Cheating on the Novel: A Love Affair with Short Literature

short stories and essays

I was never a reader of short works. I always preferred something chunky or, failing that, a series, the more pages the better. I suppose it’s because I don’t handle loss well; I fall in love with characters too easily and become unwilling to part with them. For those of us with this type of weakness, short fiction can become a series of small heartbreaks. When it comes to essays, there’s an easier explanation: I’ve just never been much of a non-fiction reader and, when I am, it has to be in lengthy narrative form. Memoir is best.

So it’s hard to explain what’s happened to me in the past few months, whether The New Yorker is to blame or Granta, but instead of my usual novel-centred serial monogamy, I have found myself suddenly juggling, dipping into many collections at once: Franzen, Foster Wallace, Ephron, Didion, Orwell, the short stories of Margo Lanagan, Karen Russell and Dorothy Parker. How did this happen? Perhaps it’s the start of warmer weather, the inviting call of 20-50 pages in a sunny garden, of feeling as though I’ve accomplished something, title to final word, in a short span of time. Either way, I find myself desperate for my next encounter; tantalized by a sly look from This is How You Lose Her, a cheeky wink from Granta’s latest edition of Best Of Young British Novelists, whilst on my bedside table my steadfast long fiction waits, all patience, for my return.

short-story-thursdays1The latest symptom in my obsession is a subscription to Short Story Thursdays, a workplace lark that Jacob Tomsky has parlayed into a recognized not-for-profit, emailing members classic public domain short stories once a week. The first I received was by Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie and wasn’t at all what I expected. These literary morsels won’t further the progress toward my yearly book goal on Goodreads, but in their brevity they are rich on the tongue. Delectable even. They are the box of sweets you keep hidden away in the cupboard, never eating more than one in a night, eking your secret out for long months of brief yet lasting pleasure.

Liz Gillett

Scrawl Short Story Winner – Micah Timona Ferris

We’re pleased to announce, with the gratefully received help of


the winner of vicbooks Scrawl Short Story competition.

Micah Timona Ferris with her story, Apples.

There was a great mix of stories submitted this year, leading to an enticing shortlist. But it was the sense of completion, an embedded, subtle history in Apples, giving Micah’s narrative and characters a feeling of depth and memory that finally swayed the judges.

Congratulations Micah, your prize – $200 dollars of book vouchers, a vicbooks’ tote bag, coffee vouchers and some excellent books – is well deserved. It is worth mentioning that Micah also made the shortlist in the poetry stream of Scrawl.

See Micah’s short story here and keep an eye out for it in the next Salient magazine, an Artist’s edition.


We want to thank Booksellers NZ  for their kind help in supporting this competition

& for supporting student writing.

Apples – by Micah Timona Ferris

The day she was due to arrive from the other end of the world, mum went grocery shopping. It was autumn and the leaves were nearly all brown, their little bodies curling inwards. That’s what happens when you die, you curl inwards, you swallow yourself up. That’s why grandparents were so small and short, because they were old and had absorbed everything in world.

‘The pantry must be full,’ she said. ‘The food must be fresh and the labels, as much as possible, must be in German.’ She laughed at us when we asked why. She told us, my mother is particular!

That day she bought so much food that the pantry door couldn’t be closed. Instead, it lent open ever-so-slightly, its little tummy full, like our mother’s, which peeped out sometimes from underneath her jersey, because she was pregnant with our new sister. We knew the bump was a girl because mum checked with the doctor. She didn’t like surprises.

That afternoon mum baked apfelstrudel. She told us that is how you say apple strudel in German. We helped her peel all the apples and she tried to teach us how to peel one whole apple without breaking the skin so that you were left with twisty and twirly apple peels that were long and joined together. Mum could control the width of the peel and she made little thin rings out of her apples, but mine and Claudia’s were fat and short. Claudia and I surprised our dad when he came home with apple ringlets for hair.

‘Apfel haar,’ mum told us and we said it back to her: Ap-ful-har. ‘Gut,’ she said, ‘very gut! We will try to use as many German words as we can when Oma gets here.’

Dad spun the keys on his finger. ‘I’m going to the airport to pick her up,’ he said.

You two can go with your father,’ mum said. ‘I need to clean the kitchen before she arrives.

Can we take the apple rings with us?’ Caludia asked, but mum said no and when her back was turned, Claudia took a big handful of ringlets and stuffed them into her pockets.

When Oma walked out from the special tunnel at the airport, she flung her arms open and cry-sung when she saw us. She took me and Claudia in her arms, which were big enough to wrap around us both and kissed us on the heads and the cheeks. She looked at our faces and patted our chins. Then she hugged us one by one.

My arms were too small to fit even halfway around her. She was a big, soft, giant woman, my Oma, not small and bony like our New Zealand grandmum, dad’s mum. And she smelled just like the parcels of clothes she sent to us on our birthdays and at the start of winter and Christmastime. All the clothes were so colourful and different from the ones our friends wore but they were all far too large for me and Claudia.

‘Oma look,’ I said and me and Claudia held the apple rings up over our foreheads so they looked like we had curly hair.


Some of the rings were broken and they had turned brown but Oma laughed and kissed us again.

Then she hugged and kissed dad and he said, ‘welcome to New Zealand!’

She patted him on the shoulders and said, ‘gut!’

Me and Claudia ate the apple rings on the way home.

At home, mum had wiped away all the flour and apple cores and pips and the house smelled like caramel and cinnamon and warm buttery pastry.

Oma cried when she saw mum. She wrapped her daughter, our mum, right up inside her and rocked her from side to side and cry-sung and kissed and kissed and kissed her and patted her tummy and cried again. Then she patted her own tummy and walked to the pantry and flung open the door. A packet of gingernuts fell out and crunched when they hit the floor.

‘No! Oh No!’ she said when she looked in the pantry (she was learning English). Mum asked her what the matter was.

‘No, No, No,’ said Oma. ‘Why no food?’

Then she asked where the basement was and mum told her that we didn’t have one. That no one has basements in New Zealand and we don’t need extra food because the supermarket is just around the corner. Then she started talking so quickly in German that I couldn’t understand her and dad asked us to go to the lounge while they talked.

Oma was angry. She was shouting at my mother and pointing at us two girls standing in the doorway and telling our mum that we were too small.

‘What mother are you,’ she told her. ‘You have not think of the children? Look at small, small body. Children are not well, they do not eat enough. They eat apfel schale in automobile, Nicola! You give them apfel schale to eat!’

Mum was crying and holding onto her tummy. She was crying and crying and crying and Oma was saying ‘No! No!’ Her face was pink.

Dad took Oma into the lounge and sat us all down. I will make coffee, he said. Oma wrapped both her arms around me and Claudia and patted our arms. She squeezed my shoulders.

‘No, no. Too small you are,’ she said.

We had apfelstrudel that night, with crème fraiche and hot coffee for the adults. Mum had come back from her walk and she was quieter when she spoke to Oma. Oma loved mum’s baking. It made her happy again. She nodded as she ate.

‘Gut’, she said, ‘is gut Nicola!’

I was so full from dinner that I couldn’t finish my desert. ‘You eat,’ Oma said. And I made myself finish so I would grow up to be big like her.

Mum had to go to hospital the next day and she stayed there overnight. In the morning, Dad woke us very early and drove us there to visit.

‘We have a surprise,’ he said. Claudia thought it was lollies, but I know what he meant.

‘Oma, you will live for a very long time,’ I said.

‘Why do you say that?’ dad asked.

‘Because she is very big.’

Oma didn’t understand because I used too many English words and then dad told me it was rude to say things like that.

At the hospital mum was in bed and Oma was sitting on the bed end and dad said, ‘you have a new sister,’ which wasn’t really a surprise because mum had told us she would be a girl.

Oma was holding the little baby, its pink head nestled deep into the palms of her hands and when she held our sister close up to her, she almost disappeared into Oma’s chest. Oma was singing a German nursery rhyme to her very gently and swaying her back and forth.

‘Lora, Claudia,’ she said when she saw us and smiled. Then she took our mum’s small, white hands in hers and looked at mum for a very long time and said, ‘yes, Nicola, yes.’

Writing Tips for Short Stories – Scrawl

As short story entries for this years Scrawl Writing Competition wash in on the electronic tides, we thought we’d browse the interweb for tips and pointers on writing methods and pass them on in a digested manner. There’s the practical tidbits from all over the place, and then the more idiosyncratic offerings from authors who, on this evidence, seem to establish a connection between oddity and talent.

Practical advice:

  • Use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  • Be wary of adverbs and adjectives.
  • Cut, cut, cut.
  • Use active voice.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Put off editing until it is written.
  • Write what you know.
  • Research.

Authorial advice: (Here’s an excellent link to a collection of authors and their advice on writing: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction)

George Orwell

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Break rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Esther Freud

  • Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.
  • Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
  • Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr.

  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

Helen Dunmore

  • Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

Anne Enright

  • Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
  • Try to be accurate about stuff.
  • Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
  • You can also do all that with whiskey.

A distilled reading of authorial writing advice boils down to a couple of simple practical principles:

1. The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

2. Cut. Cut some more. Edit a wee bit, then carry on with the cutting. That bit you really liked and spent hours shaping? You should probably cut it. Remember William Faulkner, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

3. Get a thesaurus.

4. Write because you like it. Write what you want and what you know, and write lots of it. Edit afterwards. And don’t forget to cut.

5. Rules are for losers. Sometimes.

Scrawl Writing Competition 2011

Scrawl is back in its second incarnation – widened in scope, more confident in demeanor and with its general hubbub all sleek and streamlined. We received hundreds of entries last year, far more than we (or our judges) expected, which pleased us no end. We’ve tweaked the conditions and the format, but the basic tune remains the same: A strand for short fiction (your ideas in 1,200 words or less) and a strand for poetry (35 lines or less), each accepting entries from Monday the 16th of May. There are still prizes and stuff.

Any student currently at Victoria can enter, from under-grads to post-grads, as well as the weird breeds of meta-grads. See our website for entry details, prizes and the various dates involved.

Salient will be publishing the winners in their Young Artists issue, due in August, and we’ll also post them here on our blog. We’ll be posting any updates on vicbooks Facebook page, so follow us there for further news and developments (as well as other competitions and news).

Scrawl Short Story Winner – Francesca Brooks

We’re pleased to announce, with the gratefully received help of


the winner of vicbooks Scrawl Short Story competition.

Francesca Brooks with her story, Over the Weather and Under the Moon.

We received many entries for the short story competition, full of weird and wonderful genres and distinctive voices. Francesca’s story represented a balance of creativity and structure combined with an eye for detail and some sly humour.

Congratulations Francesca, your prize, consisting of $200 dollars of book vouchers, a Penguin tote bag and some excellent books are on their way to you.

See Francesca’s story here and keep an eye out for it in the next Salient magazine, published on Monday the 6th of September.


We want to thank Booksellers NZ  for their kind help in supporting this competition

and for supporting student writing.

‘Over the Weather and Under the Moon’ by Francesca Brooks

Over the Weather and Under the Moon

On the fifty-second day of her heart-stopping crush on a girl called Elizabeth, Nora woke up and begged the universe for a spontaneous medical condition that wouldn’t quite kill her, but would give her a justifiable excuse to stay in bed and wallow. At least for a couple more hours.

She closed her eyes and, as always, replayed everything she knew about Elizabeth. Nora remembered things about Elizabeth differently to how she remembered everything else. With Elizabeth, she could actually recall the sensations of things happening for the first time, in that way when you know something really happened, instead of just the second- or third-hand experience of remembering remembering it later. She thought about the day Elizabeth dropped her pen and picked it up using only her pinky and ring finger. She thought about Elizabeth’s emerald-coloured cardigan. She thought about the way Elizabeth asked questions in class, questions that would be exasperating from anyone else, but were somehow thought-provoking and even necessary when uttered by Elizabeth, with her brow furrowed adorably in uncertainty and her tinkling laugh of self-deprecation when her queries were resolved.

A knock sounded on her closed door. “Nora? Are you getting up?”

This was why she shouldn’t have lived with people of her major. She sighed. “I’m coming.” She pulled her blankets around her and promised herself that she’d climb out in twenty seconds. Thirty. And then she would get up. Four hundred seconds later, she emerged from her cocoon and went to brush her teeth. An annoyingly perky face appeared at the bathroom door.

“Oh, good, you’re coming. We have fifteen minutes. Did you want some toast?”

“That’s okay, thanks. I’m not really hungry.”

Her friend smiled sympathetically. “Are you a bit under the weather? You’ve been sleeping so much lately. Are you getting sick?”

“I’m fine. Great. Over the moon. Just give me a sec.” She closed the door.

Nora and Elizabeth had shared exactly thirty words over three exchanges. Once, early on, during the second week of her attendance-improving crush, Nora had purposely sat directly behind Elizabeth, so she could stare at her while pretending to concentrate. Elizabeth had turned around to pass Nora the stack of handouts for that day and Nora had tried her hardest to appear casual as she said “thank you,” her pulse flickering as the fingers of her left hand slid past those of the pretty girl’s right. Elizabeth had smiled at her and quickly turned around without a word.

Fifteen days later, Nora had temporarily zoned out while wondering how tall Elizabeth was, and missed her teacher’s homework instructions. She’d asked the boy next to her, “Wait, what did he say we had to do?” but it was Elizabeth who’d turned around from her seat in front of Nora. After realising that Nora hadn’t been talking to her, she’d smiled and still answered, “Just read all of chapter six and do the topic questions,” her voice sounding even sweeter in its whisper. Nora had prayed that she would remember the facts of importance later instead of just the layout of Elizabeth’s freckles like a constellation across her cheeks.

And finally, on the thirty-ninth day of Nora’s thought-ruling crush on Elizabeth, something remarkable had happened. Nora had arrived early and garnered what she considered to be an optimal seating situation for a three-hour class: in the back third the lecture hall, at the edge of the row, with a free seat on either side of her, giving her plenty of room to stretch her legs and arrange her books while still allowing for a swift departure. She’d stopped lingering after class in hopes of talking to Elizabeth. The self-loathing she always felt from being too overcome to say anything was destroying her, so she’d resigned herself to admiring from afar. Her flatmates usually sat together with their other nerdy friends. Nora preferred to sit alone, flitting between taking notes and daydreaming about Elizabeth’s eyelashes.

The class had just started when Elizabeth had rushed in, her messenger bag bouncing against her hip as she dashed up the stairs to the first available aisle seat she could find. Which was next to Nora.

Elizabeth sat down without hesitation or doubt. As if it was her automatic place. As if they were really friends, instead of just watcher and watchee. As she unpacked her books, she turned to Nora and asked, “Did I miss anything?”

A million responses ran through Nora’s head, from witty to serious to just plain creepy. She chose the most obvious. “No, he just started.” She knew she wouldn’t remember a thing from the next three hours except the moment when her elbow brushed against Elizabeth’s.


On the fifty-third day of her stomach-lurching crush on a girl called Elizabeth, Nora woke up with butterflies, slammed her alarm clock off, and tried desperately to get back to the dream she’d been snatched from. She’d been somewhere snowy, with a red jumper and frozen red hands to match. Elizabeth had been there, in a white jumper, grinning at Nora, her white teeth gleaming like the snowflakes that fell around her.

After twenty minutes of failure to fall back asleep, Nora got up and went to the kitchen, but she was too full of longing to have any appetite. So she went and had a shower instead, slipping on her way out and stubbing her toe. It hurt like heartache.

She left the house thinking that if her life were a movie, it would currently be raining. Hard. The kind of sudden downpour that only happens once a year in real life and every couple of days in fiction, and always at really dramatic moments in the characters’ lives, where it perfectly matches the epic swell of their anguish.

But instead, it was sunny, and the sunshine warmed her face and neck and forearms, and Nora couldn’t help but smile. Maybe this crush didn’t have to make her so sad all the time. She hadn’t intended for it to get like this. Originally, it had started as merely an observation, and then a reason to show up every day. She thought that if she kept it in check, not quite nursing it but not killing it off, it would be something nice to enjoy as part of her daily existence; just something to feel. She hadn’t counted on turning her back for a few seconds and having it grow exponentially and out of control, like a weed, taking over the entire garden of her mind until there was no soil left for other, wanted plants.

Elizabeth was already there when Nora arrived. She was wearing her emerald-coloured cardigan. Nora looked away and tried her hardest to think about something else.

They had slept together once. That is, they had napped briefly at the same time during an intensely dull early-morning statistics lecture, which isn’t quite the same thing. Though Elizabeth had smiled guiltily at her as they’d both stretched afterwards, and Nora had felt like her heart would explode.

After her classes had finished, Nora decided to walk home. She tried to think of the last time she’d felt like herself. Or, at least, the old version of herself, who could actually concentrate on things for more than a minute without her mind wandering to a girl. As she meandered through the city, her thoughts were entirely consumed with Elizabeth. Nora hated herself for being so superficial and ridiculous. Why did she even like her so much? They’d exchanged all of thirty words. She didn’t really know anything about Elizabeth beyond the fact that she had a tiny birthmark on her neck. She just liked her because she was gorgeous. And smart, and sweet. Fascinating and unguarded. Luminous like the sun. What other reasons were there?

Nora realised that she was sick of feeling so simultaneously empty and full all the time, bursting at the seams with emotion but having nothing real inside her.

As she approached an intersection to cross the road, deep in self-reflection, she came across a woman selling balloons. She had a zoo’s worth of balloon animals perched on her stand and a cluster of helium balloons tied around her wrist, shimmering in the late-afternoon sun. One of them was the same green as Elizabeth’s cardigan, and Nora’s eyes were instinctively drawn to it before she was even aware of her staring.

“Would you like one?” The woman’s voice startled Nora out of her trance.

“What? Oh. No, that’s okay.”

The balloon woman smiled widely, causing her pink inflatable hat to squeak. “Take one. For free. I think you need one. You look a little under the weather.”

Nora laughed self-consciously. “No, I’m fine. I’m over the moon, in fact.” She took the string of the balloon that the woman held out to her. It was the green balloon. “Thank you so much.” She slipped the balloon around her wrist, smiled gratefully at the woman, and crossed the street.


On the fifty-fourth day of her misery-inducing crush on a girl called Elizabeth, Nora woke at the same time as the sun, the navy blue sky blending into pink like tie-dye through her curtainless windows. The first thing Nora saw was the green balloon, a bulbous shadow hovering gently against her ceiling, not quite moving or staying still. She stared at it for a long time, watching it drift slowly across the back wall. It was nice having the green balloon in her room. She could pretend it was Elizabeth’s green cardigan. She could pretend she had a piece of her here.

Nora sat up and pushed her window open, feeling the cold, dewy air rush in and suck the balloon towards it. She grabbed its shiny synthetic string just in time, winding it taut around her index finger. Maybe she didn’t want the balloon here as a constant reminder. She thought about popping it. It wasn’t Elizabeth, after all, or Elizabeth’s cardigan. It was just buoyant gas trapped in latex, empty and full at the same time.

For reasons she would later not entirely be able to understand, she leaned over the side of her bed and fished a black marker pen out of her bag. Being careful not to burst the balloon, she wrote four short words on its squeaky surface.


Seeing those ten letters on the balloon stirred Nora in a way she hadn’t expected. They weren’t true, of course. But one day they would be. They marked a time somewhere in Nora’s future where she’d be able to think about other things, and when she’d care about someone who knew it, and when she’d finally feel like herself again. She took a deep, overwhelmed breath and knew what she had to do.

Nora knelt on her bed in front of the open window and pushed the balloon out the window, letting the string unravel. She clutched the last inch of it between two fingers, and then she let it go.

The balloon floated away, emerald green against the pink sky, carried high by the wind until Nora couldn’t see it anymore, and then it climbed higher still, up, until it hovered, carrying all of Nora’s aching with it, holding it safe and far away from her, trapped somewhere between the clouds and the heavens, over the weather and under the moon.