An unexpected comp opportunity came up this week. Alyson Hilborne (@ABBK1) via Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) alerted me to the Scottish Book Trust’s call for stories – only the stories had to be on the theme of ‘fog’ and no more than 50 words!
A couple of my flash fiction stories are published. Both were 300 words. It was great fun writing each, but I also learned a lot about determined and ferocious editing, economy and preciseness of word choice and the importance of a tight narrative arc.
I wrote another short non-fiction piece for a collection of first-person accounts of Brighton’s queer history*. The work was edited by poet Maria Jastrzebska (@mariajastrz) who pressed over and over for me to edit the piece when I thought it was already perfectly fine as it was. Of course, she was absolutely right, and the final published version told a story and told it well. I learned a great deal from Maria through this process which I have taken into my future work. (I take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks for Maria’s guidance and fabulous editing).
Twitter hosts stacks of micro-fiction writers and I have seen some awesomely creative stories as good as, and better than, the famous ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ story attributed to Hemingway. It seems to me that writing micro-shorts takes a focused and concise way of thinking and while I am fairly good at editing content out these days, I wasn’t sure I could write to that exacting 50 word max count.
In the end, I wrote a long list of words to describe my experience of fog, then eliminated 90% of them. The words left on my edited list evoked feelings and a context in which such feelings might be experienced. So, I ended up with a story and, it has now been submitted.
A quick google shows a range of suggestions about fiction lengths.
Editor Jodie Renner (@JodieRennerEd) has written a great blog post listing typical lengths for each type of fictional work. It can be found here
*Queer In Brighton. Edited by Maria Jaztrzebska and Anthony Luvera. New Writing South. 2014
In my last blog post ‘Writing (and not writing) in a time of Corvid-19’ I wrote about how despite the abundance of time given by lockdown I was still struggling to write. The deadline for a competition I had planned to enter for April was fast approaching, but my brain was sluggish, uninspired, floppy and dulled. Unless I could kick myself into gear somehow, I would miss the deadline.
Deadlines matter – right?
As it was only a self-imposed deadline, and there were no consequences to missing it – what did it matter? There are more important issues facing the world at the moment. Only as the deadline loomed ever closer I experienced anxiety about letting myself down. I chose my annual challenge mainly to be an actual challenge. Failing before just half of the year had gone was, even in the awareness-raising context of Maslow’s hierarchy, demoralising
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
I recently read the book ‘Choose Yourself’ by James Altucher* (Lioncrest Publishing, 2013 – 99p on kindle). One of Altchuer’s central themes is that there are ways to become ‘an idea machine’. He proposes a method for generating ideas which involves concisely making a list of 10 ways to, for example, improve an item such as a frying pan. I don’t need writing ideas because I always have lots of them, but I did need a ‘kick start’ so I wrote a list of ten potential titles.
You can’t go far wrong with a list
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
According to research, ideas are constructed by our brains mixing and melding the symbols and images that collectively make up our human/social existence. I have no idea of the parts which created my list of titles, but there are certainly some which piqued my interest. I chose one with no real idea where it was going but the title – ‘The Garden Letters’ gave me a location and place to start.
Where it went – much to my surprise – was a Victorian LGBT love story. This is so far outside my usual writing arena it ended up being great fun to write. I had lovely little forays into the Victorian era – Christmas cards, important events of a particular year, the trial of Oscar Wilde for example. The most enjoyable part of the research was into the language used in love letters of the day – the ‘rose-leaf lips’, ‘the madness of kisses’. Re-creating accurate, believable letter-dialogue which also fit the story arc was fun and engaging.
I met the deadline for the competition (by just a few hours). I do not recommend working to a deadline to this extent. I could have used the dialogue to move the story arc along more tightly and engagingly but I ran out of time.
My competition challenge is about improving my writing craft. Professional writers tell us time and again that ‘turning up and putting words down’ is the most important part of writing. That is not a new story to me or anyone but in this case, when the Corvid crisis might have allowed me some slack, list creating gave me a way to achieve a word count and story I am happy with. Hopefully, I am back on track. I have another competition entry due in ten days. Wish me luck.
*There is a very good summary of this book at Nathan Lozeron’s excellent You tube channel.
My February competition entry was a short story to the Writers and Artists competition Which this year is being judged by award-winning writer Kerry Hudson (@ThatKerryHudson). There were few requirements other than it needed to be up to 2000 words. In some ways, I cheated a bit for this submission. It was, as required, previously unpublished but it was not a new work. My submission was a story written a few months ago after an unusual idea came to me ‘out of the blue’. It is a story I enjoyed writing, and I think it has some merit, but it is quirky enough not to have a ready home. Despite coming in quite a way under the maximum word count, it felt to me that it might be a good fit with this competition. As I discuss in my first post in this blog series, I will post the story whatever the outcome once the judging has concluded.
As also planned, I began this post with the intention that it be a ‘writers process’ post about how one goes about writing a short story. I am never short of ideas for stories. I am never short of characters – almost all of my story ideas begin with characters I ‘see’ in my head. I ‘hear’ how they speak and the phrases they use long before I have any idea how their dialogue will fit into a story. I quite often have ideas for beginnings and journeys from the beginnings, but I am less confident about creating a satisfying story arc ending/conclusion. It won’t surprise any writer that I have countless unfinished, first drafts which have dissolved into nothingness in my ‘bits and pieces’ folder. They are not so much WIP’s as ‘works which deserve better’!
Like many other writers I read voraciously and through this have hopefully understood a little of what makes short stories work and why some do not grab interest. I am also well-read about writing theory. I planned today to write about the process of applying theory to create a good quality short story. However, yesterday (12 Feb 2020) on twitter, there was a lovely #writingchat hosted by Carol Bevitt (@Carol Bevitt) with lots of really useful contributions from so many writers and aspiring writers. One very well-published writer, Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) suggested in particular that writers interested in publishing for women’s magazines take a look at her blog at womanwriter.blogspot.com which features writing guidelines for magazines across the globe. A useful resource. Another writer Stephen Allsop (@StephenAllsop1) posted a link to an article on BookRiot ‘How Long is a Short Story’ by Annika Barranti Klein (@noirbettie) which I certainly found helpful. There are so many useful and accessible tips about writing short stories – and how not to – the twitter thread #writingchat is well worth a read. It nips down dry theory into actionable pointers, generously given.
Although I sadly missed being able to participate in the #writingchat a review of the thread today shows that it touched upon almost all of the points I try to address when I edit and restructure a short story. Specifically:-
Size matters! Is the story up to 5k words? Flash? Or micro fiction?
Short stories must be well told.
They must have a structure which keeps readers wanting to know what is going to happen. The structure should have highs, lows, hiccups along the way and resolution. Enable your reader to invest themselves in the story – to care about what happens (whatever genre).
Do not waffle and/or explain, or set up the story – just tell it. And then edit until it is crisp and all superfluous words, threads or exposition have been removed (yes, even your darlings – if clever turns of phrases, characters, place names etc. do not add to the story arc, remove them).
I should note here that none of these helpful points are in my head when I write my first draft and I wish I could be more disciplined about this. I get carried away by the story ideas and getting them down on paper.
I have committed to submitting one writing competition entry a month for the year, and I am guessing this will not be my last short story submission. I am committed to creating an entirely new story for my next entry and so must wait until I find the right free-to-enter comp (if anyone knows of any, please do let me know). I am aiming to choose something outside my writing experience – horror, fantasy, YA or romance, for example. Writing outside my (usual) genre(s) is a little bit scary but also quite exciting. I do get such a buzz from writing something completely new. Wish me luck!