Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Complete Story

I am so excited about judging the Greenacre Writers and Finchley Literary Festival's Short Story Competition, I have been thinking about what I will look for when I read the entries. For me, the essence of a successful story can be encapsulated in one word; completeness.

A short story is not a fragment or an extract. It must stand alone, as entrenched within its own identity as a novel, and offer an engaging opening, a satisfying conclusion and a middle which keeps the reader enthralled. 

While it is possible to extract the grit of a short story and cement it into the bedrock of a novel, it is difficult to transplant a complete piece in its entirety. Having tried to shoehorn one of my stories into a novel as a first chapter (as explained in this post for The Literary Pig) I discovered that while it was imperfect as a fully-fledged story, it possessed too many of the required elements to function as part of a whole. Like trying to squeeze a cup-cake into the body of a perfect Victoria sponge, or make a coat with three sleeves, it became a distorting appendage.

So when I read a short story, I always hope for it to be whole, with an opening hook, a strong narrative arc and a satisfying ending. I like to be taken on a journey, be it literal, metaphorical, or some of each, and for that journey to flesh out the central character, whether his development ultimately brings him back to square one again, or leaves him dangling.

The core conflict, which has to arise early on, must leave me in no doubt that the protagonist's struggle will prove to be absorbing and credible. And with regard to characters, I need them to ignite in me the same strong responses as they would illicit in a full length novel. The short story's time constraints should not impose any constraints on my emotions. 

I do not have to like this person, but I must care about him. Such a brief time is invested in the reading of a short story, but those few minutes must result in an experience which resonates for a long time. 

One of my favourite authors is William Trevor and one of his stories which springs to mind is Gilbert's Mother. Following a disturbing local event, the mother's thought-processes help to develop Gilbert's sinister and unsettling character, as does their everyday - yet somehow disconcerting - dialogue. 
At first it appeared unlikely I would warm to Gilbert as I wondered what part he might have played in the grisly happening, but such was the skill of the author in unfolding the tale, nothing could have deterred me from reading on.
My reactions to the characters, set firm at the start, began to alter. Could I rely on the facts and opinions Gilbert's mother was telling me? 
The arc of the story built unabated and the relentless tension swelled, shifting my emotional responses with such a delicate touch that by the end, my view of both characters had been changed in an artful way which felt as unnerving as the story itself. Most important of all, as I became more closely acquainted with Gilbert and his mother, my sympathy and concern kept growing.
The ending fulfilled all the needs of a successful short story, bringing matters to a satisfactory conclusion, yet without tucking its loose strands into a tidy knot. I prefer these stray ends so that I can imagine the characters' futures for myself, so that I can ponder and wonder, and so that I can continue caring.

My well-marked copy of William Trevor's story collection, After Rain, along with my notes on Gilbert's Mother.
I like to see characters pushed to the extreme, not only hanging from the cliff edge by their fingertips, but by the tips of their fingernails, pushed to the limit of endurance and even beyond it. However, when they fall, they don't have to land. Provided they follow the natural arc through which they need to travel for the course of the story, they can be left in mid-air. A short story may need to be fully complete, but it is still a raw moment, frozen in time. I imagine it as a fragile relic that has passed into and out of someone's life, valuable to those who find it only because it is whole.

Thinking about plot now, in my story, No Consequence, (click on the 'Stories' page of the website) the central character, Ashley, is about to celebrate his sixteenth birthday, a particularly monumental milestone for him. The sense of impending change hopefully encourages the reader to stay with Ashley for the duration of his story to discover what the change entails and how it will affect him and his family. 

As with Gilbert's Mother, the plot depends upon the characters, in that nothing happens which is not a result of their impulses, their needs, their motivations and emotions. For me, this provides the greatest driving force for any story. External circumstances crowd into the picture of course, as they do in real life, but they do not propel the plot. All the actions emerge purely from the characters.

So, I am looking for complete stories in which the plot is steered by credible characters with a dilemma to solve. I hope to care about them despite - or even because of - their faults and failings. I want to be engrossed by the opening sentence and captivated by all that follows as the story builds to its rewarding - although not necessarily tightly knotted - conclusion. And all within a thousand words! 

I am looking forward to lots of rewarding reading, so please submit your stories by May 31st. I can hardly wait! 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Competitions - not always for the competitive

Lovely fellow blogger and author, Rosemary Gemmell, has kindly featured When Planets Slip Their Tracks in her blog post on new short story collections here . Since sharing this post, the question was raised as to how to set about having a collection published, so I thought I would explain how it happened for me.

Ever since I began writing stories for the women's magazines, I was also very keen to enter short story competitions, which gave me a chance to write slightly offbeat stories with darker themes. However, I am not a competitive person by nature and, certainly at the start, was not expecting my stories to be placed or shortlisted. My priority was to discover how my writing compared with the winning stories and also to study the valuable feedback often offered by the competition judges. As I am self-taught, this became one of the methods I adopted to learn about the craft of creative writing.

I bought various literary magazines, such as Writers' Forum and Jo Derrick's The Yellow Room, which I once blogged about here, and it became my aim to see my stories published within those beautiful, glossy pages. I devoured the high-quality fiction in these publications and made all sorts of notes to help me understand how they were structured and paced, de-constructing them sentence by sentence to appreciate how the syntax worked.

One of the first stories I had published, 'One Horse Town', which is included in my collection.

And one of my stories in The Yellow Room, also included in the collection.
One of my much-treasured copies of The Yellow Room magazine

The most important aspect, however, was to find my own voice - to write from the heart - and for this it was helpful to take part in Write On Site, the weekly online competition which requires a complete story to be written in thirty minutes. The pressure of the clock ticking away really assisted in squeezing out my true style because there was no opportunity for thinking, mulling, head-scratching or changing my mind. It must have worked well for me because whenever my piece was fortunate enough to appear in the anonymous shortlist, fellow-writers said they could recognise which was mine.

This combination of writing for magazine competitions (sometimes working on a story for months before it was ready) together with the exciting strain of regularly writing 'on demand', not only taught me about structure/pace/theme and helped to establish my own writing voice, it also resulted in a large stock of stories. The Write On Site pieces were very short of course - I am a slow typist and thirty minutes does not produce a great quantity! - but they became foundations for longer work, or even - with tweaks - stood alone as flash-fiction pieces for competitions.

After having stories published in various competition anthologies, including two in The Bristol Short Story Prize, I realised eventually that some of these might work as a collection.

Throughout my fifty-five years, I have read lots of collections by authors as diverse as Penelope Lively, Helen Simpson, William Trevor, James Joyce, Guy de Maupassant, Franz Kafka, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and so many more I would need a separate blog post to list them all. I can even remember studying the short story form for O Levels at school, mostly Hemingway and Camus, and being in awe of authors who could achieve such a satisfying sense of 'completeness' in just a few pages. Now I had a stock of stories of my own, all of which paled into insignificance among the greats of literature, but which seemed also to have - hopefully - that same sense of completeness.

I entered the collection, then entitled 'Fed and Watered', into a competition, where it was given some wonderful feedback. However, it turned out that only American citizens were eligible to enter that particular contest - I didn't read the rules properly! It was a boost for my writing that, despite being ineligible, the judges still allowed 'Fed and Watered' to be included in the shortlist!

Not long after this, in 2012, I entered a single story, 'Open All Hours', into the Ink Tears competition and it was judged a runner-up. Ink Tears had just begun to establish a publishing arm, so that as well as championing the short story form with competitions, they were also on the verge of producing hardback collections written by some of their authors.

I was asked if I had enough stories for a collection and of course 'Fed and Watered' was ready and waiting! However, I worked on it a great deal more and changed some of the content, using mostly prize-winning stories from the four years of entering competitions, until it became 'When Planets Slip Their Tracks' and was published in hardback in January.

Competitions have certainly helped me enormously with my writing. For example, as a result of winning The London Short Story Prize, I was signed to a literary agent, Elise Dillsworth, who was one of the judging panel. And my novel, 'Tying Down the Lion', was shortlisted in a Cinnamon Press competition, which gave me enough confidence to seek publication for it.

So this was the journey I took and I hope it shows that even if you, like me, are not especially competitive by nature, entering these contests, studying the winning stories and taking careful note of the feedback, is a helpful way of honing the craft. And although there is no magic bullet, sometimes it can also lead to publication!