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Julie Koh is the author of Capital Misfits and Portable Curiosities. The latter was shortlisted for several awards and led to Julie being named a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist. Her short stories have been published widely, including in the Best Australian Stories and New Australian Fiction. She has written radio plays for ABC Radio National and the libretto for the opera Chop Chef. She was a judge for the 2018 Stella Prize.

What makes a good short story?

There are many theories about what makes a good story. When it comes to short stories, I like to think of good ones as being like intricately cut gems. (Other writers have probably said this before.) At a basic level, I tend to measure a short story by evaluating whether it has achieved what the writer has set out to do. Every element of the piece should work elegantly in concert to reflect or fulfil the intent of the piece. I also personally enjoy short stories that offer something original or unexpected that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. All of this said, fiction is subjective, so a story that one person thinks is good may be terrible in the eyes of another!

How important is structure in short stories?

Structure is crucial in any story, long or short. It’s the backbone on which the piece hangs. Given that short stories require precision, they need to be structured tightly. Beginner writers sometimes forget to think about structure in their short stories because they assume that ‘short’ means ‘easy’. So they’ll dash something off without thinking about whether the plot works well, or whether the piece unfolds on the page in an effective, concise and engaging way.

An easy mistake to make when starting to write short stories is trying to fit too much plot, or too many ideas, into a limited word count. This approach can result in a story that seems rushed or incomplete, or that feels more like a chapter from a novel. Short stories have to be able to stand alone, and should be structured accordingly.

How do you know when something isn’t working in your own short stories?

Sometimes I just have a gut feeling that a story isn’t working. It can be hard to identify what the exact issue is, and I’ll occasionally ask an editor whose opinion I trust to have a look and tell me what they think is wrong. I’ve usually discovered that the core issue is either that I’m not clear on what I’m really trying to say with the story, or—if I do know what I’m trying to communicate—there’s a gap between that and what I’m actually communicating on the page.

I’ve come to realise that there are a number of questions I can ask myself at the revision stage that will help me identify what needs improvement in a story. For instance, are there sections where I’ve spent too long going off on an irrelevant tangent?

Which short story writer has most influenced your work?

Many writers have influenced my work, but whenever I’m asked this question I nominate Tom Cho. When I first began to focus on writing short stories, I happened to see a big display of Tom’s book Look Who’s Morphing at Kinokuniya in Sydney and picked up a copy. The collection was wild, inventive, non-realist, funny and ultra-contemporary. It was pivotal in showing me that I could also, through my own work, challenge widely held expectations about what Asian-Australian writers can and should write.

Looking back on my diary from 2010, it seems that I read the book immediately after buying it. In that same week, I followed Tom on Twitter, tweeted to tell him what my favourite story from the collection was, and turned up to one of his Sydney Writers’ Festival events to ask him to autograph the book. At the signing table, he asked if I was the person from Twitter, and I swore I wasn’t a stalker. ‘I know you’re not!’ he said. Jack Marx, who was sitting next to him at the time, laughed.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

Some advice that has stuck with me is to lower your standards and keep going. This has been attributed to William Stafford, but I first heard the line from Dr Stephen Carver, who taught an online creative-writing course I did through the University of East Anglia. I still struggle to follow this advice: my perfectionism often fuels procrastination.

Eric Yoshiaki Dando also gave me some memorable advice that he himself received: ‘To be a writer, all you need to do is stand on a desk and declare that you are one.’

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