New Zealand’s richest short story competition opens from 1 April

30 March 2022

Dame Fiona Kidman photographed by Robert Cross

Entries have opened for the Sargeson Prize, New Zealand’s richest short-story competition. This year, first prize in the Open Division is $10,000 and chief judge will be Dame Fiona Kidman OBE.

Now in its fourth year, the competition is named for celebrated New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson and is sponsored by the University of Waikato. It was established in 2019 by Catherine Chidgey, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University.

Catherine says New Zealand has a long and illustrious history of short-story writing, and competitions like the Sargeson are a great opportunity for new voices to shine.

“A deadline can really fire the imagination and drive us to produce our best work,” she says. “A hefty cash prize is also very motivating, of course! Year in, year out, the quality of the entries in the Sargeson Prize has wowed me – enough excellent stories to fill many anthologies, and always a thrilling mix of established, emerging and brand-new writers.”

Last year there were almost 850 entries in the Open Division and 150 in the Secondary Schools Division. Catherine would like to see more entries from students aged between 16 and 18.

“I’d encourage any young writers out there to have a go. It’s a wonderful chance to get your work published, and also to take up a writing residency that I'd have killed for in my teens! You’ll get one-on-one feedback to help you develop your voice, and you’ll also get a taste of what studying Creative Writing is like at Waikato.”

The first-prize winner in the Secondary Schools Division will receive $500 and a one-week summer writing residency at the University of Waikato, including accommodation, meals and mentoring.

Dame Fiona will be judging blind, meaning she will not know who has written each story. And as one of New Zealand’s best-known novelists and short-story writers with a slew of awards, she has some tips for would-be entrants.

“I don’t believe there are any absolute rules for writing short stories. The well-made beginning, middle and end went out the window long ago. And yet, when I'm judging a competition, it’s the spark at the beginning that grips me, the moment when I begin to read and I know that I have to keep going. The voice of a character reaches out and I go ‘oh hullo, tell me more’.

“So straight away, I can tell you that a short story with a clearly defined character, who the author knows and understands, is a great help. If the writer knows the character then they will know that voice, hear it in their heads as they write. And if I can hear it too I will almost certainly be hooked. Listen, listen to the world around you.”

Dame Fiona says the framework of a story is more shapely than a novel, but rules for short stories are made to be broken. Only in order to break them, it helps to know something of the conventions.

“In other words, read short stories and find out what it is about them that you like, whether it be those of Chekhov or Alice Munro or William Trevor or Patricia Grace, or O. Henry. Don't get hung up on plots (as O. Henry did, but he was a singular master of the plot). Not all of us are carrying a plot around in us, but all of us carry stories. A story may be as simple as the passing of a summer day and what happened on that day. So, don't strain to be sensational.”

Entries for the Sargeson Prize close 30 June 2022. There is no entry fee and stories are limited to one per person. Stories in the Open Division can be up to 5000 words, and 3000 is the upper limit for Secondary Schools stories.

Winning stories in both categories will be published online on ReadingRoom, the literary arm of Newsroom, managed by journalist and author Steve Braunias.

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