I sympathise with Tracey Chevalier as judge of this years Mslexia competition. So many short stories deal in pain, death and loss. Several years ago I remember a similar plea from QWF Magazine for writers to ‘lighten up’ and I guess that the appetite for reading submissions must diminish rapidly when every course is another serving of angst.
The trouble is, looking through the few published short story collections I possess, the overall tone is at best reflective and at worst plain glum. So leaving aside our own internal need to work though life’s more sombre moments, is it so surprising that aspiring writers, faced with the evidence, will conclude that anything with literary pretensions has to contain a good helping of human suffering, and conversely, that upbeat might be seen as down market?
Let’s hope this is going to change. Those short stories that have made the biggest impression on me are those that break what I observe to be the maudlin mould. My personal favourite from the first Bristol Prize collection is a lively nostalgia trip to the sea-side (no drownings, no coach crash, just a hiding from Mum.) The only one I can remember from the Bridport 2007 winners is Toby Litt’s The Fish, where the breakdown of a relationship is made fresh and funny (if not exactly happy) by wrapping it up in one sparkling and preposterous sentence (‘yuk, yuk!’). Even in the latest Yellow Room (where, yes, I hold my hand up to dwelling on serious illness) the stories I think I will remember are not the prizewinners so much as those brimming with life and incident: a conversation on a bus that runs to civil disobedience, a trip to St. Tropez that goes horribly wrong. As a writer I could easily mark each of these down for technical reasons (suspect punctuation, an ending that doesn’t quite satisfy) but as a reader they held my attention to the end.
So, what do I look for in a piece of short fiction? First of all, please, a story, some kind of narrative of events. Too often we are stuck in a microcosm of time, place or emotion. Next, something different. Too many stories deal in the same situations. Even if the death of a parent, child or partner is not on page 1, in most cases I can see it coming. Lastly, and most importantly, something I’ll remember: quirky characters, a fresh point of view, a bold and adventurous style.
Come to think of it, this is not so different from what I look for in a novel, and so what’s the problem? The problem is, that literary short stories, largely ignored by mainstream publishers, are the playground of writers rather than readers. We write for technical merit and artistic effect, something to impress the judges. Tracey C. is quite right to remind us that we need to think of the reader in his or her own right. This way we will reach not just the editor of that small press magazine or the judge of the prestigious competition but ‘the man in the street’. Then, perhaps, even publishers will sit up and take notice.
And what about me? Well I have had some limited success with more upbeat stories, and I hope my latest (now doing the rounds) will make people smile. Let’s hope those judges are prepared to be amused.
The Yellow Room 4
I have to admit that I’m so accustomed to receiving rejection letters that the moment when Jo Derrick of the The Yellow Room
wrote accepting (yes, an acceptance!) Blue-Sky Thinking was more of a buzz than when I at last held Issue 4 in my hand on Saturday morning. But hey, no matter how often I tell myself I am a professional writer (commissioned to write articles on libraries, IT and golf) and a published writer (magazines, journals and the web), there’s nothing quite like the hard stuff – i.e. a piece of fiction in print.
It’s also satisfying that I first encountered Jo as editor of QWF, a magazine recommended by my writing tutor and one that served me with two of my earliest rejections, each of which were described as ‘near misses’. Although this can be even more frustrating than an outright rejection, I did take the feedback to heart and it’s good to feel I have served my apprenticeship and even come out with a qualification of sorts!
On the reading front, our Alternative Book Club is now well under way and with the theme of ‘brothers and sisters’ coming up in another couple of months, what better time to purchase a copy of Hope Against Hope, about two sisters in a ‘slice of Yorkshire Victoriana’. As it happens, the author Sally Zigmond, is an acclaimed short story writer who was was also associated with QWF. I’ve been following her useful blog and also the story of her novel’s very long road to publication with Myrmidon.
I’m delighted that Hope Against Hope is now out and that that Sally, who had a recent health scare, is now recovered and ready to enjoy her moment in the sun. You can read all about it on the Hope Aganst Hope blog.
For people like me whose short stories come few and far between, one of the bugbears is getting the word-count right. Now that my new baby is down to 2,750, nearly all the upcoming competitions want 2000 max. – and there’s only so much editing that can be done before the thing loses its character. Delving in the drawer yields a couple of likely 1000 worders: snappy enough, but probably not going to cut the mustard amongst meatier competition.
The answer, of course, is to write more short stories and to vary the length so as to always have ‘one I made earlier’ ready to hand. Until I manage this state of grace, I’m stuck with a stable that falls mainly between 2000 and 3000. Luckily there’s the Bristol Prize to go for (3000) and I’m grateful to the Frome Festival (where I had success two years ago) for allowing 2,200 this year. I can probably find one that will just squeeze under the wire.
Generally I think word-counts are decreasing. Mslexia this year also went down to 2200, and only the ‘biggies’ (Bridport and Fish) are holding out for 5000. It would be nice to think there is a literary rationale behind this, but one suspects the saving in time (for judging) and paper (for printing the winners) might have something to do with it. For really short stories (under 1000) the future is brighter. The short form is ideal for reading from the screen and so there are lots of outlets on the web. This month The Yellow Room Magazine also has a special prize for a story under 800. In fact its main competition is 2,500 and it will accept up to 5000 for other submissions. It’s good to see one of the smaller players offering real variety.
On Saturday, Issue 3 of The Yellow Room arrived, and being too beleagured by seasonal franticness to engage with the writing there and then, I settled for skimming through the ‘bios’ – helpfully picked out in bold at the end of each story. To a certain extent this is dangerous – these people sound so interesting compared to dull old me – and is there anyone who doesn’t have an M.Litt from somewhere theses days?
But one in particular cheered me up. Suzie Lockhart Smith author of Running Dreams, states up front that she ‘is sixty and lives in Bristol.’ Now some of my closest friends are 60 + and if the government hadn’t changed the rules I would be looking forward to the bus pass moment myself. But there is a common assumption that to make it in any commercial writing you have to either be young, look young, or sound young. This is no carried story. One feature-writer friend even puts on a ‘girly voice’ when ringing the bright young things to whom she has submitted copy.
The Yellow Room is more literary than commercial, but it’s still good that Suzie Lockhart-Smith is happy to own up to her years and the benefits they have no doubt brought her. With the weekend over (and my Christmas shopping cracked!) hers was the first story I read – and it’s fabulous.
Resting from some severe RSI pains (they call it something different now, Upper Limb Disorder?) So no more typing. Instead I’m putting my feet up with the new issue of The Yellow Room. Following my disconsolate tweet, I’ve got over my disappointment and am thoroughly enjoying it.
Meanwhile here’s a souvenir photo of our recent trip to Anglesey. No one told the swans they prefer fresh water!
Several years ago we happened to be in Amsterdam during the fantastic Van Gogh and Gaugin exhibition ‘The Studio of the South’. The paintings were sublime and the audio commentary fascinating, so this painting (thanks Wikipedia commons) makes a fitting finale for my yellow week.
Meanwhile, issue 1 of The Yellow Room has arrived and I leapt on the first story by Zoe Fairbairns, a name I hadn’t heard for quite some time. Zoe was a contemporary of mine at St. Andrews University. We never met, but I went on to read several of her novels. I still have a copy of Daddy’s Girls , but a visit to Zoe’s website reminded me that my favourite was Stand We at Last, a historical saga with a feminist slant. If you can get your hands on a copy, read it. I think I might look out for one myself.
It looks like Zoe no longer writes novels but I like her short story ‘Decisions’ very much indeed. Being close to someone who has recently suffered a bereavement, I can relate to the surreal elements of the story as well as the suppressed grief that comes tumbling out at the end.
BTW the book of the Studio of the South exhibition is still available and is the best account I have read of the Van Gogh Gaugin story. The illustrations alone give it a lot more impact than the later Yellow House by Martin Gayford.
Juliet of Mersea gave me this great idea of including Cold Play in my yellow theme week. Apart from the obvious reason, I also have a bit of a thing for Chris Martin, so here he is at Glastonbury 2005 via Youtube.
I believe this kind of music is called ‘mum rock’, but I’m a mum, so that’s okay.
On a more literarily (?) yellow note, I have added Jo Derrick’s blog to the blogroll, and here’s the cover of the current Yellow Room – available for a mere £5.50. My order is in.
Jo Derrick of The Yellow Room (and formerly of QWF Magazine) has just accepted my short story Blue Sky Thinking for publication some time next year and so this is the first of what I think may be a series of posts celebrating the colour yellow!
QWF stood for Quality Women’s Fiction, and judging by the contributors to Issue One of The Yellow Room, I’m hoping my writing will not only be in print (at last!) but also in some distinguished company.
More about TYR and the colour yellow soon. Meanwhile, today’s photo ‘Field of Yellow’ was culled from Flickr but I’m happy to say was taken on a golf course and by a fellow Scot. Do check out the rest of foxypar4′s collection - there are some great sea-bird shots. In fact I’ve decided to add his Blue Sky photo too, a good colour combo in the circumstances!