VU Short Story Prize: judges’ report

As usual, the hundreds of entries for this year’s Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize were read blind. The judges – me, Overland editor Jeff Sparrow, deputy editor Jacinda Woodhead, and Victoria University academic and writer Jenny Lee – finally decided on a shortlist of fourteen stories; we later learned that this shortlist was made up of eleven women and three men. The short-listed stories were quite diverse in content, with many distinguished either by their skill of execution or their ambition. It is rare to find stories that achieve both, and the discussions around the final selection took into account a range of technical criteria, while keeping sight of the emotional impact that often marks excellence in the short story form.

I want to take the opportunity to identify a few common mistakes that entrants made. Firstly, and most importantly, reading the competition guidelines carefully is essential. But there are also more elusive matters that can make a story fail. Most commonly, there was a lack of understanding of tension and imagery – both issues of craft. A loss of tension can leave a story feeling deflated, even dull. Some of the stories submitted seemed well made but left no lasting impression.

There were a few cases of structural experimentation for its own sake, as well. Writers need to think carefully about the relationship between form and content.

On the other hand, many of the stories we read were not ambitious enough, and often those that were ambitious in some way were clumsily rendered, as though the writer expected a single idea to carry all the weight of their narrative.

The winning stories are all distinguished by an eloquence of execution that demon­strates a certain maturity: a knowledge of how short stories work, and how much work they take to craft. Each of the shortlisted stories, and certainly the top three, showed signs of having been carefully made – it was clear their authors had considered structure as well as tone, imagery as well as rhythm, and that they had a handle on the voice of their story and whether it rang true.

Late change’, by Michelle Wright, is an evocative story about a 73-year-old woman coping with grief. Compressed into one afternoon swim, the emotional life of this story is fully realised. The final image, invoking the possible disappearance of something as vast as the ocean, is a compelling metaphor. The author handles the dramatic tension in the water deftly and the story has the structure of a piece of music, building to a crescendo and gently fading.

The circle and the equator, in which a young Angolan refugee begins a new life in Cuba in the late 1970s, is a sensitive portrayal of a complex and rarely discussed geopolitical moment, written by Kyra Giorgi. While this story spans years, it is light and empathetic in approach, and never loses sight of its characters’ common humanity – or of hope. The image of shrapnel pushing itself out of the body is an enduring and compelling metaphor for trauma and recovery.

This year’s overall winner, ‘Dog story’, by Madelaine Lucas, is a deceptively simple and beautifully rendered treatment of a relationship breakdown. While the dog left over from a broken relationship may be a fairly common trope, here the animal in question is given a full life, his emotional status subtly raised. At a sentence by sentence level, ‘Dog story’ is filled with vivid imagery – particularly the haunting final scene – and the voice stands out for its intimacy, maturity, and clarity.

In judging this competition, we always come up against a tension that I believe every writer struggles with throughout her career: the strain between technical skill and creative risk-taking. While we reward stories for their strengths, it is worth remembering that writing is a craft and that virtuosity is something that grows and develops over a lifetime. Each of the emerging writers highlighted here has talent, but it is also long work that really makes a good writer. That work requires room to develop both technical ability and creative ambition. This prize is Overland’s way of making that room in the lives of emerging writers, and of encouraging that growth.

Jennifer Mills

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

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