Saturday 9 January 2016
The formidably talented Elaine Chiew has turned her hand from writing short fiction to editing an anthology of food fiction from around the world. She was instrumental in the shaping of my short story collection, and I was delighted when she invited me to contribute to her latest venture. There are some stunning stories here. Among my favourites are Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's tale of a woman who emigrates from India to the States to be near her son's young family, and finds her delight in feeding them backfires as they reject traditional foods. The alienation is so subtly emotionally accurate. Nikesh Shukla's stunning account of a family's grief as the children cackhandedly try to cook following their mother's death is beautiful in its accuracy and simplicity. Patrick Holland is as strong as ever, with a perfectly pitched story of a retiring porn star, suddenly out of his element when he tries to woo one of the women he has been working with, after the film wraps, by inviting her to try his home cooking. Ben Okri's perhaps the best known name, and his flash fiction fable on entitlement and hunger is chilling and direct. It stays in the mind.
It's available from Amazon here. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cooked-Up-Fiction-Around-World/dp/1780262140 You're bound to discover a new voice you want to read more from among this wonderful assortment.
And here's a link to the gracious interview Damyanti Biswas conducted with me on her blog DamyantiWrites. Her blog, packed with author and industry interviews and her own considered musings on writing, is great way to while away a wet and windy evening. She has interviewed a number of the Cooked Up contributors and their responses are a fascinating look into how differently writers approach short fiction.
Tuesday 22 February 2011
Wednesday 8 December 2010
The Hoops You Must Jump Through – an inside view of fiction awards and how to improve your chances in them
Hoop One – The First Filter reader
A talented, unpublished writer I know was recently told to enter her work for awards as her prose was ‘the sort that does well in competitions.’ She asked if such prose existed, and if so, what was distinctively competition-friendly about it? How did it differ from other good writing?
My instinct was to reply that there isn’t a single style that wins a judge’s heart: I’ve judged thousands of stories and hundreds of novels for local and national fiction competitions, and have shortlisted work I loved and work I loathed but respected or admired. But I stopped. Because however different in tone the top stories are, they do have certain stylistic traits in common that raise them to that crucial top 2%. (With a surprising consistency over the years, only about 2% of entries stand out.) This 2-part post is about what we’re looking for, why, and also why great stories can get overlooked but rarely do.
First - it helps to understand the process. You may submit your work to a competition because an author you have a keen affinity with is judge this year. It’s a shrewd move in some ways but that author may never read your work. They aren’t paid to wade through the hundreds, sometimes thousands of entries that pour in. There are lackeys for that. I was one for years and still do it sometimes to keep aware of writing trends. It’s the most insightful, rewarding and badly paid job I’ve ever had. The low paid, power-wielding First Filter Reader, not the judge, is the person to whom your story must appeal. Who takes this role? Why? And how do you make them kiss your script with relief and scrawl over it: At last – a shortlister – halle-hooplah-lujah!
FFRs aren’t the enemy, they’re your colleagues. Like any colleague, we appreciate writers who make our work easier. I’m not talking about double-spacing typescripts and numbering pages – readers of Emma’s blog aren’t fools - I know you know all that. To make a FFR happy, have a bit of insight into what we do and what we crave, and provide it. FFRs are typically paid between nothing and £2 for reading a story, between nothing and £10 for critiquing one. Usually towards the lower end of that pay scale. (I’m currently reading for a local award that works out at about 30p a story. Clearly we’re not in this for the money. )
Don’t fondly imagine your story will be read during office hours by a full-time awards assistant who has access to a well-lit office with a broad desk on which to spread out submissions. We work from home, when we’ve come home from work. Boxes of books or typescripts are biked to us by couriers, hastily signed for and stuffed on top of an already overflowing desk, on the way to our main occupations as Publishing Assistant, Literary Agent’s Assistant, Mother, Schoolboy or Sea-fisherman. Because some first filter readers are just readers. Bridport’s are. They are the staff from the Arts Centre, their friends and relations, whose first degree may be in Agriculture or they may still be studying for their A levels.
Before you toss a pen across the room in scorn at the sheer amateurish random selection of this process, consider this: FFRs are that elusive grail – keen readers. We plough through hundreds of stories for next to nothing because we love to read, because our craving to discover a new, rare voice is keener than the nose of a truffle pig. We’ve read dozens of authors every day, published and unpublished. Sheer volume trains the eye to note good syntax from the first sentence. It’s practise, not personal whim, that leads us to know if a voice stands out from the crowd. I admit without apology that I’ve read submissions in the bath, in bed, on the tube, on my kitchen step at five in the morning with three cups of coffee lined up on the floor as stamina fuel. A good story will turn the bath and coffee cold, make a reader miss her stop. In short, it does exactly what you seek when you pick up a book. It transports the FFR and makes us forget we’re reading. The fact that we’re shattered or our car broke down, our main-job boss had a go or our kids are screaming all work in your favour in a skewy way: we’re reading as real readers do – without £££ in our eyes or marketing teams on our backs. We’re reading to escape. If you can persuade us to suspend disbelief, your writing is working.
So, your award entry is probably sandwiched between a bank statement and a lost return slip for football training fees, somewhere in the first filter reader’s living room. How do you make it stand out?
A strong title and first sentence are good places to start.
I’d never drop a story because it had a dull or pretentious title, but will pull one from the pile because its title appeals, to start the reading session. So, a good title might mean your reader comes to your work fresh. What’s a good title? I’m not among those who think one-worders are cop-outs. I’m likely to pull out a story called Oranges or Catcher because those words are potent when they stand alone, but would be even more likely to pull out stories called Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit or Catcher in the Rye (had they not already been coined) because they take the potent noun and activate it. Stock titles, such as Knock Em Dead or A Real Trooper are less likely to appeal immediately because the language isn’t new. They don’t demonstrate the author is capable of manipulating language in an original way. A trite title may be a brilliant parody or counterpoint the material bulk of the story, and that would appeal once I’m immersed, but in a competition, why make a bland first impression?
Is it churlish to judge a piece of work on its first line? Not entirely. Why not make that opening a measure of your best skills? Strong caveat here: a great opening line doesn’t SHOUT, ‘LOOK AT ME!!!’ to the reader. An understated but confident opener will be better received than a throat-grabber. A great opening line demonstrates in miniature what the whole story must convey – a distinctive and engaging tone of voice.
Because the common qualities of winning fiction, regardless of style and genre, are:
1. That the writer loves and knows the English language better by far than non-writers.
2. That the writer has taken the trouble to find out how fiction works, and is overtly enthusiastic about its possibilities.
These two elements cover all areas. They allow for a traditional well-made tale or the fractured, plotless experimental piece, provided the author is excelling within that frame. And yes, enthusiasm really does make a difference. The lacklustre majority of stories could be raised up if only their writers had enough enthusiasm for their art to take out the platitudes, lazy phrasing, hackneyed plotlines and stock characters and refuel them with the originality that is born of true enthusiasm for the possibilities with a form.
Because, while only 2% of entries are very good indeed, only 2% are risible drivel. It’s the remaining 96% that has us tearing our hair out. Not the 2% handwritten-in-green-biro and Random Capitals declaring that The End is Nige (sic) but the tidy tale after tale after tale of women putting their lives back together after divorce; the warm and wholesome escapades of post-war families on church outings. These stories can be witty and well-constructed but nothing lifts them out of the ordinary and I wonder what makes their authors think these pieces will shine among the masses. I suspect they are written by people who don’t read that much and don’t analyse the little they do read, critically, hungrily, to see how an author has brought that catch to their throat, that ripple along their spine. They don’t put that work in and so possess insufficient knowledge to apply to their own writing and lift it.
The stories that rise are by authors who know what they’re doing better than most, because they’ve put the hours in. They’ve read widely and can see how their work fits within the canon and within current trends. I don’t mean it’s immodest but that it’s informed.
Next up: Empathy. The authors who come through have an emotional maturity which is shockingly lacking in that nicely turned 96%. I am often bewildered by the naivety of tone in the majority of pieces. Characters are bad’uns or dears with no complexity or contradiction. Themes of self harm, drugs and suicide are popped in to add edge to placid writing in a manner akin to tossing hot chilli sauce into rice pudding to pep it up. You don’t.
So, the stories that rise easily to the shortlist are those with an overt artfulness with language. They guide the exhausted FFR towards a quick decision. They are the easy to be around colleague, with their striking storylines, settings and characters. After 34 openings of two women reminiscing in a kitchen, one in which a child has its head against a cow’s flank will make a reader sit up. Which is why, perhaps, the stories that come through may seem at times a little flash, crammed with well-turned but superfluous metaphors or bizarre scenarios. But they still stand out from the 96%. They demonstrate vitality and promise.
A final word on behalf of the quiet story. These ones get missed at times, perhaps. I know I’ve put stories on the reject pile on many occasions because they’re the thirteenth in a row about cancer, or because someone dies at the end, and I’m so fed up of authors trotting out a death to round something off because they can’t be bothered to tackle the subtle, trickier task of exploring life. But these stories do their magic. I’ll wake at three in the morning and think: Story 984 – that language wasn’t bland, it was unobtrusive. Read it again! Or a line or a gesture persists in the memory and resurfaces as I’m buttering packed lunch sarnies. Sometimes I look back over the pile and a story will scowl up at me. Something, some animation these quiet but strong stories possess, usually demands a second reading.
So, in answer to my friend’s original question – Is there a style of writing that succeeds in awards? Does it differ from other good writing? I’d say yes. Perhaps it is a touch more what-it-is than it need be – more ornate or bonkers, edgy or driven. But this immediate energy feeds the jaded first filter reader. It is writing that rewards the reader immediately. It reassures immediately that its author cares enough about voice, story and the contrary, complex, vigorous world (whether by beginner’s luck and intuition or years of well-placed graft) that at very least they had the courtesy to engage both our hearts and our brains.
Friday 24 September 2010
Hot Kitchen Snow is having a party!
Tuesday 14 September 2010
The best birthday present I ever received changed my life. I was 23, an actress, playing Eliza in Pygmalion on tour in Italy for seven months and I’d forgotten to pack an English book to read. On the first day of the tour the other actors produced and discussed their hefty book piles. I was so embarrassed to have overlooked this essential piece of kit that I feigned indifference and spent a lot of time studying Shaw’s profuse notes that accompany the playtext.
After English degree finals the year before, I felt I couldn’t bear to glance at a line of fiction again. I enrolled on a physical theatre course in Paris (no English, no literature) then founded a performance company with friends. We devised our own work from improvisations and scoffed at the notion of setting scenes down on the page when we’d be liable to change them next night as the mood took us.
A year on, broke from the non-existent profit earned on our profit-sharing tour, the group split and I landed the Italian job. Criss-crossing from Turin to Calabria in the pre-dawn dark for a series of one-night-stands, for the first time in months I longed to take comfort in a book.
My birthday fell in a week’s break, and the company stopped off in the Etruscan hilltop town of Arezzo. At the hotel a parcel was waiting for me, the size and weight of a breeze-block. It was The World of the Short Story, a 20th Century Collection edited by Clifton Fadiman, an 850-page anthology of international short stories, sent by my parents. The postage alone was ten times the cover price of the book. The book itself was priceless.
It was ideally suited to life on tour. The vivid but truncated glimpses of other worlds were fantastically sustaining on the dull stretches of autostrada between gigs. I started with authors I already knew, Fitzgerald’s gut-wrenching Babylon Revisited and Lawrence’s pitch-perfect Odour of Chrysanthemums, but it was exhilarating to read them alongside new writers and compare styles and effects. Carver’s A Small, Good Thing left me shaken with tears in my eyes – the kind of response that three years of cold textual analysis at college had almost killed. For some time Carver coloured the world around me. The long distance lorry drivers knocking back 50% proof grappa with their espressos in service stations at five in the morning seemed to come from his pages. Colette’s unfinished final sentence in The Other Wife left me breathless with admiration at her confidence, at the power of suggestion gained by…
I became hooked on the singular energy of the form, offering up a scene which in itself is whole, deeply satisfying, and yet is like a wedge of light onto an entire world, fully realisable only in the reader’s own head.
This, for me, is the key to why the short story surpasses other literary forms. It allows the reader to complete the novel of the story in her imagination. It supplies exactly enough to set the mind winging. A novel, however engaging, comes ready assembled from someone else’s imagination. The act of reading it is inherently more passive. It may be less tidy structurally than short fiction, it may be the impressively wild and far-reaching imperfect form, but its wholeness can subdue a reader’s own imagination. I want to play a more active and reactive role in the fictive world the author has created. I want to run it on, adapt it, choose the characters’ next moves in my mind.
John Saul, in a recent issue of The Author, wrote that, “Short stories are not appropriate for small bites of time, as is often claimed; they are usually quite demanding.” I don’t agree. The amount of satisfaction gained outweighs the time invested in reading. That is their immeasurable, unique strength. It is possible to read a short story in a brief snatch of time while the baby sleeps, or the train transports you from city to suburb. Because the story is demanding it will continue to fill your field of vision, will enrich you as you walk from the station, prepare supper, hang washing, scrub floors. But it doesn’t make the same physical demands on your time as a novel does. Your hands are available for the monotonous tasks of daily life while your mind remains freed up in the world of the story.
The next tour I landed was a year and a half in Hamlet around the UK in a van with knackered suspension. I took Carver, Munro, TC Boyle and Wolff. It was possible to read a whole story on the tour bus before car-sickness kicked in, but the story would still be swirling in my mind as I crawled under the trestle stage during set-up to brace the rostra together, or tracked down the nearest laundrette to speed-wash Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s white shirts.
During inevitable bouts of unemployment I worked as a waitress. It was frustrating having to wait to be granted permission from a director or producer before being creative but it never occurred to me to write. With hindsight I see that even at college I revered the students who wrote. I could blithely lumber onto a stage, hopelessly miscast, wreck a show and claim loftily that the process not the product was what mattered. But attempt to put words on a page and risk failing? No way. I thought the written word had to appear ready-perfect, dictated from above.
In rep at Northern Stage, something remarkable happened. We were working on an English translation of a modern Russian play, Stars in the Morning Sky, and our director asked Lev Dodin of the Maly Theatre St Petersburg, who had directed it originally, to spend a fortnight rehearsing with us. He was so charismatic that every single cast member turned up for work one day, sat around for three hours, ran some scenes and lines whilst waiting for him to show up, before realising it was Sunday, our day off. Lev asked us to write the stories of how our characters had made their way to the disused barracks where the play was set. The other actors moaned. Some refused. I was baffled. It seemed the most joyous instruction anyone could set. No one had given me permission to write a story since junior school. I worked hard on the story and afterwards Lev complimented me on it. When that show was over I returned to London and made the decision to stop touring long enough to enrol in a writing class.
I wrote short stories. They had modest success. All those hours of scrutinising every last comma to work out how my favourite authors achieved what they did had paid off. But everyone I knew in and outside the literary profession said I should be writing a novel. Short stories don’t sell. So I did. I spent five years dragging my heels over an unreadably bad novel. It was slog and duty. Short stories would pop into my head like friends suggesting enticing sprees. Most of the time I shunned them, too busy nursing their ailing relative, but once or twice I truanted and the relief was immeasurable. In time, I had two unreadably bad novels in box files gathering dust, reinforcing my growing belief I couldn’t write. They were certainly in no fit state to submit to an agent or publisher. And what good is a writer who hasn’t even submitted one full-length script after beavering away for the best part of ten years?
I logged onto an internet writing forum and whinged about the difficulty making the transition from short to long fiction. Several authors consoled me – yes it is tough but necessary. Then one, the women’s magazine fiction writer, Geri Ryan, popped up and said, 'Why are you bothering? If you like short fiction, write it. Submit it. Hunt for a publisher.' It took her comments to help me realise I had hundreds of pages of short stories. And nothing to lose.
With hindsight it seems embarrassingly passive to have needed another external push before pursuing my ambition, but the framework isn’t there for short story writers as it is for novelists and poets. Poets expect to self-publish pamphlets and sell them at reading and performances. Novelists expect to perfect their first three chapters and a synopsis then send them out and play that waiting game, not unlike the one actors play, for an agent and publisher to give them permission to succeed. What do we do? Submit to competitions, post stories for free online? There’s no career rubric for short fiction writers in the UK.
Nevertheless I sent a collection to three American publishers, one of whom asked me for a collection of flash fiction as these were too long. Two turned it down flat. I also submitted to Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize for a debut collection with the mulish attitude that I was pouring the £18 reading fee down the drain as the chances were so slim. Almost a year later I went to bed one evening at eight o’clock as I’d been up throughout the previous night caring for my ill son. Next morning there were seventy emails in my inbox most of which said ‘Congratulations!’ in the title line and I hadn’t a clue what for. Salt had posted their Scott Prize winners online and I was one. With the prize came simultaneous publication in the UK, USA and Australia. The book comes out this November. It’s called Hot Kitchen Snow.
I wanted to write about this experience from first love to publication as an opening blog, because I'm presuming visitors to this blog are also keen readers or writers of short fiction and at times the converted are owed a sermon. We are among the minority who love, buy, read and write short fiction. Sometimes that obsession feels like pursuit of a loony branch of faith when everyone else is orthodox. But if your first literary love is the short story form, if that’s what you read and write by choice, consider sticking at it. If the novel just doesn’t beguile you, why write one out of duty? There are thousand upon thousand of novel-in-my-blood authors out there hankering for publication, and if you’re not one of them, why join that hungry queue? The form we practise, read, love, deserves to be put first. If we take it seriously, rather than dismiss it as a minor flirtation before setting our sights on its more successful brother, then perhaps we can help to re-establish its importance.
My mother, who posted that brick of a book to Italy all those years ago, came to visit recently, picked up a book of short fiction I’d recommended, (Kyle Minor’s brilliant In The Devil’s Territory sent from America) and stroked it. ‘Short stories were highly regarded when I was young,’ she said with such affection for a book she’d not yet read. ‘It’s high time they had a renaissance.’
Hot Kitchen Snow by Susannah Rickards is out now. You can order it direct from this blog, FREE P&P.