Category Archives: Prizes

“Short” is shorter than it used to be

How long should a “short story” be? Old question, but one I’ve been pondering again in regard to some of my own published fiction.

One of my pieces (“A Sinking Heart”) has just won a prize in the international Letter Review short story competition; another {“Listing”) was a finalist for the recent Armadale Writers Award; and another (“I dispettosi amanti”) has now appeared in the anthology Snatches of an Aria. These vary in length from just over 400 words to just under 2500.

“A Sinking Heart,” approx. 1320 words, was much longer when first drafted, and only came into sharp focus after I’d gradually whittled it down until every remaining word was essential to the narrative purpose. I’m delighted that the judges of the Letter Review Prize make the following comment on this story and the other two place-getters (one by an Irish writer, one by an American):

The winning stories moved us deeply, made us smile, gave us so much to think about, and inspired us with their astonishing mastery of craft.

You can read “A Sinking Heart” here.

And “Listing,” which the Armadale award judge found “poignant and compelling,” is here.

19th-century writer Edgar Poe, a pioneer of the modern short story, said it should be capable of perusal at one sitting in order to sustain “unity of impression.” But William Saroyan, a later practitioner, remarked that some readers can sit for longer than others. These days, when most of us have a touch of ADHD, very few people seem able to immerse themselves in a fictitious prose narrative without keeping a distracted eye on the time. So, catering for a fidgety society, stories have generally become shorter. Not a bad thing if it leads to more concise writing. The revision process for one of mine, “Promises,” brought it down from about 3500 words to 2000 — the form in which it was published in Backstory a few months ago — and that cropping strengthened its impact, I think. You can read it here.

Most contemporary novels now look skinny compared with those written a century ago — or would, if their actual slimness wasn’t disguised by large fonts and wide-spaced lines. Short stories, too, are shrinking. Many literary magazines and prize competitions now tend to favour “flash fiction,” a term that has been around for about 30 years to designate extremely short stories and has proved especially popular in online publications. But how short is “extremely short”? Editors usually stipulate a maximum word count for these micro-narratives: sometimes 500 words, sometimes 200, sometimes even less.

The shorter it is, the more likely to be read as closely as a poem — or so its author hopes! One of mine, “Cured,” published in Flash Frontier, is under 150 words and aims at a quasi-poetic compression: here it is.




It’s nice to find yourself on a shortlist. But lists, short or long, signify quite different things in different contexts.

If you apply for a job and get shortlisted, you can expect an interview — with a good chance of being selected for the position. Recruitment agents will have previously included you on a longer list of possible contenders, though you probably won’t know about that earlier deliberative stage.

It’s a purer process if you submit something you’ve written for a literary award. ‘Purer’ in the sense of being less affected by bias, because usually what’s being evaluated in such cases isn’t the author but the particular composition — story, poem, or whatever — and a ‘blind’ judging is normal. That is, the person or panel making the decisions doesn’t know who the author of any entry is until afterwards.

Having in the past been longlisted, shortlisted and occasionally emerged as a winner for literary prizes, and having at other times been a member of judging panels, I appreciate this conscientious process of focusing on the quality of the piece of writing. Of course subjectivity is still involved in any judging.

 I’ve just learnt that one of my poems is on the shortlist for the 2022 Poetry d’Amour award. There are six other poets (from several parts of Australia) on the shortlist, so it’s of similar size to the longlist that included my novel The Madwoman’s Coat for last year’s ARA Historical fiction Prize.

The Poetry d’Amour prize will be announced, and an anthology containing all the longlisted entries will be launched, at an event on 2nd October during the Perth Poetry Festival.

Copies of the anthology can be pre-ordered here.

Apples, oranges and literary awards

Comparing like with like is a relatively simple evaluative task. But that’s not what faces the judging panel of some competitions.

As a judge for the 2021 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, it was with mixed feelings that I sat through last night’s announcement and celebration of the winners at the State Library.

Of course I’m delighted that the shortlisted contenders in each category were so variously meritorious, and I admire in particular the work of those who emerged with the glittering prizes. The public recognition that these awards attract is enormously encouraging for writers.

But once again (for this isn’t the first time I’ve been a member of this kind of panel) I felt misgivings because it’s inevitably a matter of choosing between apples, oranges and a mélange of other literary fruit. Even within a category such as Writing for Children, we had to rank picture books for the very young in the same list as sophisticated novels for pubescent readers. The Emerging Writers category, too, required us to appraise works that are generically quite different: they ranged from collections of poetry to family histories, from historical fiction to novels with contemporary settings … and so on. Hardly commensurable!

However, I was impressed by the conscientious and thoughtful way in which the panel members engaged with this challenging diversity of texts and exchanged impressions harmoniously with one another during our meetings. In all, the deliberative decision-making process took several months.

Thank you to my estimable fellow judges: Rashida Murphy (an excellent chair), Jay Lachlin Anderson, Liana Joy Christensen, Michelle Michau-Crawford and Josephine Wilson.

And warm congratulations to all the following shortlisted writers:

Emerging Writers:

David Allan-Petale, Locust Summer
Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (category winner)
Cindy Solonec, Debesa
Emily Sun, Vociferate
Josephine Taylor, Eye of a Rook

Writing for Children:

James Foley, Stellarphant
Steve Heron, One Thousand Snapshots
Denis Knight & Cristy Burne, Wednesday Weeks and the Tower of Shadows
Shirley Marr, A Glasshouse of Stars (category winner)
Katie Stewart, Where Do the Stars Go?

Writers’ Fellowship [project]
Nandi Chinna (category winner) — Poetry
Julia Lawrinson — Memoir
Caitlin Maling — Poetry
John Mateer — Poetry/Prose/Fiction
David Whish-Wilson — Travel memoir

In excellent company: ARA Historical Novel Prize

To find one’s own novel in a select group of contenders for a major literary award is immensely gratifying.

The longlist for the ARA Historical Novel Prize has just been announced, and my book The Madwoman’s Coat is on it.

This ARA award provides the most significant prize purse for any genre-based literary prize in Australasia. In total it bestows $100,000 in prize money, including a first prize of $50,000. Books by any writers resident in Australia and NZ are eligible.

There’s a wonderful sense of public affirmation in being longlisted for such a prestigious award. My book rubs shoulders with novels by such highly esteemed writers as Kate Grenville, Gail Jones and Steven Conte. You can see the list here.

Beyond the immediate sense of personal pleasure, it’s also exhilarating to be associated with the ARA Historical Novel Prize because of what it stands for: it celebrates the great value of imaginary time-travel. Too much contemporary fiction seems cramped within the here-and-now, tending to reinforce current attitudes and assumptions. By inventing characters and episodes set within a well researched framework of times past, authors of the best historical novels can help readers to see aspects of our own world from a new perspective. That’s what the ARA award recognises.

Though I may get no closer than this to the prize, the longlisting still puts me in respectable company. Among last year’s finalists who missed out at the end were several notable authors including Christos Tsiolkas, Pip Williams and Tara June Winch.

The winner will be announced next month during the 2021 virtual conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. As the conference is being hosted online, HNSA has been able to create its most extensive conference program to date, with panels, interviews, workshops, and more. Recorded sessions will remain accessible to registrants for three months after the event. I’m to be part of a panel for the last session before the final Plenary on Sunday 24 October. I’ll post details nearer the time.