As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the CBC Short Story Prize, we're asking the readers for the competition what it's like to read 500 short stories in search of the best. Deborah Willis likes to let the stories reach out and grab her.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I currently live in Vancouver. I write fiction, usually short stories, and sometimes non-fiction.
What's your day job?
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was a bookseller at Munro's Books in Victoria, BC. Now I have a gig as a writer-in-residence and will be doing some teaching in Vancouver, as well as working on my next book.
What's your literary street cred?
Literary street cred exists? I hope so. And if I have any, I got it from publishing a collection of short fiction, Vanishing and Other Stories, with Penguin in 2009.
Why did you want to be a reader for the 2011 CBC Short Story Prize?
I thought that reading so many stories from across the country would be an interesting way to see what people are thinking and writing about in Canada this year.
What do you like about short fiction?
I love that it's short! By that I mean, there are no wasted words. A short story has to be engaging, meaningful and well-written from beginning to end.
Where did you read the short story entries?
I read them EVERYWHERE! In the staff room at work, on the bus, in cafes, over breakfast, on the couch, in the bathtub. They took over for a while.
When you're reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I was truly just waiting for a story to grab me, no matter what its tone or subject matter. The stories I picked were ones that I fell in love with naturally. There were so many to chose from that, in a sense, my job was easy. I didn't have to try to love any stories. I simply had to be open enough (and awake enough) to recognize when I was reading something moving or funny or heartbreaking. I loved that revelatory moment--when I thought to myself, "Yes! This one!"
What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
This competition is a difficult one because the word-count requirement is quite low, so writers need to create engaging characters and something of a plot within a short space. As a writer, I would have found this difficult. So when I encountered a story that managed it all, I was truly impressed and that story went into the 'yes' pile.
Having read all these stories, do you have any tips, any dos and don'ts, for short story writers?
Don't use weird fonts. Don't bold-face or italicize an entire story. Make your prose stand out, not your formatting. And don't take two pages to get to the heart of the piece; save your slow, meandering intros for another day. In this kind of competition, where there are so many entries, you have to impress the readers fast.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
Though it was intimidating to see that stack of over 500 stories (the pile never seemed to get smaller!), it was also encouraging. I loved to think about all those people who care deeply about writing and reading, and who are so engaged with the world that they want to capture some of it on the page. I was moved by the evidence of all that passion.