Enter your short story as part of the Sunday Star Times Short Story competition here.