Category: Short stories

William Trevor, my father, and me

William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.

In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.

I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’

I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.

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Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.

This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.

In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.

I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.

William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Knockmealdown mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.

I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:

McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.

No pumpkin – a story instead

When I was a child, we celebrated Halloween at home. We didn’t dress up, but we did bob for apples in a washing-up bowl, or attempt to take a bite out of apples strung from the beam in the living room, hands clasped behind our backs.

Trick or treat didn’t arrive in England until the ’90s, by my recollection, when I had children of my own. We’d carve a pumpkin, and stand it in the window to attract passing ghouls. I once got cross with a boy who knocked twice at our front door, begging ‘Trick or treat.’ ‘You’ve had your sweets,’ I said. ‘That was my twin brother,’ he replied. ‘Oh yeah,’ I said, ‘heard that one before.’ I was just about to shut the door when a child identical to him arrived at the bottom of the steps leading to my house. Shamefaced, I offered the second twin a dip in the treats bag.

Maria reads The Man in Black at Horrorshow

Maria reads The Man in Black at Horrorshow

Seven years ago this month, we moved to a village. Expecting the usual trail of spookily-dressed children, we bought some sweets and lit the tealight candle in our pumpkin. Knocks came there none. Year 2, the same. Year 3 and beyond, we no longer buy sweets for Halloween. We are at the end of the village, just before a stretch of the A2 with few houses, only orchards shedding their autumn colours and fields of sheep. At our end of the village, there are few children. There are mostly older people who have lived in their houses for upwards of 30 years. A ‘young’ neighbour, 50-something, like me, describes it as ‘Death Row.’

In spite of the lack of trick or treaters, we’ve carved a pumpkin every year – a new experience for my husband, Bob, who I have known for a little less than 9 years. But this year, the weeks have passed without thinking pumpkin, without (as I often do too early) choosing a candidate for our Jack o’ Lantern. We are having a pumpkinless Halloween. In any case, Bob will be out gigging with his band on mischief night, while I stay home with the cat. Who isn’t even black.

To make up for this, I am sharing a story, ‘The Man in Black’. I wrote the first version of this 15 years ago and revisited it for an  event called Horrorshow, held at The Barge, Gillingham,  a couple of years ago. My Medway readers will recognise the setting, in and around Rochester. Versions of this story have won and been shortlisted for prizes; this is the first time it has appeared in print.

Happy Halloween, one and all. May your pumpkins glow brightly in the dark of the night.

Read The Man in Black. Beware, those with a nervous disposition…

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.

From ‘Kidney bingo?’ to selling books by Rochester Castle

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

I’ve been a punter at Rochester Sweeps Festival for some 25 years, starting when my children were small through to now being the grandmother of an 18-month-old. This year, for the first time, I was stallholder, helping to sell books for Cultured Llama Publishing. We at Cultured Llama have just published Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris, so we set up alongside stalls selling musical instruments and records in a car park by the moat of Rochester Castle. It brought me back to some happy days in my teens.

My first job was selling fundraising bingo cards door to door, when I was about 12 or 13, for a charity supporting kidney patients. My line to my regulars as they opened the door was, ‘Kidney bingo?’ I wondered if, after carefully tearing the perforations on three sides of their pale mauve bingo cards, their numbers matched those in the winners’ brochure, they might win a new kidney for themselves.

The council house customers on my round were quick to find the money for their weekly gamble-in-a-good-cause. The few in what we called the ‘private houses’ in Castle Road, especially the harrased-looking woman in the house that gave the road its name (it had a mini-tower with castellations), often did not have the change to pay for their tickets.

From there, I followed on to serving on the sweets counter at Woolworth’s, after school and on Saturdays, then graduated to International Stores. After serving my time shelving and on the tills, I gained the role of Saturday chief cashier, working in the office, getting change bags for the tills from the heavy-doored safe, which stood in the front window of the shop. Anyone who was so inclined could have challenged me with a knife, a shotgun, or just the threat of violence as I stood with the safe door open exchanging bags of ten pence pieces for ten pound notes, or storing the till drawers in there at the end of the day. But no one ever bothered me.

Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, I had the most fun working in a shop. I made friends who I met outside of work, going underage drinking in the pubs of Epsom, off to discos and parties. Although the work was hard, I preferred being busy all day, as it made the time go fast.

What I loved most was the brown paypacket with actual cash in it, and a little payslip on thin paper with pale numbers printed in the boxes marking hours worked, pounds and pence earned.

So when it came to being a stallholder at the Sweeps (if only for a day or two), I was quite excited. Laying out the stall, pricing up with coloured stickers. Preparing the float for the cash tin. Marking down sales and giving change.

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Daughter Rachel and granddaughter Caitlin lend a hand on the Cultured Llama stall

It all came back to me – customer service, as we didn’t call it back in the ’70s, and with the bonus of having a part in the production of the books we were selling. I was able to tell people about our stable of Scottish poets, for instance, and even introduce some of our authors who dropped by to the customers who were looking at their books.

Not everyone bought a book. Some chatted a while and left empty handed, some scanned the book table at high speed, not even noticing that there was a human being sitting behind it. For some of the time, I sat with my granddaughter on my lap as I waited for customers. Georgie on a neighbouring stall shared homemade lemon drizzle cake with the other stallholders at quiet times. Customers on the Hobgoblin stand offered virtuoso performances on melodeons, guitars and mandolins (husband Bob included) and my granddaughter danced with joy to a reggae band on a nearby stage. My daughter and I joined in with her; three generations dancing at my favourite festival.

Life has changed since my teens, when I could lift boxes off warehouse shelves, stack them in a trolley cage, and wheel it out to the shop floor. A bad back prevents me from carrying much more than a tea tray; chronic ill health means that a day selling books must be followed by several days of rest. But, for a short time, I was taken back to my shopgirl days. Next time, I fancy one of those aprons with zipped pockets for the change.

‘Saturday Girl’ is a story based on my experiences working in Woolworth’s. Here is an extract:

Sharon looked at the clock above the centre checkout as she dashed to the sweet counter: one minute to nine; just on time. She hated that clock. In the last hour on a Saturday afternoon the minute hand seemed frozen, moving at the rate of the glaciers she’d learned about in geography. Now it meant an hour and half until tea break.

Steve answered her smile with a nod and a ‘Morning, Sharon.’ She wondered when it would be all right to say, ‘Steve and I are going out together.’ She wasn’t expecting a full-on snog in the staff canteen, but some acknowledgement – a wink, a glint in the eye.

She pulled a box of chocolate-covered brazil nuts from below the counter, and tipped some into the Perspex container next to the Quality Street. Paul whizzed by, dipped into the chocolate brazils and pocketed a handful. She flushed and glanced around. Steve was bundling a box of toothpaste onto toiletries; Mrs Harris was demonstrating the Avery pricing machine to a new girl. Both dashed to the records’ counter as The Stranglers clashed across the shop floor. Ralph had broken the rule of playing only the latest Top-of-the-Pops not-by-the-original-artists album. Everyone who had the good fortune to be on records gave it a try, playing their favourite record. No one, so far, had got beyond track one. Meanwhile, Paul bounded up the stairs with a brazil nut-shaped bulge in his cheek, looking like her brother’s hamster.

Steve came over as she was laying out the scoops on the loose sweets. He picked one up and ran it over the top of the chocolate brazils, as if to smooth them. ‘Lou’s favourite, these,’ he said, and wandered off with a pained look. Sharon took the scoop and dug it into the back of the display.

‘Saturday Girl’ is available in my collection of linked short stories, As Long as It Takes.

Making your characters speak

It’s National Short Story Week, and my contribution is a few words about dialogue. Short fiction, by definition, works with a limited number of words, so each of them has to count. Dialogue is a great way to put every word to good use, to convey character, reveal details, even secrets, increase tension (conflict is the essence of a good story), and move the story forward.

When you are writing dialogue – and more so when you are editing dialogue – consider what each line of dialogue is doing, what is it’s function?

Here are some problems with dialogue:

Dialogue for dialogue’s sake, which doesn’t reveal, develop characters or the story or increase tension. You will recognise this when reading, or perhaps not, because it tends to be dull and unmemorable.

The characters sound too similar: the voice of the writer is more prominent than the voices of the characters. Not a short story example, but I notice Lee Mack’s (his character’s and his writer’s) voice in Lucy’s dialogue in the TV series Not Going Out.

Difficulty telling who is talking. This is easy to address when there are just two characters; if their voices are distinct enough, no attribution (he said, she said) is needed, but when there are multiple voices, simple attribution is helpful, even essential. It can be done without interrupting the flow of reading and without getting too fancy, such as using, ‘she postulated’, ‘he blustered’. Even ‘he asked’ is not needed when it’s clear that the character has asked – a question mark within the speech marks will tell the reader.

In 10 Rules of Writing (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010), Elmore Leonard says:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asservated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Too much exposition through dialogue. E.g. ‘Oh, there goes Anita. She was born in 1965 to Indian migrant parents and has married a drinker.’ A bit of an extreme example of ‘the writer sticking his nose in’, but I have seen such stuff in the few pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that I read. But then Dan Brown’s a very rich and successful writer, so who am I to speak?

Another quote from Elmore Leonard

…a character in the book [John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday] makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what that guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

Here are some tips on writing dialogue, from a workshop that I ran for Save As Writers in 2012.

Eavesdropping

Listen to the patterns of everyday speech, write down conversations you overhear.

Rewrite these conversations taking out some of the Ums, Ahs, Wells etc. Get to the heart of what’s being said, cut what is not needed. Not everything you overheard belongs in the scene.

Intersperse with body language and action. It’s hard to listen, write and watch when you’re eavesdropping – add your own; you don’t have to be faithful to the scene you witnessed.

Play with attribution – ‘said’ usually suffices, but try writing without any attribution, making it clear who is speaking.

Read the dialogue you have written out loud – does it sound like ordinary speech?

Writing Conflict

A scene with dialogue is a great way to portray conflict and particularly crisis scenes. You can intersperse dialogue with action and summarise in indirect speech. Many of us have difficulties in writing about conflict.

Try writing these scenes using dialogue:

A mother is preparing her young daughter for school. The child wants to go on a school trip; the mother does not have the money to pay for it.

You have come to collect your car from the garage. The mechanic tells you that much more needs to be done than you think necessary.

At a family funeral, two brothers meet that have not spoken in ten years after a disagreement over a loan that remains unpaid. Their sister attempts to get them to speak again.

There are plenty of examples of good and bad dialogue on the internet; even more can be found in your own reading. You will spot it. The problem with being a writer is that you can’t read without noticing the way a book, a story, is written. It’s when you don’t notice the writing, just get lost in the story, that you know the writer has done his or her work well. They may well have put in scaffolding during the writing process, but if they have taken that scaffolding down, the reader will not know that any artifice is involved.

Wear it well but wear it lightly – research for writers

When I started my MA in creative writing, we had a seminar about research. What I remember most is that the tutor, Scarlett Thomas, suggested we buy a big notebook just for research. I need no encouragement to indulge in a bit of stationery buying; I also have a thing about notebooks being gifts to me, a kind of writer’s superstition, so I expect I asked someone to buy one for me. For me, the best journals for everyday writing, free-writing and drafts are A5, preferably spiral-bound. Research notebooks are A4. They need to be big enough to make plans, write mind-maps, to paste in cuttings from newspapers and so on. But I digress into stationery, when my topic is research.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

I like to write a first draft, and check my research later. For my story collection As Long as it Takes, I did a lot of reading, collected all sorts of things to paste into my research book, took note of details that might or might not end up in the stories.

When writing the story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, I saw a dress on a tailor’s dummy in an antiques market in Harrogate together with some yellow enamel jewellery. It was exactly the kind of dress that my character Noreen would wear to a dance, along with the necklace and earrings. I jotted down the details in my research notebook and had the dress in mind as I wrote. A description of it ended up in the story, but the jewellery didn’t, even though I pictured her wearing the jewellery too. I would like to think that my full imaginary outfit for Noreen comes through in the writing, brings her to life.

When I was working on that story, I showed it to a tutor on an Arvon retreat. Noreen, the protagonist, is in a long-stay hospital, and it doesn’t become clear until the end of the story why she is there. The tutor said I needed to plant some clues in the early part of the story and to research the symptoms and treatment of her illness at the time when the story was set. Fortunately for me, my husband was working as an editor of exams for the Royal College of Physicians, and he did the research for me.

I had to place the details lightly. Rather than have Noreen say ‘There were no antibiotics then so they couldn’t cure me when I first became ill, but there are now, but they don’t work for everyone. And this is what it was like when I first got it.’ I had her say:

And here’s me in Long Grove with Rosina Bryars and the nurses. No gold cure for me. No Peter Finch. But it won’t be long before they find the right combination of drugs for me, as they did for the others.

Pea soup it said in the books: six to eight motions a day, and it looks like pea soup. That’s just how it was when I had the fever. I can’t eat it to this day: that and rhubarb. Mammy used to boil it up to clean the pans; I worried it would strip the lining of my stomach.

You can read ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ here, and a blog piece on how I came to write the story: ‘From Norah to Noreen’. Both are on the Writers’ Hub website.

I’ve come across a couple of instances of research either being too evident or lacking. I read Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks a few years back. The novel is set in the early days of psychiatry. Boy, did Faulks know his subject, but I felt he wanted to let us know all of his research. It was a bit too detailed for my liking. In contrast, I’ve picked up anachronisms and mistakes whilst editing that could have easily been checked with a bit of research on the part of the writer. A reference to Ninja Turtles in a story set in the 1970s; describing frets on a violin’s fingerboard in a poem; characters dressing in fashions that are not correct for the time. This is why editors are important as well as research on the part of the writer. These kind of mistakes leap out of the page for those readers who spot them, and take them out of the world that the writer has created.

I’d be interested to hear others’ ideas on research. Do you research before writing or after? Do you, like me, use notebooks for research or even gather physical objects around you? Do you write character sketches, take your characters shopping to see what they might buy? Whatever you do, remember to use your research with care: wear it well but wear it lightly.

A Few Wise Words, and in praise of short stories

I am giving a talk … in a yurt! I am wildly excited about this, having experienced the Wise Words’ yurt as a punter last year.  A Few Wise Words is a mini-festival of words, music and film on the weekend of 4-6 April 2014, with most events taking place in a yurt in Greyfriars Franciscan Gardens, Canterbury.

My talk is Low Energy, High Creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness. It takes place on Saturday 5 April at 11.00 a.m. Find out more and book tickets at £5 on the Wise Words website.

I was at the Save As Awards in Canterbury on Sunday, and was pleased to come away with 3rd prize in the prose awards for my story ‘How Beautiful’. This is available to read on Writers’ Hub. All the shortlisted stories and poems were of a high standard and truly diverse. It was a happy evening, listening to the other writers, plus readings from judges Sonia Overall and Abegail Morley.

I was, however, surprised to hear a comment to the writer of one of the shortlisted stories, ‘I hope you are going to develop this into a novel’. A short story and a novel – you might as well compare an elephant to a pencil sharpener. Short stories are not novel extracts, or the beginnings of novels; they are complete in themselves.

In many ways, writing short stories is harder than novel-writing (this is me speaking as someone who has tried and given up on novel-writing, so I am sure novelists will put me straight). I share below some quotes on the short story, which I gathered for a workshop I delivered on the short story at the Canterbury Festival in 2013.

‘A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.’ Flannery O’Connor

A short story is ‘fundamentally about character. The plot of a short story is nothing more than an unfolding of character, or perhaps the unfolding of a couple of characters. That’s the beauty of the form, the terrific sense of intimacy it can offer us.’ Alison Macleod, from ‘Writing and risk-taking’, Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Publishing, 2009)

‘In his essay “A Short History of the Short Story”, William Boyd suggests that its defining feature – namely its length – is the source of its curious appeal. Its virtue is its brevity and its pull. There is no time for the gentle build; the writer’s chance to display his or her gift is as brief as that of the TV talent show contestant … [Boyd] likens Woolf’s comment about the deceptive ability of a photograph to enhance the picture of life to the short story’s capacity to enlarge our view of the world. “This gives us, I think, a clue to the enduring power and appeal of the short story – they are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature and, when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more than in real life.”’ Mariella Frostrup in The Guardian, 21 September 2013

I’d also like to add a few words about how a good piece of writing differs from a short story.

A short story has: A BEGINNING, A MIDDLE, and AN END. It TELLS something: it has a point  – why the story is being told.

A short story has a SHAPE – it starts with CONFLICT, builds up via a series of complications to a CRISIS, then a RESOLUTION and a falling away.

Watch this wonderful video on You Tube – Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes.

Join the mailing lists of Thresholds and of Short Stops who are ‘getting excited about short stories in the UK and Ireland’.

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