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Judging Short Stories

Some years back I was asked to judge a regional writing competition and today I stumbled across my notes for the speech I gave that award night. As I’ve not been well enough to publish anything new here for some time, I will post that address instead – for those of you kind enough to keep checking out this little blog page. Thanks for dropping by.

WIMMERA REGIONAL LIBRARY ADULT SECTION 2017

photo by Dominika Roseclay

Recently I heard of a study that found people who spent more hours using social media reported feeling more lonely than those who did not use it, or used it less often. For some reason this reminded me of a line attributed to C.S. Lewis in the movie, ‘Shadowlands’: We read to know that we are not alone.

I wonder how many of our kids know this great writer’s work only from the film versions of his Narnia books?

A great deal of our time does seem to be spent in front of a screen of some sort – television, computer, smartphone. But adapting to new technology is no excuse for discarding our literacy standards. And this is why regional libraries continue to play a hugely significant role in our communities.

Competitions such as this one encourage people, of all ages, not just to write, but to hone the craft of writing – to learn the difference between stringing an easy clutch of words and structuring a well-told story, carefully shaping it, until it is, indeed, a work of art.

A competition such as this says: We, as a culture, still value a beautiful sentence, the expression of original thoughts and ideas. We do not look only to the mass media for our sense of ourselves, but also to our long history of written and spoken language. We still have time for that.

And it is because of this, that in my selection of winners, I could not choose stories derivative of mass media, stories that mimicked TV shows and computer games. I looked for stories inspired by the world around us.
I looked for complex characters and nuanced narratives that suggested the writer had observed real life.

With a different judge there would likely have been different winners – but I want to stress that there are, in fact, no losers. Surely we don’t engage in the art of literature in order to win. We do it because it enriches us.

Each of your stories touched me in their own way. I have read tales of loss and of deeply experienced loyalties; tales of place, conveying powerful feelings for the bush, the farm, the Wimmera. I have found humour, and black humour; explorations of memory and of identity. It was a privilege to hear your voices, and encouraging to discover so many fellow writers here in the Wimmera.

I want to tell you a little about my selection process: The most powerful, and indeed beautiful, piece of writing among this year’s entries, to my ear at least, could not, in all fairness, be awarded first prize. It did not really conform to a strict definition of a ‘Short Story’. Let me explain why in the end I decided to go with a strict definition.

A short story is one of the hardest forms of literature to master. It must introduce and develop characters, and complete a narrative arc within a tight framework. To better illustrate the difficulty, let’s compare this to writing a novel:

In a novel you have heaps of time to impress a reader, to build your three- dimensional characters, to develop your theme, and even subordinate themes, to build your plot and to tie up each thread. But in a short story you must not only build character and narrative – essentials from which we derive the ‘story’ – in a very short space of pages, but do so entirely without cliché. You must deliver simplicity without banality.

In a novel a sloppy sentence may whisk past the casual reader unobserved. In a short story it is an immediate blight. In a novel you can waffle and just maybe the reader will struggle on, trusting that there is some point to it all. But in a short story to waffle is to commit the unpardonable literary sin of losing the plot.

No doubt many of you have discovered for yourselves just how challenging it is to write character or plot driven narrative; much harder than an essay, memoir or creative non-fiction. Yet there were excellent examples of each of these among the entries too. But this was a Story competition. And this was my dilemma in selecting the winners. So. . .

Because of it’s deft handling of the linked themes of Ageing and Loss, I have chosen ‘The Mayoress of Casterbridge’ for first prize. . .

The author strikes a skilful balance between interior and exterior space, which helps to develop a sense of both place and character. In quick, deft lines, a great deal of information is conveyed about both past and present relationships. There is also a delicate use of metaphor, wherein the aging body and an abandoned country town construct a literary symphony, without undue sentiment. And there is just enough plot development to lift the narrative towards a satisfying conclusion.

I have chosen ‘Little Superman’ and ‘Herbert Green, Deceased’ as 2nd & 3rd place winners – again, for an expert handling of the inherent demands of the narrative structure. And frankly, because these stories moved me.

But I have given the Encouragement Award to the entry I alluded to earlier. A powerful piece of pure, lyrical prose: ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’

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