Award-winning author Holden Sheppard: Why The Best Australian Yarn is great for writers

Holden Sheppard
The West Australian
4 Min Read
Best Australian Yarn judge author Holden Sheppard. Kelsey Reid
Best Australian Yarn judge author Holden Sheppard. Kelsey Reid Credit: Kelsey Reid/The West Australian

The Best Australian Yarn is now open for entries, and I’m pumped to return as a judge for several reasons.

Chief among them: the Yarn is open to writers at any level, from any background. As judges, we don’t care (or know) whether you’re an experienced writer or a brand new writer. We just want awesome stories.

The wide range of categories reflects an appetite for diversity. There are prizes for regional writers, ESL writers, First Nations writers, youth writers, and comic writers. There is no preordained notion of what kind of story to write. As judges, we want yarns reflecting all corners and identities of this great nation. My advice is to dig into the uniqueness of your own voice: what is the story only you can tell?

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As a working Aussie writer, I am a fan of any initiative which causes money to flow to creatives. This is especially important in an era where unregulated use of generative artificial intelligence is threatening writers’ livelihoods, so I support this competition’s goal of giving money and recognition to human writers. The financial benefits of the Yarn are outstanding in a chronically underfunded industry. The winner receives a whopping $50,000, making The Best Australian Yarn the richest short story competition in the world.

For context, the first prize is significantly larger than most Australian authors’ full-length book advances. The average author income in this country is a paltry $18,000 per annum.

A first prize of this magnitude gives the winner a chance to invest serious funds into their writing career development. They could pay for a professional mentorship (or 10), undertake workshops, buy a laptop, or take time off work to complete a writing project.

Of course, there is nothing stopping the winner blowing it all on a jet ski and a Caribbean resort holiday. Frankly they would have my full respect (and some jealousy) if they did. Sometimes, writers just wanna have fun.

Unlike many competitions, the Best Australian Yarn winner does not take all. There is an additional $30,000 of prize money split across the category winners. The minimum prize for each finalist is a chunky $1000. Almost 20 writers will walk away richer from this competition. I don’t know any other contest in this country that achieves this mass distribution of prize money.

Although money is a desirable dangling carrot for cash-starved writers, there are tangible non-financial upsides. Even a longlisting becomes an accolade to add to your author bio and marks you as a writer of merit. Bolstering your bio helps attract publishers’ attention when you pitch a book: a track record, like a good credit score before you go for a bank loan.

An exciting outcome of placing in a competition is it puts your work in front of industry people. Winning the Ray Koppe Residency Award is how I caught the eye of my first literary agent. Winning the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award landed me the publishing contract for my debut novel. For the Best Australian Yarn, all top 50 entries will be published online by Seven West Media, meaning the eyes of the industry and the public can fall on your story.

This is also a win for readers: the publication of 50 new Australian stories to entertain, intrigue and inspire.

Although it is easy to extol the virtues of this competition for winners, I want to also illustrate the importance of simply writing a story and entering a competition — even if you don’t win.

I was 11 the first time I entered a writing competition. I’d been writing since I was seven, so with four years of “expertise” and a courtroom drama story, my hopes were high.

I was gutted when my entry did not even place. Worse, the judge’s red pen had written a number on my story: I had landed in a mortifying 125th place (or so I thought: years later, I discovered this was not a ranking, but just my entry number — oops!).

At the time, I was hurt and devastated. I assumed my writing was terrible and I wasn’t a good enough writer.

But from the ashes came a kernel of resilience. I went back to my desk and spent years honing my craft. Though the catalyst for my perseverance was a misunderstanding, the lesson I learnt from rejection was the right one. I would not be a published novelist now if I had given up after that first setback.

I continued to receive rejections (and still do). But each rejection acquainted me more intimately with failure, which all writers need to become friends with if we are to grow.

When my novel Invisible Boys was a hit in 2019, people called me an overnight success. They had no idea the preceding two decades had been a long grind of hard work, rejection and perseverance. If you speak to any successful author, they will usually tell you talent is essential, but persistence is the key ingredient to success.

It is a lesson I’d like to pass on to you, if you are considering entering this year’s The Best Australian Yarn, by way of encouragement.

If you make the top 50 — congrats, you will have a win that buoys you.

If you don’t make the top 50 — you will be one rejection stronger, one attempt closer to the eventual win.

Send us your yarns. I’m looking forward to reading them.

Holden Sheppard is a multi-award-winning West Australian novelist, former Deputy Chair of Writing WA and a Prize Jury judge of The Best Australian Yarn. Entries are open at bestaustralianyarn.com.au.

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