New Zealand writer Craig Cliff won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book for A Man Melting (2010)
I started entering short story competitions in my late teens. At the time I thought I was taking writing seriously, but I only ever seemed to finish one or two stories a year — and always on the day before a competition closed for entries. Competitions are great in this way: they give you something to aim for, a deadline. Sometimes they even give you the impetus to start a story you’ve been meaning to write but never gotten round to.It took a couple of years to realise that I wasn’t finished with my stories once I’d submitted them to a competition (and they inevitably didn’t win). I would put in enormous amounts of energy during the final week before the deadline to get the story finished, but in essence I was submitting a first draft — it is no wonder I wasn’t having much success. I like James Michener’s line: ‘I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.’ Most writers, however talented, spend as much time rewriting as they do on first drafts. With time I’ve learnt to love editing my own work: it’s less intimidating to start the day with a screenful of text already there than a blank page. With each change I make, however small, I know that I’m making the story better.The ability to appraise my own work was helped along by taking a few writing workshops, but there are other ways to develop this important skill. So long as you read voraciously — and critically — and put in the time at your writing (and rewriting) desk, you’ll start to see improvements.
"Don’t to put all your eggs in the competition basket. Subscribe to your local literary journals, read them, submit your own stories: when accepted, add a line to your literary curriculum vitae."”
When I look back at how I operated when I was starting out, I also realise I wasn’t taking writing seriously. Not yet. It was only when I found myself writing stories without a specific competition or deadline in mind that I was truly committed to becoming a better writer. Suddenly I was writing five or six stories a year, then ten or twelve. When the competition deadlines rolled around I had my pick of stories to choose from and things began to go my way for the first time.My first success in a writing competition came in 2007 when I won the novice category (open to writers who had yet to have anything published for payment) in a prestigious short story competition in my native New Zealand. Over the next twelve months I got stories and poetry published in a number of print and online publications. Again, winning a competition isn’t a necessary step, but it does accelerate the process of ‘getting noticed’.Prizes like the Commonwealth Writers Prizes are that extra bit special because they cross so many borders. I’ve been to Australia three times this year thanks to my success in the Best First Book category of the Commonwealth Writers Prizes, and I’m off to Perth in February. This kind of recognition ‘next door’ is unheard of for a New Zealand writer with only one book of short stories to their credit.
Of course, I didn’t set out to write a prize winning collection of short stories — I wrote and rewrote individual stories until I could improve them no more. Thoughts of putting a collection together came very late in the piece.
My advice to aspiring writers is the short story is a fantastic form to commit yourself to, but don’t to put all your eggs in the competition basket. Subscribe to your local literary journals, read them, submit your own stories: when accepted, add a line to your literary curriculum vitae; when rejected, take another look at the story and see if there’s anything you want to change before submitting it elsewhere.
When I started to think about pulling together my short stories into a collection and approaching a publisher, I had about forty stories written over five or so years. Some had been published in journals and anthologies, but most of these had been rejected or overlooked in some form before this. Others had been rejected countless times and remained unpublished. I spent a lot of time tinkering with which stories to include in A Man Melting and how to order them. In the end, some published stories didn’t make the cut and I included other stories that had been rejected over and over because I knew I just hadn’t found the right home for them yet (the title story, ‘A Man Melting’ was one of these).
It has been interesting to observe the reactions of readers and reviewers to my collection and see how varied people’s tastes are. Every story of the seventeen is someone’s favourite and probably someone’s least favourite (people are more cagey when I ask them which stories they disliked). I find this reassuring when I sit down to write and rewrite now: whatever happens, I know that when I’m happy with this story there’s at least one other person in the world who’ll be happy with it too.
It’s worth remembering this when submitting work, especially for competitions where there are hundreds of entries. It’s great to win, but not winning shouldn’t be the end of the road for your story. In most cases, it’s just the beginning.