My friend was once told by an experienced short story judge that she wouldn’t win any competitions with her stories. Not because they weren’t good enough, but because they didn’t follow the ‘competition formula.’ By formula the judge meant plot-driven with a
– drum roll-
‘da dah’ ending, and a final epiphany for the character.
This ‘problem’ is what I consider the strength of my friend’s stories. They creep up on the reader, light-footed and from unexpected quarters. They often end quietly, without the fanfare. Yet the effect is powerful and startling. In the best of her stories, the lives she reveals and the moods she creates penetrate so deeply into my thinking that, after reading them, the world I live in shifts slightly.
When I judge short story competitions this is the very quality I hope to find, and I’m not alone. Delia Falconer in the introduction to Award Winning Stories 2011 writes, “Every judge hopes to uncover those one or two pieces that make the world look new. . .” In choosing stories for Best Australian Short Stories 2010 Cate Kennedy says she looks for stories that “temper something passionately felt into an unexpected revelation that worked its way into my own thinking and stayed there.”
Winning short stories earn a place in the larger world, outside the parameters of a story. It’s not only their characters who undergo a change or see the world anew; in the best short stories, it’s the reader who does.
The following short stories have both won major short story competitions and don’t adhere to the ‘competition formula.’ A Short Story? by Ryan O’Neill hilariously and poignantly dissects the idea of the short story. It won the Hal Porter Short Story Competition in 2011. The beauty of Maria Toklander’s, A Roankin philosophy of poetry, lies in the multiple layers that keep revealing themselves with each reading. It won the Australian Book Review Short Story Award in 2010.
More tips on winning over the competition judges coming next week in Part 2.