Tag Archives: writing competitions

Judging Story Competitions Part 2

This continuing story of a rural writing competition is from the beginning of the prize presentation evening, wherein Jane presented her own credentials – included here because it is relevant to this blog and to Pomonal Publishing generally. Then she addressed the younger writers:

It’s lovely to see you all here tonight, and it’s been a great privilege to read the entries and select the winners. But before we get to that most exciting bit, I think it only fair that you should know something about me. Why have I been asked to stand in judgement of your creative writing? So I’ll tell you a little about myself:

I grew up in Northern Victoria between the Murray River and the Broken Creek, but like many country kids, I went down to Melbourne for a tertiary education. I went to art school. Both my parents were painters, as was my late brother, Chris Nicholls who some of you may have known. Bron Nicholls, an author of both adult and children’s literature, is my older sister and was for many years my writing mentor.

Initially I trained as a photographer, then as a filmmaker, and I worked in the film industry in Melbourne for almost 20 years. But writing has always been a major part in my life. I kept an extensive journal, I wrote short stories, poetry and film scripts, – and I taught writing too: tutoring for the Victorian Adult Literacy Council, teaching Screen Writing for accredited film courses, and finally, when I moved up here, both Creative Writing and Script Writing for Stotts Correspondence College.

Eventually I began writing (and rewriting) my first novel. But by the time I was happy with it, about ten years ago now, it had become clear that I’d left it too late to find a mainstream publisher. The nature of the book industry had changed so much that even previously published and acclaimed Australian authors were no longer considered profitable.

I recently learned of a many-times published author whose latest manuscript was rejected because, and I quote: ‘though ‘beautifully written as always’, her publisher ‘no longer handled literature because there was no money in it.

Because I knew quite a few accomplished writers in similar situations, I became an accidental publisher myself – taking advantage of the digital technologies that have transformed our lives, to create a writer-driven, small publishing venture, based here in the Grampians. Pomonal Publishing. Already we have produced a dozen books and have several others in the pipeline. And of course you can read more about it on our blog. (This blog.)

But now, I’d like to speak specifically to the younger writers in our midst...

photo by Ree

Human beings have been telling stories since prehistoric times, when our earliest ancestors gathered around fires, their only source of heat and light after the sun went down, to tell the stories that would make us who we are.

In this very place, in this country we call the Wimmera, right here, ancient people told their stories for many thousands of years. I think it right that we acknowledge them, the traditional owners of this country, the first Australians.

Because the art of telling stories dates back to the beginning of human culture, writing stories connects each of you to this very ancient tradition; you can really be proud of that. But entering a writing competition is not like running a race on Sports Day, You can’t see the person ahead or behind you – and there’s no finish line. So…if you can’t write to win, what makes a winning story?

Firstly, it must be original. Though it’s sometimes said that there are no original stories – that they’ve all been told before. I don’t believe that’s true, any more than I believe each of you is exactly the same. Every person relates to the world around them in their own unique way. And a good story lies more in the telling than in the bare facts; so finding an authentic voice for your narrator, or for your main character, is a big part of the writing process. (For our younger writers: Authentic just means: real, true, not a copy or a fake.)

Of course correct grammar and spelling will always help, and there’s a lot you can learn at school about the writer’s craft – but it’s important that when you write, you don’t do it to win competitions, but because it’s what you love to do, or because you have something to say, something that needs to be heard.

And don’t forget that writing goes hand in hand with reading. Particularly for young writers. That really is the best way to learn about story-telling and to improve your own writing. Nobody ever became a good writer watching DVDs or television. When you watch TV all the imagination comes from the other side of the screen. We just sit back with our mental feet up, taking it easy.

But when we get into a good book our minds are working all the time to picture what we read. Each of us sees the story unfold in our own imagination. And that’s what makes our brain stretch its creative bits. So, if you want to be a writer: More Books Less TV, yes? And now to the prizes…

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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.


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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