Category: Competitions

For the love (and fear) of short stories

I love short stories. I fear them, too. As a reader, a good short story can stay in the memory for a lifetime. As a writer, one short story can have several lives: a publication in a print or online magazine; placed in an anthology; part of a single-author collection; a prizewinner. My story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ has now achieved three of these, having won the Society of Authors Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015.

The Society of Authors Awards Party was over a month ago, and it has taken me this long to process the experience. There was an email three weeks before, which swore me to secrecy until the awards evening. There was the choosing of something to wear. There was the feeling that there had been some kind of mistake, that someone else would be called up to receive the £1000 award. There was also my usual terror of big occasions. I told myself that I would escape as soon as seemed decent after the awards had all been given – £85,000 was being distributed for a variety of literary awards. There was also the fact that I had recently been at the point of giving up on writing short stories.

Blogging comes easily to me, as does other forms of non-fiction writing. Writing poetry is harder, but not as hard as the months and years it takes me to write a short story. As I write this post, I am avoiding going back to a story I have been working on since Christmas. I think I have come to the end of the first draft (I never know how a story might end when I begin it), but now comes the editing, the picking apart and discarding, rearranging the order of things, adding new sections. The truth is, I’m scared of it.

Here are a few popular misconceptions about short stories:

They are easy to knock off in an afternoon – after all, they are short.

Wrong – it takes a very long time for the writer to reduce a story to the fewest, best words. It’s like writing poetry in that respect. In fact poets write very good short stories for that reason. See poet Kate Clanchy’s excellent short story collection The Not-Dead and the Saved.

They appeal to people’s short attention spans; people can zip through a book of them in no time at all.

Wrong – stories require good attention from the reader, and they are like rich desserts: you take your time over them, and you wouldn’t want to consume several at one sitting.

Short story writers are failed novelists.

Wrong – short story writers have chosen a difficult form, perhaps one that is more difficult than novel-writing.

I could go on…

At the awards party, I spoke to several writers who have great respect for the short form. Ben MacIntyre, who was receiving the Elizabeth Longford Prize for his book about Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends, said, ‘Ah, proper writing’ when I told him I had won a prize for a short story. In that room that evening, there were people who understood the devilish nature of the short form, who looked on me as a good writer for having mastered writing at least one good story.

Tom-Gallon Award winners - Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

Tom-Gallon Award winners – Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

After the awards had been handed out (remember that this was the moment I had planned to escape the scary big party), I got into conversation with Joanne Harris. We talked about the low regard for short stories among the bigger publishers, and how approaching literary agents as a short story writer means they don’t get beyond ‘short stories’ on the covering letter before reaching for the rejection slip. We talked about how a short story can stay with you for the whole of your life: we both loved reading Oscar Wilde’s fairytales as children, both sobbed at ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. I told Joanne that I was trying to write a ghost story and I was scared to return it, that I might fail. ‘That means it’s good,’ she said.

The lights were being turned on and off in the room; it was time to leave. In fact I had stayed way beyond the official end of the party. ‘You do realise that’s THE Joanne Harris,’ Aamer Hussein, one of the judges of my prize, said to me. Yes, I’d been aware of that for the first minute or so, but then it was just two writers talking about what they do, what they love.

The Awards Party was a glittering evening, studded with big name writers, people I had been in awe of. The truth is that we all share the same thing – we have to return to sit alone in a room to put words on the page, and many of us are terrified by it. Even Philip Pullman told my friend and I that when he finishes a morning’s writing, he stops at the top of a page, so he won’t have to face a blank page the next time he comes to write.

Winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award is a big thing. Some friends have said, ‘You’ll sell more books; maybe you’ll get an agent now.’ I am expecting neither. I’m a realist. I write short stories, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not interested in writing novels. The hard task of writing (and selling) short stories for very little return is my lot, my vocation. The £1000 prize is more than I have ever received for my writing; it’s a good thing to add to my writer’s biography. But it won’t sell more copies of As Long as it Takes and it doesn’t take away the love-hate relationship I have with writing short stories.

The winning story of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, was first published on Writers’ Hub along with a blog piece on how I came to write the story: From Noreen to Norah: on writing More Katharine than Audrey. The story appears in my short story collection As Long as it Takes.

My love of short stories, and an awareness of the few opportunities that exist to publish them, led to the establishment of Cultured Llama Publishing, which publishes poetry, short stories and Curious Things (cultural non-fiction). Cultured Llama now boasts two winners of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award among its authors. Emma Timpany won the award in 2011 . Her debut short story collection The Lost of Syros has just been published by Cultured Llama.

I am judging the Save As Writers’ ‘Writing the City’ short story award this year. The closing date is 31 August 2015. More details here.

Here are a few champions of the short story: Short Stops; Thresholds; The Reading Life.

Writing – it’s not a competition, and a few words about the public life of writers

A couple of years ago, I decided to stop entering writing competitions. I haven’t stuck to this religiously; I have entered two in the last year, winning and placed in each. And there’s the thing – I had to tell you that I’d been successful; I shared the news on Facebook, Twitter and on this website. Each win feeds the desire to enter more competitions, to feel the buzz of receiving even the most modest of prizes. Not quite an addiction, but getting there, and writing is not, and should not be, a competition.

A writer these days must be visible, have a web presence, have their name noticed beneath poems or the titles of short stories and non-fiction pieces in publications and have bagged the odd prize. I encourage this as an editor: Cultured Llama does not take on shrinking violets; books published by small presses are sold mainly by the author, their public profile, the readings and events they take part in to promote their work. But has this led to oversharing, to a need to be published and winning all the time?

Back in November of last year, I had a submission-a-thon, collecting all my unpublished poems and sending them out. Many rejections and a few acceptances followed in the next three months. Some of the acceptances have yet to be published, with the longest wait 11 months between submission and publication. This is hardly instant gratification, but it is satisfying to finally see the work in print.

A quicker result is to post work in progress on Facebook, either on the many writers’ groups or on your profile page. I rarely do this, and I rarely read the work of other writers who post. For one, I find it hard to take in poems or long texts on screen. Secondly, I like to read poems when I choose to, when I have the concentration to read them thoughtfully. Poetry is not something I read casually. It demands the attention that social media does not encourage. And for me, for my own work, I don’t want to share work too soon, to get caught up in those times when I think my draft poem is brilliant, only to see the faults in it later on, and wish I had never shared it.

The same goes for writing ideas – the number of times I have shared something I want to write, that I am planning to write, only to fail to write a single further word. A writer friend once said to me that you shouldn’t give away your fire. I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time, but I do now.

When it comes to collecting poetry and publishing a book, will people want to buy your work if you are always giving it away on social media? You need to have enough of a publishing profile to get noticed, but not be overexposed.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I noticed recently that I have stopped submitting my writing to be published in print and online magazines. I keep a file of what and where I have submitted, and I used to aim to submit once a month at least. I also note publications and readings I have given. The last few months, the list has been thin, mainly readings and events. Will I be forgotten? Will I cease to exist as a writer if I don’t send my work into the world? These were my initial thoughts, but then I reminded myself why I write. Firstly for myself, because I have to, because I would go totally crazy if I didn’t, and secondly to get an audience. And it’s easy to get  caught up in the need to be published so that the writing of new work, of work that might never be developed or see an audience, ever, is pushed to the back. And that work needs to happen as much as the gems that get published.

So my thoughts right now are do not go naked into the world of social media. Keep some clothing on, and plenty that you hide in the wardrobe for special occasions.

Here is a poem by Gordon Meade, a reluctant participant in social media, from his collection Sounds of the Real World.

The Philosophy of Facebook

It is the same flawed philosophy

behind Facebook; the one that says

if a tree in a forest is not seen

 

to have fallen, then no tree fell.

If you do not put up a post saying you have

written a poem, then the poem

 

does not exist. Taken to the extreme,

it means that unless you have shared something

with the rest of the world or, at least,

 

with your designated friends,

or friends of friends, then nothing actually

happened. Once again the private life

 

is dead. For example, that fox I saw

last night in the garden is only now alive

because I have shared it with you.

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