Cassie Hamer is a passionate reader and fledgling fiction writer who was born, raised and still lives in Sydney, Australia. She has a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing, a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and is studying a Postgraduate Diploma of Teaching English as a Second Language. In her twenties, she worked as a TV journalist, before dipping her toe into the murky world of public relations. These days her priorities are (and not in any particular order) reading, writing, and looking after her family, which includes three young daughters and a terrific husband. Cassie’s short story ‘Le Farfalle’ is included in the upcoming Shibboleth and Other Stories (Margaret River Press). Visit her website here or connect with her on Twitter @bookbirdyblog and Facebook.
Thank you Monique, for letting me borrow some space on your terrific blog. I am thrilled to have my short story, ‘Le Farfalle’ included in Shibboleth and Other Stories (Margaret River Press) – the anthology of finalists and winners in the Margaret River Short Story Competition.
This is the third time MRP has published one of my stories and I’d like to think I’ve learned something along the way. So – here are my tips for succeeding in short story comps. Of course, some of the tips apply to any form of writing but I think, as you’ll see below, that the short story also requires a specialist approach.
1) Have a great story idea
In truth, there are only two sources of story ideas. Your imagination is one of them. The other is the world around you, that is, what you see, hear and read. Often, your story will be a blend of the two – that is a little bit of reality, mixed with a lot of imagination. This was certainly the case for ‘Le Farfalle’. The ‘spark’ for this story came during a casual dinner where a friend who’d migrated in the 1970s from Armenia to Australia related a story of an insect collection he kept as a child – a collection he lived in fear of losing. From there, I posed the question – ‘what if?’ – and allowed my imagination to take over. It’s true that we are surrounded by story ideas every day. As a writer, your antenna must always be up. Not all of the ideas will work on the page, but you will know the good ones because they will plague you until you feel compelled to write.
2) Think before you write
For me, there’s no stronger curb to creativity than the blinking cursor. It is the blank screen that fills me with trepidation. For most emerging writers, writing is something that gets squeezed into the cracks of life. Therefore, I find it’s also highly inefficient to spend precious typing time with staring-at-the-computer-time. So, before I sit down to write, I generally spend a bit of time either thinking about the story or, as in the case of ‘Le Farfalle’, researching the period (1950s Australia) in which the story is to be set. Basically, I like to have an idea in my head of how the story will flow, including the scene structure. Ideally, the first few lines will be written before I even sit down. The great thing about thinking time is that you can do it any time, any place, and usually, the more you marinate your brain in the story, the more ‘fully-cooked’ the end product tends to be. That said, there is certainly a place for ‘free-writing’ in the drafting process; often, the act of writing is in itself enough to spawn ideas.
3) Make sure every word counts and re-write till it hurts
What distinguishes a short story from a novel is not simply the length but the level of intensity and focus. In a short story, there is no room for sub-plots and diversions. The writing must be highly focussed and every word should, ideally, convey something about the character or plot. If it doesn’t, it has no place in the story. As the saying goes ‘All writing is re-writing’ which, for a person like me who doesn’t love editing, makes the writing of a story a long and difficult process. Sometimes it helps to leave the story for a while so as to see it again with fresh eyes. But there is no doubt – first drafts do not win prizes.
4) Make sure something actually happens
Just because a story is short doesn’t mean nothing actually happens. A character study or a beautifully written location description is not a short story. Change or transformation must occur. It need not be dramatic or life-changing. In fact, it’s probably better if it’s not (smaller but finely observed moments seem to make the best short stories) but a reader must leave your story with the sense of having experienced something significant.
5) Research your competition and read widely
In my experience, succeeding in a short story comp requires understanding what the judges are looking for. This can be difficult to establish. Judging is a subjective process and one person’s winner may be another person’s highly commended. However, in general, most short story competitions demand a ‘literary’ style of writing. If you’re a commercial writer with no interest in literary fiction, that’s great. But it also means you’re better off concentrating on pumping out a full-length blockbuster. However if, like me, you love the opportunity to dabble in the ‘literary’, then comps are definitely worth a shot. If you’re unsure as to what style is being asked of you, then try to track down previous winners and read their stories. If that’s not possible, then pick up an anthology such as Award Winning Australian Writing (Melbourne Books), or Best Australian Stories (Black Inc) as these will not only inform your own writing practice, but also give you a solid indication of what judges expect to see.
6) Celebrate your successes and minimise the failures
Winning a short story competition is hard. There are many, many brilliant writers out there. and the competition is tough. So, when you achieve something – however small it may be – celebrate it! Hold onto that certificate for you will need it for the days of self-doubt when you question your ability to write. Similarly, if your story doesn’t make the cut, don’t sweat it. There are myriad reasons why stories don’t succeed, and not all of them relate to the quality of the writing. Like I said, judging is a subjective business, and while I do believe the shortlist (the top 10% of entries or so) probably selects itself on objective considerations, picking the actual winners and place-getters (the top 1%) becomes a bit of a crap-shoot, dependent almost entirely on the judge’s personal preference. It’s always worth submitting your story to a few competitions (not at the same time, though) as a different judge may take a different view. Of course, if you still don’t succeed, it’s worth revisiting the story to make doubly sure it’s as good as it could be. Perhaps try it from a different point a view. A different tense. Sometimes fairly minor changes can make huge differences. I wish you all the very best!
For more information about Shibboleth visit the Margaret River Press website.