This time, short stories – for the Sixth International Hysteria Writing Competition, that means a story with the very loose theme “things of interest to women.” Oh, and a maximum of two thousand words.
There is nothing like a dame, as the song goes, so I bring you a real dame of literature, and six other acclaimed, award-winning class acts who write and judge short stories. Big thanks to our eight short story collaborators this year; the stellar Danielle McLaughlin, Alison Moore, Dame Fiona Kidman, Kirsty Logan, Tania Hershman, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin and Sinead Gleeson for generously donating their time and pointers this year.
Reading other people’s work can really inspire and boost your own writing, so there’s also links to these fine collaborators, and sometimes, their stories, so you can find out more about their work.
Plus, to get you going, there’s Let The Reader Do The Work – a story generator from creative writing tutor, Mary-Jane Holmes, the Chief Editor at Fish Publishing Ireland. Speaking of Fish, you’ll find another story generator from Kathy Fish along with tips from five other leading flash fiction writers in the flash fiction post last month.
So, here’s what my cyberkuia (wise women online) around the world had to say about short stories…
My pointers are extracted from a longer article https://www.writing.ie/resources/writing-wining-short-stories/
One of the keys to entering – and winning – short story competitions is taking your time to find out who the judges are, finding out what they write, and looking at previous competition winners’ work, to see if there is a theme to the type of stories that win. What are the key qualities of a great short story? A short story:
- Gets off to a fast start – with a catchy first paragraph, ‘the hook’ that draws the reader straight into the action. A line of dialogue can be a great way to bring us straight into the story with a bang.
- Has a limited number of characters and scenes – sometimes as few as one character in one scene. Short stories are like photographs of an event or episode, and sometimes one character can tell us all we need to know.
- Short stories always start just as the action begins – and as close to the conclusion as possible.
- Often deals with one problem or situation – you are not writing a novel, you are showing the reader a scene or series of scenes, in which an event takes place that changes the central character.
- Only uses the detail necessary for understanding the situation – great passages of description are for your novel.
- Usually covers a short time period.
- Has a clear theme. What is the story about? The theme is the message underlying the story – the message behind the words. Give your story a strong theme and it will have more resonance in the minds of your readers.
- In a short story, every word counts and must be made to work for you. Go over and over your story, refining every sentence as if you are making gravy – reduce and reduce until the flavours are rich, intense, and memorable.
- Remember the last line of a short story carries as much weight as the first line.
- Think about your title. Use it to add depth and import to your story.
The skill in short story writing comes in crafting the words on the page and making sure all the points on your check list are covered:
- Description. Show your reader what your characters look like – paint them a picture, but keep it to pertinent, succinct detail. Show the reader what kind of person your character is through their actions. How do they make a cup of coffee? How do they pack when they’re going away on holiday? Use action to inform the reader.
- Dialogue. Let your reader get to know your character through their dialogue. Important plot details must be worked in, rather announced just because you are short of space. This example was inspired by the hit CSI show: Police Officer (supposedly a forensics expert, but not one who has thought to don his white overall): ‘Look at the footprints leading from the window to the car – he must have gone this way’ Argh!
- Ensure too that characters do not tell each other something they must already know for the benefit of the reader. This is unnatural and will jar the reader out of your story.
- Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s head, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.
One of the most important things to remember about entering short story competitions – and in fact any writing competition – is to follow the guidelines. It sounds obvious, but if the organisers want 1000 words, don’t go one word over. If they want it double spaced in hard copy with your details on a separate sheet, don’t email everything in one document. If they DO want it in one document by email, don’t send four attachments! What could be a winning story may not even be read if the competition guidelines aren’t followed to the letter.
And, don’t forget to NUMBER your PAGES!
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin is the founder of Writing and The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy. Ireland’s leading literary scout, she has assisted many award-winning and best-selling authors to publication, and judged many short story competitions, including the inaugural Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Vanessa writes crime as Sam Blake – her debut novel Little Bones is an Irish Times and Sunday Times bestseller.
Happy to help! Here’s my three pointers…
- Use all the senses. Descriptions are usually based on sight and sound, but smell, taste and touch can be far more vivid. The sugary pop of sherbet, the texture of wet sand, the cloying smell of rapeseed: these sorts of details will help your reader to inhabit the world of the story. Pick a few and sprinkle them through your writing.
- Don’t describe what can be assumed. We know that the sky is blue and grass is green, so there’s no need to mention it. But if something is unlike what we’d expect, that makes it significant and worth describing. For example, a green lawn is unremarkable, but a yellowing lawn tells us a lot about the weather and the personality of the house’s occupants.
- Let the reader inhabit the location. Rather than making dispassionate statements like “it was cold”, mention how the setting affects the characters. How does extreme cold – or extreme heat – affect your body? Uncontrollable shivering, the burn of freezing air in your nostrils, numbing fingers: these details will make the story feel real.
She has three books in print: one novel and two short story collections. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in print and online, translated into Japanese and Spanish, recorded for radio and podcasts, exhibited in galleries, and distributed from a vintage Wurlitzer cigarette machine. Kirsty regularly performs at events and festivals throughout the UK and Europe. Her fourth book, The Gloaming, will be published by Harvill Secker in 2018. It’s a queer mermaid love story set on a remote island that slowly turns its inhabitants to stone. She’s currently writing a collection of horror stories called The Night Tender.
My three tips for short stories…
- Seize your reader from the opening sentence. It doesn’t have to be flashy or overly dramatic but it needs to alert the reader that something unusual is going to happen, whether it is through the actions of a character, or an event.
- Short stories have their own internal rhythm and pace that is different from a novel. The best stories tend to focus on a small number of characters, and cover a fairly short time span. The intensity of a poem comes to mind, inviting the same exactness of language.
- Don’t worry about tying everything up in a neat little parcel at the end. The classic O.Henry stories of the early 20th century were wonderful in their way, but they set a fashion for resolving the narrative in a closed off way, with a beginning, a middle and an ‘end point’. Readers may be equally satisfied if the story is left open enough for the magination to interpret what has gone before, and to see the character (or characters) going on with life after the story has ended on the page.
Fiona Kidman lives in Wellington, New Zealand and has written more than thirty books, including include novels, short stories, poems and plays. Her UK publisher, Aardvark/Gallic Books, released her novel The Infinite Air, based on the life of the 1930s aviatrix Jean Batten in 2016, and Songs from the Violet Café in 2016. Her new novel All Day at the Movies won the 2016 New Zealand Heritage Prize for Fiction. Fiona has been awarded an OBE for services to literature, and is a Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Here you go…
- Surprise the judges – give them a character, setting or ending they weren’t expecting. When reading through a large volume of entries, it’s always the most unusual work that catches my eye. This doesn’t have to be talking unicorns – just something that no one else is doing (you’ll have to figure out that part yourself).
- Think about the language. You can have the most ordinary setting, or a story where not much happens, but if it’s told in a unique, lyrical or pithy way, it’ll make a judge want to read it again. Writer Patrick deWitt says, “you need two things to be a writer: economy and musicality – if you have those, it doesn’t really matter what you write about”.
- Endings – avoid the obvious. It’s ok if it’s neat, but not if it’s cliched. There’s so much room to be ambiguous in a short story, to leave the reader guessing what happened before and after the 10 pages of your story. Exploit that ambiguity.
Sinéad Gleeson’s essays have appeared in Granta, Banshee, Winter Papers, Gorse and Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons. Her short story ‘Counting Bridges’ was longlisted at the 2016 Irish Book Awards. In 2015, she edited The Long Gaze Back: an Anthology of Irish Women Writers, which won Best Irish Published Book at the 2015 Irish Book Awards, and in 2016, The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, which won in the same category. She is current working on a collection of non-fiction, which made the final eight (of 885 entries) of the 2016 Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award. She presents The Book Show on RTE Radio 1.
- The story title is very important, especially for a judge is with a huge pile of submissions, so make it work hard!
- Are you telling the reader everything you know about your characters – or only what the reader needs to know? In short stories, you can leave a lot unsaid.
- Where you start the story has a resonance with the ending of the story – what does your ending say to your beginning?
Tania Hershman curates ShortStops and her new venture, Amfibius, is an online hub for all the spaces where sciences and the arts meet. She is the founder of The Short Review, an online journal dedicated to reviewing short story collections and anthologies and showcasing short story authors, though no longer involved in its activities.
Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and contains flash fiction and short stories inspired by science. Her second story collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, was published in May 2012 by Tangent Books and contains fifty six very short fictions. Her first book of poetry, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open, won 2nd prize in the Fool For Poetry chapbook contest and was published by Southword Editions in Feb 2016.
She co-authored Writing Short Stories: A Writers & Artists Companion (Bloomsbury, Dec 2014) with Courttia Newland, and co-edited, with Pippa Goldschmidt, an anthology of short stories inspired by the 100th birthday of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, I Am Because You Are.
She has two new books coming out in mid-2017 – Terms & Conditions, her debut poetry collection, from Nine Arches Press, and Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, her third short story collection, from Unthank Books.
You can read one of Tania’s short stories here < http://www.walesartsreview.org/flash-fiction-month-fire-and-granite-by-tania-horseman/.
I’m delighted to help – here’s my three pointers…
- Specifics, specifics, specifics. Lives are not lived in generalities. Re-read your story, looking for opportunities to move from the general to the specific. I like the writing tip given by Flaubert to Maupassant: ‘By a single word make me see wherein one cab horse differs from fifty others before or behind it.’
- The first page of your story shouldn’t read like a warming-up exercise. A short story needs to hit the ground running, right from the title.
- I like stories where something happens. When you get to the end of your story, ask yourself: has something happened? If the answer is ‘no’, then go back and make something happen.
Danielle O’Laughlin’s stories have appeared in various journals, newspapers and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Irish Times, Southword, The Penny Dreadful, Long Story Short The Stinging Fly. They have also appeared in various anthologies, such as the Bristol Prize Anthology, the Fish Anthology and the 2014 Davy Byrnes Anthology, and have been broadcast on RTE Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4. She has won various awards for her short fiction, including the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition, the From the Well Short Story Competition, The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize, The Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy, and the Dromineer Literary Festival Short Story Competition. Danielle was awarded an Arts Council Bursary in 2013.
Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs On Other Planets, was published in Ireland in 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press and in the UK and US in 2016 by John Murray and Random House. The collection was shortlisted for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards 2015 in the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year category and won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection 2016.
Listen to Danielle’s story, The Beating of Tiny Wings.
My three short story tips/observations:
- When I begin a new story, I have some sense of what it is I’m going to explore, but by keeping the reins loose and letting myself be guided, perhaps steered off the path I thought I was going to go down, I might end up in territory I had no idea was there when I first sat down. Being surprised and unsettled by your own story is one of the greatest pleasures of writing, and that frisson can be felt by the reader.
- Help your reader to inhabit the world of your story. If we imagine a room, the reader doesn’t need to know the exact layout and dimensions of everything, but help them to know that room in some way – if I say that an inherited wardrobe is overwhelming in a small bedroom, it causes a physiological response in me.
- Edit very carefully. When a story feels finished, put it away for a while and then read it through with a fresh eye. Read it aloud. Find those typos and clunky and unclear bits and sort them out.
Alison Moore’s first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. Her most recent novel is Death and the Seaside. Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories, whose title story won a novella prize. Her first book for children (aged seven and over), Sunny and the Ghosts, will be published in 2018.
Of course, to let the reader do the work, the writer has to…ahem…do some work herself.
So, dear Reader, more than eighteen pointers from our collaborators to help you develop and hone your short stories. And, remember that there’s no limit on the number of your entries or the number of genres you enter. Have fun, play in the wordy sandpit – we’d love to see your two thousand words in our short story category before August 31 2017 here at the Hysteria Writing Competition.