How Michael Winter won the 2004 CBC Short Story Prize
In 2004, Michael Winter — author of Into the Blizzard and Minister Without Portfolio — 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.