Short story competition: what to do when fact and fiction collide


What should we write about?

Novelist John Matthew Fox said: “Find your biggest trauma. Take that terror and structure a story around it. It’s the only thing you should write about.

Poet and novelist Rosetta Allan quotes Fox on the phone on a sunny Friday in Auckland, as we talk about the delicate art of writing what you know. Memories do it all the time, and fiction writers have long drawn inspiration from the world around them. But how do you negotiate the protection of the story while balancing the uncomfortable realities of someone you know recognizing themselves in a character?

The answer may not be simple and has long been debated. But, says Allan, the 2021 Sunday Star-Times Short Awards Open Category Judge, writing that comes from the heart and is inspired by real life, is his favorite.

* How do you write a good short story? “Make each of these words count”
* Book review: Crazy Love, by Rosetta Allan
* What I’m reading: Paula Morris

“I am always interested in these personal stories – the trials, the tragedies and the successes.” The ideal news would plunge her into a pivotal time in a character’s life, to see their hopes and fears.

“A lot of writers that I mentor or accompany during my classes can come directly to this place with their first novel and I think that takes incredible courage. ”

Allan, first a poet and now author of four novels, is candid about his most recent book, Crazy Love, a fictional love story that draws on the challenges of her 37-year marriage. “It was scary for me and my husband to see what response this would get,” says Allan.

Her husband read a draft but did not see it again until it was published. “He really worried about (how) people would perceive him. He said: “The first part makes me look like a hero, the second part makes me look like a bastard, and the third part makes it look like the jury is out.”

Poet and novelist Rosetta Allan.


Poet and novelist Rosetta Allan.

It was he who encouraged Allan to write a novel in the first place – suggesting that he give up his job and focus solely on writing. Fortunately, Allan agreed, and his first novel Purgatory, was published in 2014.

Crazy Love was new territory, and was born from another million dollar question: “What’s the secret of the long marriage?” And I started to think that there is no secret other than the practicality of not giving up. Anytime of the year, anytime, you can give up … and I thought, I’ll write this.

“When I started writing it, I had no intention of telling anyone except people who know us that it was (our) story. If I hadn’t had its 100% support, I couldn’t have gone as far as I did.

Inspired by the deeply personal memories of Charlotte Grimshaw, The mirror book, Allan began to recognize the personal nature of Crazy Love. “There was a bit of concern with a few offended characters, but they didn’t say anything. (Another) came to me and questioned my right to write so close to the truth. I had to explain that this is fiction, and in fiction I write a story for the story.

Crazy Love launched to a smaller crowd in Ponsonby Central the night before the country’s lockdown. Alerts were sent to attendees’ phones throughout the evening and guests returned home with excess food and wine, preparing to weather the storm.

“It’s terribly disappointing,” Allan said of the timing. “You really try not to get overwhelmed, but it’s hard not to because of the momentum you create. I would be remiss if I said “no, it’s okay”, but I was not the only one. My heart goes out to the other authors.

That said, Crazy Love was written during the last containment. Now Allan is working on the outlines of a new novel, but admits that this lockdown makes it hard to focus.

For other writers, perhaps those considering attending the Short Story Awards, Allan has this advice: don’t hit send too quickly on your work. Get feedback before you do, but choose your readers carefully – don’t pick those who won’t like it, or those who will give you nothing but praise. Finally, don’t be discouraged if this doesn’t get you anywhere.

“That doesn’t mean the work isn’t good, just put it somewhere else and see it again. It’s never over. I think if you want to write then you are already a writer. You just have to be brave enough to put the words on the page.

How to enter

Registrations for 2021 Sunday Star-Times news contests are open. Now in their 38th year, the awards are among New Zealand’s most prestigious and established writing awards. In association with the Milford Foundation and Random penguin house this year’s prize pool is $ 9,000, of which $ 6,000 is awarded to the winner of the open category. It is also an opportunity for writers to receive critical comments and to publish the winning story in the Sunday Star-Times and on Thing. This year’s judges are acclaimed writers Patricia Grace, Rosetta Allan, Megan Dunn and Amy McDaid. Go to to enter.


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