2013 Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers

It’s my great pleasure to announce the 2013 winners: Jennifer Down, Nic Low and Robyn Dennison.

Before I commend their stories to you, a few reflections from the judging process, shared by me, Enza Gandolfo, Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead. One thing that we all remarked upon was the sameness of a lot of the work, most of which was domestic realism. While there were some more experimental stories, and some that extended themselves into speculative realms, these were by far the exception, and few of them displayed the emotional weight of good fiction. Many stories – even stories we discovered later were written by women – focused on masculinity.

In a field of 830 submissions, writers need to work hard to justify involving readers in their drama. They need to offer more than the expected conflicts.

Some common errors of craft are worth mentioning. There were some stand-out stories that were let down by a faltering ending, or crippled by a top-heavy introduction. When editing their own work, writers really need to examine their opening and closing paragraphs carefully and be able to see them as an outsider might. Re-reading makes an enormous difference to a story. Putting work away for a few weeks, then reading it again, can mean seeing it in an entirely different light. And, of course, reading the competition guidelines carefully is essential.

It takes confidence and skill to drop the reader right into the thick of things – and to haul them out again. A failure to pin down a story’s voice can unravel the whole. In addition, a voice that needs approval can turn the reader away. Confidence in one’s craft ultimately comes only with practice.

The winning stories have nerve. They avoid these pitfalls, and do something more: they surprise and delight, and they bring us into the places writers need to go. They take us past the stereotype, past our expectations, and into the blurry vagueness of life, with all its bewildering contradictions.

The Job’ by Robyn Dennison is a heartfelt depiction of two young teens. It begins with a seemingly innocent, almost young-adult fiction premise, as Justin faces the prospect of a blow job. But it works its way into the inner life of its characters in a sophisticated way. Dennison has a strong grasp of a carefully wielded image or line of dialogue, and nothing here is overdone. I was particularly impressed by the poignancy of her dialogue and the sensitivity in her portrayal of burgeoning anxiety, as well as a very moving depiction of friendship. Towards all her characters, Dennison displays that suspension of judgement which allows them a full life – the empathy of a true writer.

Rush’ by Nic Low is a clever satire of the effect of the resources boom on Indigenous communities. It’s hard to write comedy well, and this story does more than play for laughs. It very cleverly moves through the role-reversal premise into hilarious satire and then beyond it, looking at last into the dark places at the heart of greed and careless acquisition. The final line expands the scope of this story, so that it could easily be read as the prologue to an entire fiction. It drops us into the centre of the action and, importantly, it closes on a turning point. ‘Rush’ is an enjoyable speculation, but like the best short fiction it also opens up a whole world of possibilities.

In a strong shortlist, Jennifer Down’s ‘Turncoat’ was a clear winner. This story, following a few days in the relationship of Murray and Louise, is beautifully worked and carries ten times its body weight in emotion. Very little happens: a man walks a dog, has a bath, changes a light bulb. But the whole emotional world of these characters pivots around these seemingly banal events. It’s a work that reminds us of the subtle permutations of the domestic and the possibilities within it. The context of fear and anxiety about climate change burrows its way into this story, a sinister parallel to domestic anxieties, subtly crafted.

These are three fine writers we’re very pleased to publish and celebrate. But I want to congratulate everyone that entered this year’s competition, and all those working away against the odds to improve their craft and get to the heart of things. Particular credit must go to all twelve shortlisted writers, whose stories stood out among the crowd. It’s been a great honour to celebrate the short-story form and continue Overland’s fine tradition of support for emerging writers through this competition.


Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

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