I read so many pieces of writing advice about planning your work, plotting and figuring out each chapter before you begin but I would like to propose just diving in. Some of my best work has been a blind journey into a world where there is no clear plot or outcome from the beginning, and in many ways it provides a freedom to explore and to let a story unfold.
E.B. White in an interview with The Paris Review on writing once said that,
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
I think he had a point in that we often wait, procrastinate, ponder, ruminate. Add any other word that fits and you have a writer who is too afraid to begin. The problem is that time is short and every day that passes is an opportunity for you to delve into a new world of words. I say this to encourage rather that to thwart the plans of those who truly like to plan. But I know that there are those who also wonder whether they can write if they don’t have a plan, an MA in Creative Writing, a bestseller to their name or any other reason to add to the list. Diving in can bring with it a freedom from the confines of your own expectations.
Imagine diving into a huge pile of leaves. There is something in us as adults that stops us, tells us it’s not the done thing and that it’s for children. Imagine the freedom of just plunging onto a freshly swept pile of autumn leaves. Then imagine putting fingers to the keys or pen to paper and writing one word at a time until you find yourself in a world entirely unexpected and intriguing, a world where the rules have changed and where new characters appear. For me this is part of the excitement of writing, and part of the freedom.
It’s not always easy to find books that you will enjoy, and very often I have set a book aside to come back to or have left it all together, and not without a sense of guilt. How do you find the books that you will really enjoy?
I enjoy browsing through bookshops, second hand and new, and finding an author whose work I haven’t yet delved into. I generally go by the blurb and the first few pages. The cover less so; I have learned over the years that the cover will not always give me an idea of what to expect. Some of the covers that have been less appealing to me have been those of books which I really enjoyed, and vise versa. The old cliché rings true for me with books as well as for all of the other implied judgements we make!
I do look at Amazon’s recommendations, although they sometimes recommend my own work! I look at the emails they send and the recommendations on the site itself. They often give an accurate representation of my tastes.
I really appreciate recommendations from friends and other authors and will try both established authors and debut novelists. Don’t forget that every author was new to the craft at some point. We often cling to the authors we know and love but can miss some fantastic books if we don’t branch out. I have learned who to trust as far as book recommendations go and it has certainly expanded my horizon. Reading widely is important: push the boundaries and try a new genre, read something you ‘would never read’.
I read a lot of book blogs and there are a selection at the end of a previous post on blogging. Book bloggers are a fantastic way of finding new books and getting an overview of new releases, and sometimes classics I’ve missed. Their summaries are often more helpful to me than the reviews on various books sites.
Literary Prizes flag authors who I might not otherwise have found, this includes short story awards as I particularly enjoy reading short stories and collections. There are many book prizes, but if you find the ones that suit your tastes you can find some wonderful books.
I often find books on Pinterest, which I pin for later and I can go back to the list on my to-be-read board later and take a closer look to see if it is something I want to buy and read. It’s a great way of seeing the covers in a larger format and reading reviews.
Libraries are a good way of finding books, especially out of print editions. Having a library card is also a fantastic way of encouraging children to read.
Finally, bestseller lists. I left this until last because I don’t always love the bestsellers, and people’s tastes vary, but going to the bestseller shelves in bookshops and looking on-line will give you an idea of what’s popular. Moods and genres shift, and there is a wave of psychological thrillers. I have found some great books this way. Amazon has a list of kindle bestsellers. I have linked the fiction page, but you can find almost anything. I you are looking for a particular genre within fiction, the links are on their sidebar. Most of you are familiar with this but it’s worth a reminder.
What have you discovered that surprised you? Any recommendations?
I would like to introduce you to our guest author, Avril Joy. With a degree in History of Art and experience as a social worker then a teacher at Goldsmith’s College under her belt, Avril has travelled widely, and it was her experience of working and teaching in prisons which drew her to my attention, as well as her clear gift for short story writing. Avril is a wonderful person and a truly inspiring writer. Her short story, Millie and Bird, won the first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. You have travelled to India, Kashmir and Nepal. Is travel a key source of inspiration for your work and how does it inform your writing?
I’m not sure about travel exactly, although my travels in India and Sri Lanka do feature quite strongly in my novel The Orchid House, but place is definitely an inspiration for me. For me, an idea for a story or novel often begins with a place and then obviously I have to go in search of the characters. I’ve always loved reading fiction that’s rich in place and atmosphere. I think travel is for the naturally curious and it’s good for a writer to be curious about places and the people who live there. I notice that Asian characters often pop up in my writing. I do love going to new places – I’m off to Venice for the first time soon and will definitely be keeping a journal to scribble down observations and ideas – but I also think that there is a rich source of inspiration to be found in the places where we live.
How did you begin teaching and then writing in a women’s prison, and in what way has the experience affected you as a person?
I began teaching in prison when I came back from my travels. I took a temporary post, just because it was on offer, which turned into a lifetime (certainly in terms of prison sentencing!) commitment. It affected me deeply but it’s not necessarily obvious in my writing, although it’s always there underneath. I’m always drawn to people, especially women, living on the margins, or in their own internal prison. Invisible lives interest me, the lives of those who have no voice. I learned a lot from the women in prison about freedom and survival, about laughter, and about not feeling sorry for yourself. There’s a great deal of pain inside a women’s prison but also a surprising amount of fun and also friendship which I’ve written about in my long short story (on Kindle), When You Hear the Birds Sing. I met the author Wendy Robertson in prison when she was appointed Writer-in-Residence. We struck up a great working relationship and ultimately a lasting friendship. She was the first person to encourage me. She told me I could write and in many ways that changed my life.
What drew you to Literary Fiction in particular?
I think this was simply a result of my life as a reader. I’ve always read and loved Literary Fiction and Poetry, so it was natural for me to write in a similar way.
You won the very first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. What is it about short fiction that many writers often love or fear?
What I love about writing a short story is that it allows you to experiment, to try different voices, to use language not so much as a vehicle for narrative but for its own sake, although simplicity and clarity are what counts. I love the intense nature of the short story and it’s ambiguity – the way you leave space for the reader to bring their experience and imagination to the piece. You have a chance with a short story to make it as perfect as you can. What I fear is that writing which is not good enough will be immediately exposed, it’s a very unforgiving form. Also for me I am often afraid that there isn’t enough of a story there and I’m not good at quirky or different and I can’t really do funny which I think is a real skill. I think perhaps my stories are too quiet for some taste but then those are probably the kind of stories I like to read.
What advice would you give to new writers in terms of publication and entering competitions?
I think competitions are great for getting work published or anthologised, also submitting to magazines and for this reason I feature opportunities for both in my free weekly newsletter which anyone can sign up for on my blog. It’s important to think about the particular competition you are entering or magazine you’re submitting to and to look at what they’ve chosen or published in the past, they often have a house style. Also make sure you follow the rules, but my best advice is to write the story you want to write and try to make it, in Nadine Gordimer’s words, ‘burn a hole in the page.’ The reader has to be affected or moved in some way by your story. Oh yes, I should also say, make the beginning good, draw the reader in. How to do all this? Learn from the best by reading the best.
Your blog posts are informative and inspiring, what have you gained from blogging?
I’ve been blogging for more than five years and in that time it’s given me a great sense of audience and helped develop my writer’s voice. I love that you can just hit publish and your words are out there, and this sustained me when my work was not being published. It’s also been a great place to celebrate mine and others’ successes. Blogging makes you a good editor and if you blog regularly it means you exercise the writing muscle. Also blogging has allowed me to share my experiences as a writer, both the ups and the downs, and maybe, I like to think, help or inspire others – once a teacher always a teacher I guess, it definitely fulfils that need in me.
The new short story collection, The Story: Love, Loss and the Lives of Women: 100 Great Short Stories, edited by Victoria Hislop, is out as an eBook with the hardback edition newly released on 26 September. Can you tell us about the collection?
It’s a wonderful collection of 100 stories written by women, selected by Victoria Hislop. I still can’t quite believe I’m in the anthology along with queens of the short story like Alice Munroe, Helen Simpson, Angela Carter, Katherine Mansfield… the list is remarkable. Of course my inclusion is down to winning the Costa which has given my writing a huge boost and a brought me a whole new audience and I’m very grateful for that. As well as being a cornucopia of stories the collection has a great introduction on the selection process, the nature of short story writing and what makes a good story. I think it would make a thoughtful and lasting gift for readers and writers alike. There is something for every taste here. Although I’ve been reading the collection on my Kindle, marvelling at one brilliant story after another, I’m most looking forward to getting my hands on the book itself in hardback, Featuring two centuries of women’s short fiction, ranging from established writers like Alice Munro and Angela Carter, to contemporary rising stars like Miranda July and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, this is the biggest and most beautiful collection in print today. Handpicked by one of the nation’s favourite novelists, Victoria Hislop – herself a great writer of, and champion for, short stories – and divided thematically into collections on love, loss and the lives of women, there’s a story for every mood, mindset and moment in life. CONTRIBUTORS INCLUDE: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Daphne Du Maurier, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Katherine Mansfield, Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. Special promotional price to celebrate the short story (limited period).
Avril’s collection of short stories, Millie and Bird and Tales of Paradise, will be published in 2014 by Iron Press. You can find Avril at www.avriljoy.com
Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.
‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.
I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.
Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.
Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.
So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?
I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?
These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.
I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.
To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.
Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.
‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’
Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize. Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012. Her collection of short stories, ‘Above the Parapet‘, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.
Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’
You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com
I hear many authors complain of time constraints, low income from books, isolation from a workplace or other people, writer’s block and many other issues and, while I understand these, I also want to scratch my head and ask whether writing is the best use of their time. Writing IS hard and it IS time consuming but here’s the truth: If the world stopped reading I would still be writing.
If people no longer read books, my fingers would continue to hover over the keyboard each morning in quiet anticipation, waiting to tap out new sentences and create different worlds. I wrote travel diaries and poetry long before I began to write my first novel. I didn’t write for people to read these, and I hope they never will, I wrote for my own pleasure.
I love writing. My mind is constantly churning over ideas, my eyes and ears observing the small details of each day, absorbing conversations and snatched moments of intimacy between other people: a hand on a shoulder, a kind expression, an angry response. All of life and its rich experiences feed into my subconscious to be unearthed when required.
I store up a bank of thoughts and ideas continually. They may come from a painting or a rock concert, a quiet conversation or a crowded street, a film or from the strings of a violin in an orchestra, an early sunrise or a pain-filled conversation. These experiences shape me but they also shape my writing. We are influenced by what we read but much more so by first-hand experiences. Much of my writing has been fueled by travel to foreign lands and I currently live abroad. The richness of different cultures has expanded my vision of life and people. My words are fueled by the relationships I have and by the chance encounters and words from the lips of strangers.
I need to write because it is how I find meaning in life. It helps me to communicate on a much deeper level than any spoken word. I love the nature and impact of words and the way sentences can repel and attract; reel a reader in and push them back. I get a thrill from the details of a scene or from a wild response from a character. I inhabit the minds of other characters with the buzz of a homicide detective close to finding the perpetrator of a crime. I feel the emotions of injustice, loss, elation, fear and longing, all through the mind of a fictional character placed in an unstable situation.
The ability to change a person’s mind or to open them up to a new world or a new thought is unmatched, other than through a work of fiction. I know that there can be dry periods and difficulties with a plot or in editing a manuscript, but these are my overriding thoughts on the craft of putting words to paper. I understand that there are times when you want to give up or if you wonder what you are doing or whether the path will lead you into brambles or into a deep ravine. This is often temporary and it is important for me to focus on the positives and on the reasons for writing in the first instance. The privilege of hearing a reader say that they loved your story and couldn’t put the book down is wonderful, but the truth is, even without it I would keep writing.
I am pleased to welcome the Director of National Flash Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, for a guest post on the short fiction form. His new collection, Lost Property, brings together four brand new pamphlets of flash fiction, featuring Singsong, Soaring, Burning and Citadel. The collection contains 83 stories that move from the hilarious to the sinister and demonstrates the unique nature of ultra-short fiction.
If you are a writer of flash-fiction, short-stories, possibly poetry and maybe even non-fiction, this is a question which may be familiar to you. The person posing the question might be a complete stranger, maybe at some reading or signing event, but is more likely to be a friend or even a relative. You proudly show them your collection of stories or poems, or your book on how to knit cartoon characters, learn economics or install a Linux system on your PC, and they glance through it, nod appreciatively, and then they work their way towards the question.
“So. Well done. This looks good, doesn’t it?” is the opening move.
“Yes. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s come out very nicely,” is your response.
“Must have been a lot of work.”
“Yes. But enjoyable. Apart from the editing, ha ha…”
“Ha ha, yes.” They nod and look through the book again, then up at you. “So…” they start, and this is where you should stop them, because you know what’s coming next.
“It is a proper book. It has a cover. It has loads of words in it. I did research and everything. People will buy and read it – okay, not in JK Rowling numbers, maybe, but some of them. It has an ISBN number and can be bought from Amazon and those funny old places that people used to go into. You know, bookshops.” Is what you want to say. But you don’t. Instead you let them continue.
“So… when are you going to write a proper book, then?” they ask, and you somehow restrain yourself from swinging for them.
Because, of course, they don’t mean to say that your collection or non-fiction opus is not a ‘proper’ book. They mean ‘when are you going to write a novel’. That’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Collections of things are nice, but they’re just little stories or poems, not a good chunky page-turner. Non-fiction books are useful, but you don’t settle down on the sofa on an autumnal afternoon to read them. They live on shelves until you have occasion to reach for them. No, they’re talking about the All-Powerful Novel and the place it holds in the public imagination as the pinnacle of writing and the thing that every writer is surely aiming for.
And this is the problem for writers, especially of flash-fiction or short stories. Because each of the small parts looks inconsequential; trivial. There might be many of them, and they might make up a 200 page collection containing 60-70,000 words, but still, you can see the joins; you can see where the writer started and stopped. Not like the seamless flow of a novel (which was surely written in a single, sleepless week of endless typing). And, of course, you are writing prose fiction, so surely you must be working your way up from these little things to try and join the big boys with their ‘proper’ books.
Now, don’t get me wrong, many flash-fiction and short story writers do have aspirations to be novelists, or at least have found an idea coming to them which is too big to cover in just a few hundred or few thousand words, and so are working towards a much longer piece. But that does not mean that they have finally, in some indefinable way, graduated to the big leagues. They have not left behind their childish play with those tiny tales and taken the brave step to write longer. They are simply following their muse where it takes them, and sometimes your muse takes you longer.
But all of those same flash-fiction and short story writers who are dabbling in the world of novels, at least those I know, still love and respect the short form. They are not what we write because we can’t manage the long things. They are the things we write because there is a value to a short story or a flash-fiction, an intensity, a chance at experimentation, and a specific purpose that you simply can’t achieve in the novel.
We don’t write stories because we are waiting for our turn to write a ‘proper’ book. We write stories because they need to be written, and because we love what they can do that all of your ‘proper’ books can’t.
So next time someone looks at your collection of flashes, poems, or your non-fiction work and seems about to ask that fateful question, stop them, point to the cover and ask them: “So, when are you going to read a proper book, then?”
Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.