30 December 2003

HERE COME DA JUDGE!

... Giles Hugo, co-editor of The Write Stuff, and one of the judges of the soon-to-be announced Write Stuff inaugural poetry and short story competitions, explains the long, the short and the tall of The Write Stuff Short Story Competition 2004:

He writes:

THE short story is an endangered art form. No kidding. But there is hope.

In September when she read and spoke in Hobart, Annie Proulx confirmed that her next work will be a collection of short stories, and that, in fact, she may have written her last novel, as she intends to devote most of her creative energies to the short story.

I was flabbergasted and delighted that a writer of Proulx's proven excellence in both long and short fiction - including winning the Pulitzer, National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award - should turn her attention so exclusively to the short story. If her publisher backs her decision, it will be a great service to literature.

You've got to be a little crazy to value a marginalised art form so highly.

Some of my best friends are writers of short stories. I write short stories. Most of my literary heroes are writers of short stories. Some of my heroes are those demented souls of publishing who persist in putting out collections and anthologies of short stories, and those happy few editors of literary magazines who have an eye/ear/mind for real short stories - as opposed to ''short fiction'', or simply ''text'', the pissed-modernist's ''equivalent''.

Short stories published in most Australian literary mags, anthologies or collections generally earn their authors very little - anything from a couple of free copies up to about $350 (say $100 per 1,000 words).

That's why I always tell young writers: 'Don't give up your day/night job.'

While writers of short stories struggle on in their quest for legit hard-copy publication,one seemingly booming outlet for output is the plethora of competitions for short stories. Publication may not be part of the winnings, but prizes are considerable in some cases. Within Australia, they vary from tens of dollars to thousands.

However, all writers of shorts stories of my aquaintance agree on one thing: Few, if any, competitions cater for the reasonably long short short. The longest are usually pegged at 3,500 words. Some competions ask for a mere 1,200 or 1,500 words. It's almost school essay time. Do the organisers of competitions believe that the judges have short spans of attention?

But seriously, serious writers like to write, to tell a good story in good time, to develop, delight, reverse and reward the reader for taking the form seriously. Most find the 3,500-word ceilling in most competitions is restrictive and limiting. Which is why, in setting up The Write Stuff Short Story Comptetion 2004 we have decided to set a word limit that takes off long after most other competions have left off, and which cuts off at a respectable altitude for almost all proponents of the art form - namely 5,000 to 10,000 words (ie no fewer than 5,000 and no more than 10,000 words).

I believe that most ''serious'' - and that will be defined anon - writers of short stories have a few stories of such a length languishing in dusty drawers (like some of their authors!) awaiting just such an opportunity to stand a chance of winning up to $700 and achieving publication in this online journal.

Some might be inspired to write something new - exploring the art form at length. Power to your pens! And mouses.

So what will this judge be looking for in such ''serious'' short stories?

I rather like Kurt Vonnegut's injunctions to young writers in his Short Story 101 introduction to ''The Bogombo Snuff Box'' (....), which include:

* Begin as close to the end as possible.
* Something must happen. One notable exception is Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lit Place''.
* Everybody must want something.

To which I would add:
* Most good short stories have a beginning, a middle and an end - though not necessarily in that order. Like chess - and life - much of the skill exhibited in a good short story comes in the endgame.
* Comedy is best avoided if the writer is not a natural exponent - short stories do not carry a canned-laughter track.
* A good title - like a picture - can be worth another 1000 words. Bland titles are a wasted opportunity to stand out and impress.

What is a ''serious'' short story - vs, obviously, a frivolous one? Hard to say. My all-time personal canon of ''serious'' writers of short stories includes, in no particular order and for very different reasons: Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekov, Mark Twain, ''Saki'' (H.H. Monro), Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Katherine Mansfield, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Charles Bosman, William Saroyan, Damon Runyon, Colette, Anais Nin, Dylan Thomas, J.D. Salinger, Gerald Kersh, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Anna Kavan, Truman Capote, G.W. Robinson, Geoff Dean, and Annie Proulx.

... ... Giles Hugo

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