Thursday, 14 February 2013

A new writing club from the Daily Telegraph

Have you discovered the Daily Telegraph’s Short Story Club? After decades (and decades) of neglect  and positive dislike, readers are returning to the short story. The Costa Prize has inaugurated a short story prize (see my previous post), and there is a further raft of competitions that offer prize winnings that should attract writers of note, as well as hopefuls – because a surprising number of our favourite novelists write short stories; they seem to almost do it ‘on the quiet. Recently I’ve enjoyed stories by Deborah Levy, Rose Tremain, Ian McEwan Kate Atkinson, Joanna Harris, M.J Hyland and Jane Gardam. 

 Isobelle Carmody, the Australian author who writes both novels and short stories says, The short story form allows evocation, suggestion, implication. Its potency often lies in what it does not say.
I think she’s hit at least one of the nails on the head with this remark. A short story cannot, and should not do the same things as a novel. It should not lay out, expand, explore widely, or tell everything. It should hint and suggest, implicate and haunt. Even shorter than Carmody's, V.S. Pritchett’s definition is perfect...something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing. Maybe, finally, the British reading public have realized that a good short story can be balm for our souls as we travel on the tube through the rush hour, or grab five minutes in our lunch hour.

The Daily Telegraph website is cashing in on this sudden interest. It runs a thriving Creative Writing group where members can get feedback on their work and run their own, user-led competition, which is judged by the previous month’s winner. Now they’ve also started a Short Story Club It’s run by writer Louise Doughty and is rather a vehicle for the short story writing course she offers within the club, but her blog posts are lively, none the less. This club is also running a complicated but interesting  Short Story Club competition, which will offer the chance of publication online every month and the chance of a bit prize at the end of the year. Every week, Doughty, who says of this sudden resurgence, magically, mysteriously, short fiction, that butterfly of a literary form, is back, will set a writing task that can be incorporated into new ideas for a new story. 

I surfed to the site and enjoyed a brief moment of reading, with an abridged version of a story that appears in Diving Belles by Lucy Wood, published next week by Bloomsbury. Like me, Lucy explores magical realism in her short fiction; this story is about a woman who has been using a special cream on her eyes...which allows her to see the world of the fay. But it is cleverly told, in the 2nd person POV, by her daughter, who knowing nothing of this, uses the cream by chance. It’s a very good use of the magical and mysterious, and what it does not say is far more important than what it does say.

In the meantime, my most recent story The Illuminated Back  will be out this month. This story is also about self-discovery and an unasked-for sudden magical power, but it's settings could not be more different than Woods...I use an armomatherapy clinic and the sandy terrain of the British Army on manouevre. You can chart the progress of the anthology at

I thought I’d try one of Doughty’s exercises to see if it kick-started a new story, but her most recent suggestion takes me straight be to my my bookcase by suggesting we look at collections of short fiction and ask: what makes multi-author anthologies work?
The truth is that I find creating and polishing a short story as much hard work as most of the writing around an entire novel. The Illuminated Back took me several months to perfect; I kept going back to it, rethinking what the story was about. As Henry David Thoreau once said...Not that the story need be long but it will take a long while to make it short....

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Good, work, Guy, a straight 'A' for your homework and a nice cheque for £750 into the bargain! Guy worked with me on Writing Skills, sending marvellous stories to me at level one of the OCA degree course, which he's still pursuing. But in the meantime, he's honed one of his stories to perfection and has rightly landed himself third place in the inaugural Costa Short Story Award, alongside writers that include Chioma Okereke and Sally Vickers.

Guy Le Jeune's story, Small Town Removal is about a man who returns to his home town for the funeral of his father. This is a theme that has been written about many times before. Michael, the protagonsit opens a packet of the Tayto crisps he ate as a child, and memories flow into him. This is also a technique that has also been used more times than any of us can count. But neither of these things matter because Guy has put some simple but effective strategies into place to draw us into his deeply moving story.

Description of narrative is something the OCA course Writing Skills highlights. It recommends the writer uses all the 5 of their senses when describing...although I recommend adding a pinch of the 6th sense, too.

The first sense that Guy uses is the sensation of touch, in the form of that blistering, prickly feeling of being too hot. From this, he creates the mood he uses throughout the story. The unusual heat of a summer's day crafts a mood the reader can wallow in...

There is heat, here in this small town. A dead heat. It sulks in the valley, as
blue storms build, up beyond the grey ridge. It is the kind that clings to you
and smothers your breath...

However, describing via the senses is an extremely responsive area of writing, and it’s not good to overwhelm the reader with too much sound. The wise author knows that a little can go a long way...although he doesn't tell us to smell the brackish water, we can almost do so without his bidding ...

Down here by the canal there is no wind. Along the lane, the thick water slides
past cows stretched out on tufts of sun-shorn rushes and wet meadow. The
banks are crumbling, spilling earth into the cut. The water is sluggish out
among the fields, but closer to the town it has the pace of tides.

Guy uses the sense of taste to introduce us to the character's memories...

He sits again and pours the cider into the glass, listening to the ice creak and shatter. A wasp flits around the bottle top as Michael drinks. He opens the Tayto and he is back again in a cheese and onion childhood.

Alongside mood, describing landscape and location (often referred to in writerly terms as the milieu) helps build depth and atmosphere. 

The main street is still. No vehicles move in either direction. The shops close, blinds are drawn, the pub doors shut. People line the street. They wait together, hands crossed. Michael can smell tobacco smoke from across the road. The cigarettes are stubbed. Heads turn to face down towards the bridge.

As well as using smell in the above passage, notice also the use of hearing – that is the suggestion that everything has gone quiet. 

Guy's use of  the sense hearing continues to build tension into the story. From the start, we're introduced to the sound of the weir. At this point in the story, we've moved away from the canal into the centre of town, but the sound has followed the protagonist, Michael. eating into his senses...

Michael can hear the canal weir now. It is the first time he has ever noticed the noise from the main street. It reminds him of radio static and John Joseph chasing the airwaves for dance music on Radio Éireann. Michael remembers the dials on the radio, the amber glow of the valves, his father searching up and down around the word Athlone on the backlit Bakelite.

Guy has rightly had this great story placed in a prestigious award. He's written about a common event and the sorts of memories ordinary people can identify and empathise with. But he's presented them to the reader in a heightened form that is unforgettable, using that '6th sense' I mentioned earlier – in Small Town Removal, Guy has created a personal voice that feels very intimate. This reinforces the mood and atmosphere he's already built.

All of this careful work, constructing a story word by word, has resulted in triumph. Guy says;

“I’m delighted and a little amazed to be shortlisted for the inaugural Costa Short Story Award. I only started writing seriously two years ago, so being shortlisted for such a prestigious award is extraordinary and rather humbling. ‘Small Town Removal’ was inspired by the real events of a summer’s afternoon in Ballinamore, County Leitrim, a place where I draw a lot of my ideas from. It is a area where stories and characters seem to be written into the clay of Sliabh An Iarainn. I owe a debt of gratitude to the words and genius of John McGahern, whose works brought me to Leitrim and the slopes of the Iron Mountain. The characters and location of ‘Small Town Removal’ are central to my novel in progress, entitled ‘On a Hammered Copper Hillside’.

I'm delighted too, but I'm not all that amazed.