I'm delighted to welcome Kate Long to my blog this week. Kate's been a friend for many years - we met first on the old BBC Get Writing website. Although she began her career with short stories as you'll see below, she's since published 5 novels. Her latest, A Mother's Guide to Cheating is out now. There's a signed copy to be won - details at the end of this post.
OK, over to Kate!
The Road Between the Short Story and the Novel
As this blog’s about short stories, I thought I’d post about what short stories have meant to my development as an author and how they still shape my writing today.
Back in the early 90s, when I was starting to put pen to paper, I had no idea what kind of format or genre I wanted to work in. So I sketched out a couple of short stories, approached a woman’s magazine, and was rejected pretty promptly. Neither my style nor my subject matter was appropriate and I’d arrogantly failed to research the guidelines. In fact I cringe when I look back. My only excuse was that in those days I had no access to the internet, and to fantastic resources like this blog where market information is gathered together and shared.
I’d next had an idea for a novella and was very engaged with that; still I wanted to write and place shorter fiction. I turned to my local library, and to magazines like The New Writer and Writers’ News, for lists of competitions. Then I sent off some of my latest stories, and crossed my fingers.
About the same time as the rejection slips for my novella were coming in, I began to have the odd competition success: Raconteur, Real Writers, The Kent Literature Prize. The novella abandoned, I embarked on a teenage novel and submitted more shorts. A pattern emerged, and soon competition wins were keeping me going in the face of a growing pile of letters rejecting my longer works.
It was a short story that caught the interest of my first agent, David Rees. He’d published a piece of mine in his literary magazine, and someone from a major publishing house had asked after me: had I written a novel? No, I hadn’t; not a full length one for adults. So at David’s suggestion I began one, based loosely on the short story he’d accepted. It took me a couple of years to complete, provoked some encouraging rejections but still failed to hit the mark. Close, as they say, but no cigar.
Soon afterwards I gave birth to my first child, then a couple of years later another baby came along, and in the fug of sleepless nights writing slipped well down my list of priorities. I still managed to send off the odd short story, but my free time was so stretched I couldn’t get into a decent writing rhythm. However, just as I was feeling I’d lost my creative momentum, I heard I’d won the £1000 first prize with Real Writers, and the competition organiser, Lynne Patrick, was so positive about my prospects I felt inspired to get moving again.
I managed to nail the first couple of chapters of The Bad Mother’s Handbook, went on an Arvon course, had a story placed in the Bridport Prize. I had my mojo back! The new novel wrote itself in just a couple of months (editing took a lot longer, I hasten to add) and by 2002 I’d signed my first book deal. Would I have got there without the steady drip of competition placings? No, I don’t believe I would.
Nowadays I produce the odd commissioned short story, but I also write them for fun when an idea grabs me. They’re actually harder to place nowadays as I don’t feel I can enter competitions any more; in my view comps are for giving unagented writers exposure, to help them make contacts, to give the kind of boost and reassurance I know I appreciated when I was working in an editor-free void.
But the crafting of the short story is also a crucial part of my novel-writing life. In the same way an elephant has to be cut into bite-sized pieces before you can eat it, a novel, for me, needs to be broken down into a string of scenes, little associated stories, and as I forge my way through a massive hundred thousand words, I’m focussing almost exclusively on just one tiny part. I do have an plan of the overall narrative, but the sense of what I’ve already written and what’s yet to come is misty against the sharpness of the section I’m involved with. Holding onto that perspective is crucial for me because it reduces the anxiety associated with having to complete a four hundred page manuscript by a given month. The pressure’s off: I tell myself all I have to do is finish one scene and start another.
So it’s fair to say I owe quite a debt to short stories, and it’s great to see a blog like this where they’re encouraged, celebrated and shared. I only wish womagwriter had been around when I was starting out!
Aw, thanks Kate for those kind words about this blog! Kate WAS around when I was starting out, which was lucky for me, as I've learned a huge amount from her over the years.
OK, competition time. If you'd like the chance to win a signed copy of Kate's latest novel, post a comment here telling us about a short story which made a real impact on you. I don't mind if you can't remember the title or author - just tell us about the story and why it has stuck in your mind. We all try to write memorable stories, so finding out what made a story memorable to someone else could be hugely informative!
Post your comment by 8pm (UK time) Friday 5th March. No anonymous entries - obviously you can't win if I can't contact you! I'll decide a winner (might get Kate to help out!) and will announce the winner on Sunday 7th March. Good luck all and I look forward to seeing your entries!
Previous stops on Kate's blog tour here and here . Next stop here.