Contest Winners Celebrated at The Dave

By Steve Oetting

The annual Dave Williamson National Short Story Competition reception, fondly known as “The Dave,” was held on May 9 at ArtSpace. This reception is hosted by the Guild as a way to honour the short story contributors who were creative and intrepid enough to provide submissions, the judges who spent weeks carefully assessing those stories and enduring the delicate task of selecting the winners, and of course Dave Williamson, the honorary patron of this popular contest.

The night began with a hearty welcome and introduction by Sharon Hamilton. Her opening statement was as poignant as it was inspiring, reminding me of one of the things I love most about the Guild, the collective commitment to kindness, diversity, and inclusion shared by all of its members. Sharon added a new element to the Guild’s standard Land Acknowledgement statement as follows:

“Our land acknowledgement statement is not static; it is bound to adapt as we ourselves adapt and grow in our journey of understanding. We promise to dedicate ourselves as learners and to be open to information provided to us by our Indigenous relations. And as learners, I ask you to consider the impact of the creative synergy that is flowing through this room. I urge each of us to remain mindful of the salient differences among us that have the power to enhance that creative flow. The Manitoba Writers’ Guild is devoted to bridging the gaps in our community created by marginalization due to colonial and imperialistic practices and beliefs.” The entire Land Acknowledgement statement can be found here

Sharon then introduced Dave Williamson, although it felt as if he needed no introduction at all. Dave spent years as an instructor in advertising, communications and creative writing at Red River Community College (now known as RRC Polytech) where he founded the Creative Communications program in 1969. He was Dean of Applied Arts and Business from 1983 until his retirement in 2006. From 1986 to 1989 he was president of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada from 1992 to 1993. The Dave Williamson National Short Story Competition was launched in 2023 along with Beyond Boundaries, the compilation of stories submitted by the winners and runners-up. When asked by Sharon to raise their hands if they had ever worked with or been instructed by Dave, either at RRCC or through programs sponsored by McNally Robinson, it seemed that almost half of the attendees waved their hands fondly across the room.

Dave Williamson provided a humorous and delightful background on short stories, noting the disdain that some novel readers have for short story collections. He explained that this lack of enthusiasm for short stories was part of the motivation behind supporting the Dave Williamson National Short Story Competition, and that the appreciation of short stories for both writers and readers has improved of late, partly due to the enjoyment and gratification that can be achieved without the commitment of time required of full-length novels.

The reception then moved on to readings by the three top award winners. These began with Yvonne Kyle, a retired business person from Winnipeg who has spent much of her time writing since leaving full-time work and the third-place winner with her story, “A Good Day on Clothes.” Next up was Elle Qunmei Taylor, a graduate of the University of Winnipeg where she majored in English and Theatre & Film and a writer of poetry, creative nonfiction and short fiction with a special interest in the genre of surrealism. Elle read from her story, “Canadian Cougars,” which took second place. And lastly we heard from Lisa Pollock, a graduate in History from the University of Calgary who enjoys writing semi-biographical stories such as her submission, “The Promise,” that took first place. Each of these readings grasped the attention and imagination of the audience, leaving us yearning to get home with our copies of the 2024 edition of Beyond Boundaries and read the complete stories.

Sharon congratulated the three top winners while simultaneously explaining how difficult it is for the preliminary and lead judges to choose from over a hundred excellent submissions, an increase of more than ten percent over last year’s submissions. She introduced three of the runners-up, emphasizing that their stories, and in fact all of the stories submitted, equally deserved our appreciation and accolades. She described in articulate detail how the selection process worked, starting with each preliminary judge reading fifteen stories before passing their findings on to the lead judges. The lead judges had the most challenging task of reading so many of the submitted stories, discussing and scrutinizing through them in order to select the three winners and four runners-up.

The preliminary judges this year included Harry Hobbs, Pat Stefanchuk, Jennifer Tesoro, Glenda Walker Hobbs, Andrea von Wichert, Judy Williams and Barbara Graham. Our lead judges were Raye Anderson, Lauren Carter, Trevor Greyeyes, Zilla Jones and Lee Kvern. Sharon introduced Zilla Jones, who described the process used by the lead judges and congratulated everyone who participated in the contest. Having both judged and submitted to various literary contests, Zilla’s experience was that it is harder to judge than it is to submit, and she offered some excellent advice for writers about how to prepare and submit their stories to contests such as The Dave.

Zilla’s first suggestion to make the selection process easier for judges is to properly revise your submission, noting that the real magic of writing is in the editing process. One thing that the judges always consider is how much effort writers commit to ensuring their stories are “clean on the page” and that submissions which are not well edited are quickly eliminated. Another element that judges look for are stories that move the reader. The emotional impact of the work is always the foremost criterion that migrate submissions to the top of the list. And lastly you need to make sure you have something fresh, stories that feel like they have been heard “two or three or ten times” before are never selected. Zilla reiterated that the authors are never known to the judges, nor do the judges ever attempt to guess who they are written by because such presumptions are almost always wrong. Submissions are judged strictly on their quality and content, and the judges entertain no consideration for what might be the author’s age, race, or gender. Zilla’s final advice to writers was to not be shy about submitting to contests, that no matter how unsure you might be about a particular story, you can never be certain of the outcome. Accordingly, she recommended that writers should write often, search for fresh ideas, edit meticulously, and submit as often as you can.

Following the various speeches and readings, attendees spent a considerable time mingling, conversing and enjoying some treats and libations. Basking in the warmth, camaraderie and laughter that echoed off the walls of the room, I could not help feeling that every writer that submitted to this contest and every member of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild were winners, each of us in our own special way.

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