Blow me down if I wasn’t asked to be one of the judges for this year’s Tasmanian Writers’ Competition for short stories.
The competition is run by the lovely people at Tasmania Forty South, with an ‘island’ theme. An anthology of the best entries is launched at the Hobart Writers’ Festival in the years when that’s on, and will now be launched in the alternate years at the Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival.
There were 105 entries, and Lucinda from Forty South posted 35 of them to me in a fat Express post package. They arrived on a Wednesday. The next Monday, I got an email from Margaret, one of my fellow judges. She’d read and sorted her stories and drawn up a shortlist and was wondering what we should do next?
At that point I still hadn’t opened the envelope.
In a panic, I got my stories out and put them into a pile on a side table in the living room, so that I could feel I was ‘underway’ with them. Then out of curiosity, I began sifting through and reading first paragraphs, taking an overall view of how they were presented, the immediate impact of punctuation and syntax. Did they have a great hook? Did they open with a pop? Did the theme, the treatment or the writing look as if it would draw the reader in?
The answer was mixed. On that first pass of about half the pile, none particularly caught my eye. To be fair, I was only giving them about ten seconds each. But writing should be able to make its mark in that time.
Late that afternoon I found a quiet corner in my usual sanctuary, closed up in my bedroom, sitting on the floor between baskets of laundry. If I’m lucky some if it’s usually fresh.
I began reading in earnest, aiming to conquer ten stories before my evening duties as dinner lady. Nothing leapt out at me. After a few paragraphs, if the writing was clearly not ‘publishable’ quality, I skim read. I felt this was acceptable, as an A4 page gives you a very clear idea of whether a piece of writing is in good shape, and whether the writer knows what they’re doing. Earnest and detailed reading of the first page is a fair go.
It was the following day when I came across a story that jumped off the page. I’d left base camp and was ploughing, snow blind, up the blank slopes of the north face, when an opening paragraph piqued my curiosity with its view into a next door neighbour’s garden and a eucalypt being taken down by tree surgeons. It was an ordinary scene but perfectly composed, the writing neat and completely assured, devoid of showiness, devoid also of horrible grammatical errors. Head down, eyes keen, I read on.
That story maintained its sense of purpose and clarity throughout and its narrative had simplicity and pathos in a beautifully rendered mix.
Several days on, (it was a busy time) I resumed my task, and found the story that for me remains the most accomplished. Brilliant, original and wondrously imaginative, with difficult subject matter perfectly handled. It had three alternative endings! WTF? The minute I read it, I began again, because I wanted to see what the writer had done and how she or he had done it. This was and remains the one story that truly excited me. Ultimately we found a number which were assured and well written and entirely suitable for the anthology. But this was my personal pick, the one which did something different and had a voice, authority and originality which truly stood out.
Finally we three judges each had a short list of around six stories. It was time to meet.
Not surprisingly, our views differed. Disparate people we, Margaret clearly a seriously learned person with PhD credentials, Peter a nature writer and former religion columnist for The Mercury. (For his sins?) And yours truly.
Neither of them liked my top pick as much as I and felt its adoption of the ‘island’ theme was notional. I hadn’t gone looking for a clever or even attempted use of the theme – I simply wanted good writing.
By a process of elimination we whittled our combined shortlists down until we had eleven we all felt deserved a place in the anthology. Respect for the others’ views played a large part – if one of us had a real sticking point about one of the stories, we moved it into the ‘publish but not a winner’ pile. It became increasingly clear which ones didn’t make the cut into that pile, even if we felt they had merit in parts.
It must be said the winner was clear to us all. I will confess to one reservation, that it’s a historical piece set in the Tasmanian penal colony, grim to say the least, and Tasmania has so many of those stories already. But that’s a highly personal and subjective view, rather than a judicious one. I was learning to put the personal aside in favour of strict and fair judging criteria. The writing of this story sang from the page, in enviable lines of poetic and beautifully expressed prose, its voice utterly convincing and of the time, a brilliant terribleness colouring it throughout.
And so we congratulate the eleven writers to be published. It’s a collection I will be proud to have chosen.
The Reverend by Jennifer Porter (VIC) (winner)
On the Ebb Tide by Margaret Dakin (QLD)
The Church of Lost Objects by Penny Gibson (VIC)
Matchbox Beetles by Annabel Larkey (TAS)
The Rasp of a Hungry Flame by Carmel Lillis (VIC)
Liberty by Ruairi Murphy (TAS)
Wash-up by Melanie Napthine (VIC)
Tybee Bomb by William Stanforth (VIC)
Alice … Incomplete by Karenlee Thompson (QLD)
The Tartan Factor by Polly Whittington (TAS)
Tears of Chios by Lynette Willoughby (SA)