Michael Winter on how he won the CBC Short Story Prize
In 2004, Michael Winter was about to mail his short story entry to the CBC Literary Prizes when he realized it was double the permitted length. What followed was an award-winning edit—and a valuable lesson on the importance of brevity. In his own words, Michael describes the experience.
"I approached writing a story for the CBC Literary Awards as a mercenary venture—$5,000 for one story, not bad. Now, how do you win it? Jurors are wading through skyscrapers of paper, looking for one story that stands out. I heard a winning entry on the radio and it was about a death. Then I read one on a plane and it was about a birth. You can't go wrong with major life and death stories when it comes to a competition, so I thought I'd have a go at writing one. But which one, and how?
It took about nine seconds to realize that I'd write about them both: life and death. Pack it all in and double my chances of the story being remembered.
A man meets a woman, falls in love with her, she discovers she's dying and has a simple, parting request: she wants to have a baby.
This felt like a profoundly uncomfortable thing to write about, melodramatic and ridiculous in its summary, and yet I knew this heightened drama was the story's strength.
There was a deadline fast approaching. I wrote a draft in a week, then rewrote the story once a day for five days. Then I hauled out the contest guidelines to get the postal code and something caught my eye. Word limit: 2,500. My story weighed in at 5,000 words.
What was I to do?
I went through the manuscript and deleted every line that was not necessary: dialogue, exposition, description—chopped it all. No tangents. And, in an hour, I had cut the story precisely in half. I read it again and, in an insane way, the story made more sense than the longer version. I walked the story, wagging in its manila envelope, to the post office and made sure they stamped the date on it. A few months later the story won first prize.
Through an arbitrary problem I had arrived at a tenet of good writing: brevity wins. If you are having trouble with a story, it may not be an issue with the quality of the writing—there may just be too much of it.
After I won, I met one of the jurors and she said, we kept going back to your story. How did you manage those leaps, those odd connections? I told her what happened and a mix of shock and understanding passed over her face. She's an editor by trade, and I caught in her eye the shared truth that cutting is an indispensable part of rewriting."
Michael Winter is the author of The Death of Donna Whalen, a short novel he fashioned out of three million words from court transcripts. He won first prize in the Short Story category of the 2004 CBC Literary Prizes.