Books

CBC Short Story Prize juror Craig Davidson shares his secrets to writing a great short story

The bestselling writer and juror of the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize discusses the challenges of writing concise fiction and offers advice to aspiring authors.
Craig Davidson is a Canadian writer whose books include Cataract City, Rust and Bone, Precious Cargo and Cascade. (Peter Power/CBC)

Craig Davidson is one of three writers on the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize jury

The winner, as selected by the jurors, will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have the opportunity to attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize is now open and accepting submissions until Oct. 31, 2020.

Davidson has written several novels including Cataract City, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2013, Rust and Bone, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature film, The Fighter and Sarah Court. His memoir, Precious Cargo, was defended by Greg Johnson on Canada Reads 2018. Davidson also writes horror under the name Nick Cutter.

His latest book is the short story collection Cascade.

The six stories in Cascade are set in Davidson's hometown of Niagara Falls, known as Cataract City, and explore what it's like to try to make a life in a town that is struggling economically, where its residents feel left behind and where the glorious, touristy waterfalls distract from deep social, economic and political problems.

The bestselling author spoke with CBC Radio's Mainstreet Nova Scotia host Jeff Douglas about what makes a great short story and why it's challenging to write concise fiction.

The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize juror talks to Jeff Douglas about what makes a great short story. 7:26

What, as a jury member, are you generally looking for in short stories?

"When you're pulled into a story, it's something between the tone, the style, the energy of the writing — all of that comes together to make you feel a certain way or draw you into the narrative.

It's something between the tone, the style, the energy of the writing — all of that comes together to make you feel a certain way or draw you into the narrative.

"I've got my own esthetic and sense of things, but the other two judges will have their own esthetic as well. Sometimes I'll be like, 'I love this story' and one of the other jurors will be like, 'Oh, I just don't see it.' It's an interesting endeavour because we all have our own taste."

There has to be something beyond taste, surely. There is a real craft to it. Even if you may be like, 'It's not necessarily for me, but this is a fantastic short story.' The craft is there. The work is there.

"That's true. I think that's very true.

"A story can be raw and it might not be so technically facile. Sometimes it's like over-polishing a diamond. You can polish away all the rough edges that actually make it beautiful. While I do think editing is important, you can over-edit a story. Then you're kind of getting away from the beauty, the heart and the power it had.

While I do think editing is important, you can over-edit a story.

"But you're definitely right. I think we [the jurors] will have ones that we all agree are well-written and well-crafted stories. Then it comes down to how effective or emotionally engaging we find them."

Every writer that I get to speak to on this program says that the short story is a very, very difficult horse to tame.

"There's a sense that writers all start with short stories. Most of us, myself being one, started taking smaller bites, thinking a short story is the way to go. Then I found, after writing novels for a while, that it got difficult to dial back.

You recognize that concision is important, doing more with less.

"You recognize that concision is important, doing more with less. It is a more refined part of writing than, say, a novel."

With a novel, I pick the book up, I got 454 pages. By page 25, I'm not going to go throw it out. Most people will be like, "I'm going to give this time, time for these characters to develop." You don't have that luxury in a short story.

"You've got to lay your cards on the table earlier with short stories. Sometimes within the first paragraph, a couple paragraphs. I shouldn't be prescriptive that way, there are lots of short stories that don't go that way and are beautiful and work. But you are on a different kind of clock.

"To tell the story and to get those narrative balls moving, you have to do it quicker and with a greater level of concision. In a lot of ways it's a great proving ground to work out your writing chops."

Author Craig Davidson, aka Nick Cutter, answers The Next Chapter's Proust Questionnaire. 4:40

What are some words you might say to embolden folks out there who may have an idea kicking around in their head?

"When I first started writing stories as soon as I was done, I wanted to send it out. I was convinced it was the best thing that had ever been written.

If I had taken some more time, put that way, fallen out of love with it for a bit, come back, done a few editorial passes and then sent it out, it's usually a much stronger piece of work.

"You wait for the rejections to come in — which they definitely did — and realize if I had taken some more time, put that way, fallen out of love with it for a bit, come back, done a few editorial passes and then sent it out, it's usually a much stronger piece of work."

Craig Davidson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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