Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Featured on Thresholds

I entered a feature competition run by Thresholds short story blog last year, not expecting anything to happen. It was an exercise to see if I could write an engaging piece about a writer's work. I knew I wouldn't win and, indeed, I didn't make the longlist. But I got an email from the editor saying that she would like to publish my feature on Thresholds. It appeared today: Subtle Brilliance.

It discusses The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and how it has influenced my own writing. Not only is it one of my favourite short stories, but it lingers in my mind in a way that no other story does. I used to think it lingered merely because of its content and Jackson's writing skill, but I came to realise it also had a lot of writing lessons to impart to me.

The main lesson, which I touch upon in the Thresholds piece, is that I tend to psychoanalyse my characters and explain my story. I need to learn to trust the reader to make the connections. As I was reminded in Writing Short Stories , which I discussed in the post I wrote last week, short story readers are intelligent and insightful. They don't need to have their hand held. By not trusting my readers, I'm not trusting my writing.

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year, Fresh Inspiration

The less said about the end of last year, the better; suffice to say that I'm glad 2014 is over. I started 2015 on a positive note, partly thanks to a fabulous new book, Writing Short Stories by Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman. It has helped me to rekindle my passion for short stories - both reading and writing them.

I was excited when I first learnt that Tania Hershman was working on a book about short stories, because her first collection, The White Road, opened my eyes to new possibilities. It included short-short stories or flash fiction, which I had never read before, and the stories were all inspired by New Scientist articles. I became a fan straight away and was similarly impressed by Tania's next collection, My Mother Was an Upright Piano. I had high expectations, despite not being familiar with Courttia Newland's work, and Writing Short Stories surpassed them.

The best thing about the book is its focus on individualism. Some 'how to write' books are very prescriptive and try to persuade writers to follow certain formulae or guidelines. This may be helpful if your goal is to get a grounding in writing commercial fiction, but I'm interested in stories that simply aren't found in women's magazines. I don't mean this as a criticism to those stories - on the contrary, I wish I could write them well since the financial reward is greater than that received for being published in literary journals - they just aren't for me. Writing Short Stories encourages writers to experiment and push boundaries. It teaches us to tread our own path.

It also teaches us how to do this effectively: experimentation for the sake of being obscure or seeming 'high brow' is not something to aim for. Instead, it's essential to know when clarity is needed, how ambiguity can be useful and what effect any aspect of the story has on its whole. The authors of Writing Short Stories tackle every angle of, um, writing short stories. They use illuminating examples and explain everything clearly, illustrating their points with examples from their own experiences.

Writing Short Stories is a Writers' and Artists' Companion, so it follows their format of containing a generous midsection (much like myself!) stuffed full of advice from other short story writers. The advice encompasses a range of topics, from setting to paranoia and absence to epiphany. It adds richness to what was already an invaluable book.

I was writing a little more than I had been before I  read the book, but it has lifted me out of my dry spell.  I am inspired again and I hope the year ahead will be full of short story successes - both completing and publishing.