Friday, May 22, 2009

Thinking about short stories ... again

May is Short Story Month over on the excellent Emerging Writers Network. Well, it's been going for several weeks obviously since, er, the 1st May, but well worth a catch up for some great recommendations, blogs and thoughts.

Anyway I thought I'd add my own views before May runs away with me, particularly as I had the chance earlier this year to work my way through a seriously huge pile of short stories as the judge for The New Writer Magazine short story competition. I can't wait for the stories to be published to hear what others think of my choices, but I'm convinced the right ones won. I said right from the beginning that I was looking for stories with personality - hard to describe but easy to spot. Here are some general comments I'd make about ALL the stories I read for the competition ...

What surprised me was how many of the stories …

* were in first person. There's nothing wrong with this, I think short stories lend themselves to that first-person-almost-whisper-like-feel in your ear but it did become predictable after a while.

* were about friendships rather than romantic entanglements. In fact, there were so many that I started to wonder what was happening out there in the zeitgeist.

* didn’t contain any contemporary references for the period they were set in. In my view, good writing is all about detail, so slip in what music is playing, what news stories are around, who are the heart throbs. The advantage this has in making your story effortlessly real is outweighed by any worry about the piece feeling dated.

* were of claustrophobic worlds (which I liked a lot btw!)

* had great first paragraphs but then fizzled a little in the middle. I was left feeling the writer had a wonderful idea but either got bored or didn't have the stamina to finish it. How many times can it be said that a successful writer is someone who slogs, rewrites, slogs and rewrites some more.

* didn’t contain humour. I got to LONG for some humour, just a small joke would have done me nicely

* came alive with the addition of concrete details - not just period details as above but specifics. What colour handbag, what flower in particular?

* and what a difference using the senses makes. Several times I went back to see what made a particular paragraph so satisfying and it would be a particular smell, or a sound, or how something felt to touch. It takes the reader onto a different level.

* repaid re-reading. And even more the third re-read. But I was judging a competition so I had some responsibility. It did get me thinking whether we always have that luxury as writers. Sometimes it's better to make things simple. Not write simple stories though, that's a different thing. I'd never call Carver's stories simple, for instance, but they are easy to read first time. And second, and third.

* followed a conventional structure – nothing wrong with this, but I would have liked to have seen more risk-taking, and definitely more playing. Too many stories were just too unambitious in the end - both in content and structure. I started to wonder if the writer really cared about what they were writing about, whether they were passionate, whether they were daring to be authentic.

And with the stories that won, these are the three general points I would make:

* The structure the writer used fitted the theme, so it added another layer rather than feeling forced or gimmicky.

* Characters were real and believable, but always stayed on the right side of the stereotype.

* I cared about what was happening - the authors had picked brave, meaningful themes. By this I don't mean war or the end of the world, but there was something at stake that mattered within the worlds they had created.

This is what I said in general about all the stories on my final list:
They were sympathetic, clever, optimistic, heartbreaking. They had the thing I was looking for which was personality. The best ones took me somewhere surprising, the writers kept the tension, the characters were ones I cared about. Nearly all were about human emotions – complicated, messy, spilling over the page. A short story knows just how an object can change our lives, a look can change our lives, what we don’t say can change our lives as much as what we do say. These stories were all about those moments of change. It has been a privilege to enter so many different worlds.


Kathryn said...

Thanks for that, Sarah. Each time I enter a competition in the future, I will re-read this posting!

Sarah Salway said...

And I'll keep my fingers crossed for you, Kathryn. THere's also the golden rule - got to be in it, to win it!

jem said...

Some great advice here, relevant to all writing I think, not just short stories.

I especially liked your comment about messy emotions spilling over the page.

I'm still grappling with reading the short story form, let alone writing it. I've found very few that leave me truly satisfied, but I'm going to keep searching.

Interesting to see you mention using structure - I like novels with different structure, but assumed that short stories didn't allow for that, will have to re-think that. And search out stories with quirky structure.

Any recommendations for short stories that use structure well?

Tania Hershman said...

This is very useful, have linked to it from my blog, thank you! Looking forward to seeing who won.