Canada Writes

Entering the CBC Short Story Prize? Heather O'Neill has 5 tips for you

The novelist discusses the perks of entering literary contests and what she is looking for in great short stories.
Heather O'Neill is a Canadian writer. Her books include Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and The Lonely Hearts Hotel. (The Canadian Press)

Heather O'Neill is no stranger to the world of literary prizes. Her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was shortlisted for a Governor General's Literary Award and won Canada Reads in 2007. She was the first back-to-back finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and her writing has appeared in places like the Guardian, the New York Times and the Globe and Mail. Her latest book is the novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

In 2018, O'Neill was a juror for the CBC Short Story PrizeCBC Books hosted a Facebook Live video with O'Neill and former CBC Literary Prizes coordinator, Dionne Codrington, to answer your questions about submitting to the CBC Literary Prizes. 

The 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is now open for submissions, and O'Neill's advice is as relevant now as it was then.

1. Write and write and write

"I like a unique voice. It's almost like when you hear a singer that you like and you just adore that voice. I always look for a voice that I love and that's something writers develop naturally.

The more you write, the more your voice becomes consistent and idiosyncratic and wonderful.

"The more you write, the more your voice becomes consistent and idiosyncratic and wonderful. Which is why I always tell young writers to write and write and write, because that's the only way you develop that voice."

2. Get uncomfortable

"I always look for [the story] to be thematically interesting — for it to say something about the world that I haven't thought of before, for it to have a little edge or for it to be a deeper perspective on the world because I like my perspective to be opened. I like to be shocked a little and to realize 'Oh! I never really thought about it that way.'

"It's fine to be provocative too. Sometimes I look for uncomfortable things. I remember once judging a competition and the story that I chose was the one that made me the most uncomfortable because it touched on issues in myself that I hadn't quite dealt with."

3. Watch your typos

"I'm not that finicky, but some judges will immediately be enraged. Some people hate typos. Do your best because it does throw [the reader] off. It does alienate the reading experience a bit and it throws off the flow of the story. Definitely have someone reread your work."

4. Learn to love deadlines

"Good advice for aspiring writers is to find yourself a deadline and stick to it. Deadlines are amazing. If you find yourself a deadline, that's going to actually help you produce something."

5. Seize the opportunity

"When you're establishing yourself as a writer, it's important to take whatever opportunity comes your way. This is actually a prize that comes with a lot of recognition and a lot of people in the establishment will definitely read it.

When you're establishing yourself as a writer, it's important to take whatever opportunity comes your way.

"It's great to have on your resumé when sending your work to agents. It is an amazing way to introduce yourself to the world."

Heather O'Neill's comments have been edited and condensed. 

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