The secrets of a short story writer


Crafted, honed, condensed and polished to perfection; the best short stories are like a precious jewel, as evocative as any novel. As the $ 5000 Sunday Star-Times short story competition enters its final week, Tracy Watkins talks to some of New Zealand’s best loved writers about the art of storytelling in a few thousand words or less.

Legendary writer Lorrie Moore once said of short stories that “a short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.”

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Paula Morris, yr award winning New Zealand writer who has success as both a short story writer and novelist, couldn’t agree more.

“A short story is like a wild affair you have over a weekend,” she laughs.

The demands of honing a story down to a few thousand words, she says, can be an “intense experience”.

“I always say the short story is a compressed and demanding form; so that notion of compression is very important. Because it doesn’t mean something should be skimpy or sketchy; what you’re trying to do is pack as much as possible into a small space.

“So for writers entering the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, they’re trying to create very rich and resonant stories that do a lot in a small space rather than it just being something that feels like a thin slice of something bigger. What they have to do is work with the word count to make every word count. ”

Paula morris


Paula morris

It seems interest in writing has never been higher.

Last weekend, Morris and some of New Zealand’s best known short story writers, including a slew of former Sunday Star-Times short story winners, launched the inaugural Mātātuhi Foundation series of short story writing webinars.

It was a unique opportunity for the more than 100 aspiring writers who tuned in to hear from the best about how to launch themselves into the short story genre.

There was even a session with Penguin Random House fiction publisher Harriet Allan on editing and publishing short stories; learning first hand how publishers think is gold in the writing world, where rejection slips litter many early carers.

The Mātātuhi Foundation grant was in recognition of the importance of short story writing, and in particular the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, in the development of New Zealand’s top writing talent.

The awards have been a launching pad for some of New Zealand’s best known writers. They have also helped raise the profile of New Zealand writers with New Zealand readers by publishing the winning entries.

Creativehub director John Canna said many of the Sunday Star-Times short story winners were graduates of his 30 week creative writing course and he stressed to them the importance of entering and winning the competition. It was a great way to get your CV noticed when it landed on the desk of a publisher.

“For start-out writers short stories are a fantastic medium – and your competition is so important. It’s launched the careers of a number of successful writers.

“That’s one of the main reasons we should have more short story competitions, to help reach future stars.”

Writers like Eileen Merriman, Fiona Sussman, Eleanor Catton and others had all got their start in short story competitions.

John Cranna, director of Auckland's The Creativehub.


John Cranna, director of Auckland’s The Creativehub.

Canna said there was no secret to success when it came to short story writing; just “several years of writing, study and practice – and reading heaps.”

Last year’s Sunday Star-Times winner, Jill Varani, was a rare exception, taking out the top prize only weeks after completing his creative writing course.

“Jill was a bit of a freak; she’s a rare young talent, ”says Canna.

But in general there was no shortcut to success.

“If you’re going to be candid with the readers on this one…. I would say prolonged study. All (Creativehub) prize winners did our six-month course and most of them had been writing for several years. Most have not only done the course, but they’ve been working on novels, and entering short story awards including international ones. So they’re just unrelenting in their focus and discipline and motivation. ”

Paula Morris ?? s novel Rangatira, which was inspired by one of her short stories.


Paula Morris ?? s novel Rangatira, which was inspired by one of her short stories.

Morris says the mistake many short story writers make is beginning and ending their story in the wrong place.

“What I mean by that is, say your story is about the day someone came to your house and knocked on the door to hand you a letter saying ‘I am your husband’s lover’.

“Why start it the week before when you’re in a supermarket thinking about your husband and how much you love him? And then we have another scene where you have a family day and your husband is lovely and finally you get the knock at the door.

“Why not begin with the knock at the door. Maybe that’s where the story really begins. Because everything else can be a reflection. ”

The art of short story telling, Morris says, is you need to get into them right away.

“You don’t have the time, it’s not a novel… .even if it’s a story that is going to turn on a very small moment we need to feel immersed in the story immediately and not just be bored waiting for something that feels like a story to us. ”

Most writers make the leap from short story writing to novels early in their career. Some, like regular Sunday Star-Times competition finalist Eileen Merriman, say they have later used some of their short stories as the basis of novels.

Morris says she has done that just once, with her novel Rangatira, which began life as a short story.

The book won a slew of prizes, in New Zealand and internationally. But Morris says she only turned it into a novel after being urged to do so by one of New Zealand’s foremost writers, Witi Ihimaera.

In fact the novel and the short story are quite different, says Morris, with the novel ending before the scene in the short story takes place.

“They are companion pieces.

New Zealand author and Sunday Star-Times short story judge Amy McDaid.

Colleen Maria Lenihan

New Zealand author and Sunday Star-Times short story judge Amy McDaid.

Amy McDaid, a judge in this year’s Sunday Star-Times short story awards, was the winner of New Zealand’s richest writing prize, the James Wallace prize, for her debut novel Fake Baby.

McDaid says the perception that short stories might be easier to write than novels is misplaced.

“It’s actually really hard to achieve a lot in the few words you do have in a short story. I would say that they’re harder to write; they’re quite the art form.

“Every word counts; every sentence counts, it’s all got to build towards creating that voice and those characters and carrying the story along; you can’t have superfluous paragraphs really. ”

If the devil is in the detail, the art of short story writing is in choosing the right details to leave in, rather than take out: “details that say the most about that character, that are the most powerful”

But you also have to trust the reader, says McDaid.

“Imagine the reader as someone who is intelligent and insightful; there’s so much power in what isn’t said; it’s about not being too obvious. ”

McDaid will be judging the under 25 category in this year’s awards, a new category for young writers that expands on the previous school student category.

McDaid says she finds it hard putting into words what she will be looking for “but I will know it when I see it ‘.

“It will be something that’s authentic; got an unusual voice, and strong characters – and it’s coming back to that tightness of prose, where every word matters. ”

The important thing to know for those who entered, meanwhile, was that competitions, like publishers, always carried an element of subjectivity.

“What grabs one judge might not grab the other… .which is why it’s good no matter what happens to press on regardless as opposed to getting discouraged if you don’t win or get rejected.”

Reworking and honing the same story would eventually get results.

<a class=Novelist and playwrite Carl Nixon is a judge in this year’s Sunday Star-Times short story awards” style=”width:100%;display:inline-block”/>

Joseph Johnson / Stuff / Stuff

Novelist and playwrite Carl Nixon is a judge in this year’s Sunday Star-Times short story awards

Carl Nixon, judge of the open category, is an acclaimed novelist, playwright and short story writer.

He says what he likes about short stories ”is that they are manageable in terms of time”.

“Most people are busy; if you’re looking to start and work on and complete something, a short story is the way to go.

Size also meant it was possible to “shape a short story like a little jewel and make it 100 percent perfect”.

“But with a novel, it can be a big rambling thing that gets really out of control of. It’s a marathon as opposed to a sprint. ”

Nixon says most short stories put their hand up as potential winners in the opening paragraph.

“You can normally tell, certainly within the first paragraph, if the person has put the necessary time into making it work. And there’s also the issue of what you’re writing about.

Some people haven’t read a lot of short stories, so they set off on an epic journey; a vast family saga that’s been compressed into 3000 words which isn’t what short stories do best. ”

Usually – though not always – short stories are focused on a concise moment in time, and normally they’re focused on a single character who has undergone some type of change.

“It’s not a change that happens over 20 years, it’s a change that happens over half an hour.”

But Nixon says most writers are probably born rather than made.

“It’s an occupation where you sit in a room by yourself for a long period of time thinking about things. That doesn’t follow a lot of people. ”

As for the progression from short story writing to novels, that is driven by pragmatism to a large extent, Nixon admits.

“Novels are what sell and short stories don’t sell so well at the moment.”

A former Sunday Star-Times short story awards winner, Eleanor Catton.

Supplied / Supplied

A former Sunday Star-Times short story awards winner, Eleanor Catton.

Morris wrote recently about this conundrum in the Sunday Star-Times; people love writing short stories, she noted, but few people want to pay for them.

But she thinks there are compelling reasons for that to change in a world where books are in competition with cellphones and the internet and attention spans are waning.

“A really good short story will make you think; it might make you laugh; it will make you want to read it again because it is so powerful.

“I don’t know why some readers are afraid of short stories; I think maybe they feel like they’re having an affair, rather than the long term relationship they would have with a novel.

“But actually they are incredibly suitable for our busy lives; they are something you can read before you go to bed, they are something you can read on a train or a bus commute, and they’re something you can read and reread and get a lot out of and actually find a lot to discuss as well ”.

Videos and printed material from the Mātātuhi Foundation free webinar series for emerging writers is now available. Email [email protected] for details or head to our short story competition page for links to all three webinar sessions.


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