I was recently asked to judge short fiction for a literary contest. I learned two things from the experience: It’s true that first impressions count for everything. The first paragraph of any given story told me if the story was going anywhere, and whether the journey was even going to be worth it.
I also learned: Don’t give up if you don’t win a contest. Maybe somebody just wrote a better story, or one that appealed to more of the judges. Good writing means different things to different people.
At the same time as I judged this group of short stories, I was reading Wind/Pinball, a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami, a much-heralded Japanese writer who penned Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. This newly-published collection actually contains the first stories Murakami submitted to writing contests in the 1970s.
I wish these had been in the pile of stories I judged. Even at the beginning of his career, Murakami had a knack for drawing a reader in with his very first sentence. And I’m sure his quirky but clean writing style would have appealed to every judge on our panel.
Murakami, who owned a bar for years, decided to try his hand at writing after an epiphany at a ball game. At the crack of a bat, a thought came to him like a ball sailing into the grandstands. “I can still recall the exact sensation. It felt as if something come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands.”
The idea of becoming a writer came easily to Murakami, but perfecting the craft didn’t. After a year of daily writing, he couldn’t find his voice. Trying all kinds of devices, Murakami eventually came up with his own style by first writing in his shaky English, and then translating it back to Japanese. His writing today still has that sparse essence he developed in the ‘70s.
Murakami entered Hear the Wind Sing into a contest and won. From that moment on, Murakami knew he was going to go on to become a successful novelist. That kind of certainty is enviable. If you’ve don’t have that confidence, or recently entered a contest and didn’t win, take heart.
Help perfecting the craft of writing can be found at this year’s Okanagan Writers’ Festival (April 8 -10) at the Shatford Centre in Penticton. Writers can register for four of 16 workshops, two panel discussions, five meals with speakers, and a ticket to the Friday evening variety show called Off the Page, on the Stage.
Conference presenters are industry professionals with a wide range of experience and an interest in helping writers succeed by improving their storytelling skills, creating poetry or a screenplay, finding freelance work, or getting published. For more details: okanaganvalleywritersfestival.com or 250-770-7668.