Sunday, 28 February 2010
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.
The book's official release date is 4th March but it can be preordered now from the publisher. Doesn't it look good?
Friday, 26 February 2010
I was reading Short Circuit in the bath the other night, and came across this paragraph which I loved, in the essay by Alison MacLeod. Hope she doesn't mind me reproducing a snippet here:
A poem is many things, but it is fundamentally about language and image. A novel is many things, but it is, above all, an architecture of events. A short story is language, image and event but it is fundamentally about character. The plot of a short story is nothing more than the unfolding of a 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.
The unfolding of a character. Yes, yes, yes! Start with your character, give him or her a problem, and let them resolve the problem in their own way, revealing their true personality as they do so. That's the formula, if there is such a thing, for a successful short story.
While writing a story a couple of weeks ago, I had that marvellous experience you sometimes get, when the story wrote itself. My initial idea had been to write about a woman who was sitting alone in a police interrogation room. She'd been set up by her partner, and was now accused of murder. Well, after scratching my head for a few minutes I came up with the following first line, which also gave me the voice: They've left me in here to stew.
The story instantly became part confessional, part monologue. And my character came to life, and led the way. By the time I got to the end, just an hour later, she'd revealed to me that she was the murderer, her poor partner was a dupe, and she'd not only killed the person she was accused of killing, but also someone else (her partner's father) years before. She was a right cow, and the least pleasant character I've ever invented. Though as I say, she kind of invented herself. She unfolded, as the story progressed.
(Had to work hard in the edit to imply she would get her comeuppance, to give the story a chance in the womag markets! You can have horrible characters as long as they are going to have to pay for their crimes eventually.)
The terrific sense of intimacy. Oh yes. The best short stories take us right inside the character's head, and for a few minutes we live and breathe as them. Because they are so short, they need to pack intense emotion into very few words. The writer must choose those few words carefully, for maximum impact. In a novel you have the luxury of unfolding a character slowly, using several scenes to develop that sense of intimacy. In a short story you need to get there in a thousand words or so. They will have to be the right words.
And if this post makes no sense to you (quite possible, I've been at the amber nectar), try this one instead, on Nicola Morgan's excellent blog, which contains some eminently sensible advice from the brilliant Sally Zigmond.
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Greg, welcome to the Womagwriter blog!
Welcome to the second stop on my blog-until-you-drop tour leading up to the publication of 100 Stories for Haiti.
If you missed yesterday's stop, head on over to publishingperspectives.com to catch up. I want to thank Ed and Hannah from Publishing Perspectives for agreeing to be part of the tour. I also want to thank Kath for today's stop.
If you read the article on Publishing Perspectives, you'll have an overall idea of how 100 Stories for Haiti came to be. I plan to go into a little more detail on various bits of the process during this blog tour, but, right now, I am keen to share with you an extract from one of the stories.
It's a story by Mo Fanning, author of the award-winning romantic comedy, The Armchair Bride.
By Mo Fanning
Cake. She has to have cake. For an entire week, Anna managed to walk past the window of Truly Scrumptious, averting her eyes.
Last night, she had two bowls of cabbage soup and a bifidus yoghurt. Then later, infused with Zen-like smugness, she ran a hot bath and lit candles. Surrounded by expensive foam, she congratulated herself on a week of self-control.
At 3 am, she woke, went downstairs, and poured a whole bag of oven chips onto a baking tray.
'Morning Anna,' Glenda said, looking up from arranging eclairs on a tray. 'Haven't seen you all week. Have you been away? Anywhere nice?'
She shook her head. Words were the least of her concerns. She wanted one of the blueberry muffins piled up behind the glass.
'We've got some lovely carrot cake. Baked it myself.' Glenda wiped her hands and placed the eclairs on the counter within reach. Anna could smell the bitter dark chocolate topping.
'I'll take a plain scone,' she forced herself to say.
Glenda's face said it all. 'Just a scone?'
'Just a scone.'
'But you'll have clotted cream and jam? Strawberry jam.'
'I'm on a diet,' Anna said.
Glenda's face changed. 'You? On a diet?' She didn't add 'you don't need to lose weight'. Her face said 'about time.'
'I'm trying to slim down for my holiday.'
'Well, each to their own.' Glenda put the single miserable-looking scone into a brown-paper bag. 'As long as you're doing it for you, not for some bloke.'
Anna managed a smile.
Later that morning, Anna sees him across the room. He's leaning over Lesley Fowler's desk. Skinny Lesley. She's doing that giggly thing she does when there's a good-looking bloke within flirting distance. He looks up, smiles at Anna and does a goofy wave. She does the same back. He mimes drinking. She nods. So they've made a date.
Except it isn't a date. Ben is her best friend.
Anna looks up to find Lesley smiling. 'I've got some leftovers,' she lies.
'Suit yourself. I'm going to Bert's.'
Anna pictures apple pie. Oozing pastry, dusted with cinnamon. Bert's do the best pie in town. Everyone knows it.
'Get me a salad,' she says.
'Just a salad?'
'Plain green, no dressing.'
'Are you on a diet?'
'Sort of. Not really. Well, a bit. Just watching my carb intake.'
There's that look again. 'About time.'
At five, Anna switches off her computer, shrugs on her jacket and goes to find Ben. Together they head for the next door pub. He orders bitter. She has lager. Pints. They find a table in the corner and collapse into soft leather armchairs.
'I'm thinking of asking Lesley out,' Ben says.
'Am I batting out of my league?'
Out of his league? Is Ben mad? He's tall, slim with matinee idol looks.
'You're probably too good for her,' she says, taking a slug of her drink.
'What makes you say that?'
'Lesley's a nice person,' Anna lies, 'and I really like her.' She'll go to hell for adding one untruth to another.
'But nothing. Ask her out. You two look good together.'
100 Stories for Haiti has stories from authors with books to their names and stories from authors never published. We set out to produce a book that anyone can pick up and enjoy, and that's exactly what we've done -- it's what I love about the book!
You can find out more about Mo on his website, mofanning.com. If you'd like to read the end of Mo's story, 100 Stories for Haiti comes out as an ebook and paperback, March 4th, 2010.
You can pre-order your copy of the paperback on 100storiesforhaiti.org. It costs £11.99 plus P&P. Money from the book goes to the British Red Cross and the Haiti Earthquake and Distaster Recovery appeals.
Thanks again, Kath, for letting me post on your blog. You're very welcome, Greg!
Tomorrow, I'll write a little bit about how we chose the stories for the book. That'll be on John Booth's blog, Cornfield Meet - johnbooth.wordpress.com
Thanks Greg. You can follow the rest of Greg's blog tour by checking out the links here. And don't forget to click the Buy the Book link to buy the book!
Monday, 22 February 2010
Friday, 19 February 2010
I told the lovely Liz how impressed we all were by her efforts to find Brenda, this was her reply:
Thank you for those words, they mean a lot.
And let me tell you how impressed I am by your “grapevine”. I realise all you My Weekly writers out there have had to make huge changes to the way you work, and have had to be extra patient with me as I know you wait even longer for my decisions. The changes have hit everyone hard, myself included, so it’s lovely to be all working together to the one end and for such a positive reason.
Big thank you to everyone.
Thursday, 18 February 2010
Once upon a time the writer sent her best story off to her favourite magazine. It was a really good story, and the editor liked it so much she decided to buy it. Unfortunately, the cover sheet had become detached from the story, and the editor couldn't find any way of contacting the writer.
The editor decided to spread the word, and see if the power of the internet could track down the elusive writer. The internet was only too glad to help, and within hours had found someone who knew the writer, and was able to put the writer and editor in touch with each other.
They were all very happy and celebrated with some Chardonnay (at least, the internet did...) and they all lived happily ever after.
Lesson to be learned from this story - put contact details on every page of every submission!
Personally I put full contact details on both the cover sheet and covering letter or email, and I put my email address in the footer of every page of the story. I've had an editor contact me by post because my postal address was all she could find. Not all editors would bother - there are plenty more stories in the pipeline and you can't blame them for taking the easier option of just choosing another story.
But I'm delighted to have been able to help the lovely editor get in contact with the writer - it was the writer's first sale and she's reportedly over the moon. And rightly so!
I wonder if you could do me a big favour. I believe you are a blogging fan.
In your next blog could you please post a message from me to anyone who might know Brenda Carter, author of short story Past, Present and Future.
Her contact details are not with the story and I would like to buy it. The writing world is a small one I know but this is still a long shot.
I’ve tried every other means at my disposal.
Can you help at all?
So Brenda, if you are reading this, or if someone who knows you is reading this, please email Liz Smith email@example.com with your contact details. You've sold a story, well done!
Edited at 9.20pm to say that Brenda was found within a few hours of my posting this - here's Julie P with the full story.
Sunday, 14 February 2010
I hope you'll all dig deep and buy a copy, or two. There's no more worthwhile cause.
I'm a big fan of Kate Long's books. She's brilliant at characterisation, and at portraying the complex and subtle emotions of family life. I'm half way through this one now, and I'd say it's her best one yet. Study her style - you could learn a lot. Kate will be providing a guest post for this blog in a couple of week's time, as part of her blog tour, which starts tomorrow at Sally's blog. Click here to buy the book.
Next up will be David Hough's latest:
David's a member of my weekly writing class. I've read several of his now, and he most certainly knows how to tell a good story. I'm looking forward to this one - I know once I pick it up I'll be unable to put it down again. Click here to buy it.
Last but not least, will be this one by blogging pal Tamsyn Murray:
Tam's a member of one of my online writing groups. She has a fantastic lively writing style, and as well as this teen fiction novel, she's about to publish a series for younger children, and has a picture book and second teen novel in the pipeline. Oh, and she also writes shorts for women's magazines. Oh, and she's gorgeous and can sing as well.
The woman has it all. Don't you just hate her? ;-) Click here to buy it.
Sunday, 7 February 2010
Edited 7/2/10 - Sue Houghton has added some words of wisdom re serial writing here.
Wednesday, 3 February 2010
I have to say, I think six months is the longest we should have to wait for a response. Many writers would give up after no response for 8-10 months and would assume the story was lost or that they'd missed logging the rejection. You wouldn't blame them for subbing the story elsewhere.
Come on mag editors. We try our hardest to please you at all times - in return, please try to respond within six months. Pretty pleeeease!
Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Also one of my stories has been accepted for inclusion, which I'm delighted about! I know a few other writers who had a cheery email from the organiser today. It's always lovely when you get to share pages with a mate.
Anyone else had a story accepted for the anthology?
Edited 21:30 to say the full list of stories to be included is here. There are a few more names I recognise in that lot!