Here’s a task for you: get five or so hardback books and look at the author photographs in the back. How many writers are smiling? How many look pensive? Which of them would influence what you think about the book? Continue reading
Lights. Over my shoulder their lights are coming, running through the trees, lamps and flaming torches. Coming for me through the trees, shouts, and hoots and laughter. It’s a game, for them. Dogs, teeth bared for blood. Running. Under the chicken house, into the nettles. Quiet!
In the morning she lures me out with food, and I let her paste the baking soda on my stings. I try to tell her about them, but my words don’t come right. She sighs at my tangled hair, my mother. Wants to keep me, but I slip away.
Tomorrow night they’ll come again.
This is a 100-word flash fiction Friday Fictioneers story inspired by the picture above, this week supplied by Dale Rogerson. Friday Fictioneers is hosted by the lovely Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to find out how it works or here to read some more stories by other writers.
“A deeply moving read, that keeps you turning pages.” Oprah.com on my second novel, Swimming Lessons. Find out more.
Snails had almost eaten the paper, but the writing on the label was my mother’s. I’d decided to tackle the sunroom last, after I’d gone through the rest of the house making piles: keep, charity, ditch. A lifetime of parental belongings. The warm smell reminded me of silent meals, my mother picking at her food, me itching to get down and play, unaware of things unsaid.
I would have thrown the jar away, except the date on the label was my birthday. Inside was a curl of baby hair, the same shade as my own.
This is a 100-word flash fiction story inspired by the photo above provided by Sarah Potter. And it’s part of the Friday Fictioneers group of writers, run by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to join in and write your own, or here to read some more.
Find out more about my latest novel, Swimming Lessons, published by Fig Tree / Penguin (UK), Tin House (US), House of Anansi (Canada), and Piper (Germany).
The flies come and go. The rain against the studio windows, the snow, and then months of sun. The mice eat the badger bristles, nibble the end of the palette-knife still in her hand. No one knocks. The dust settles, the paint on the canvasses cracks, the paint in the tubes solidifies.
Her bills are paid by standing order, her bank balance enough. The newsstand man wonders if she’s moved away, and then forgets her. The world turns. Another season, another year. Another. A pipe leaks in the apartment above. Her door is broken down.
Her paintings sell for $100,000.
This is a 100-word flash fiction story. Part of Friday Fictioneers, looked after by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. The picture this week is supplied by J. Hardy Carroll. Click here to join in, or here to read stories by other writers inspired by the same picture.
Want to know what this competition judge looks for in a short story? I’ve written a post about it here.
Last week I was invited to the awards ceremony for the Jane Austen Short Story Competition. The event also marked the opening of a Jane Austen exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre, visited by Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. I’m not much* of a royalist but it was fascinating to see how these visits work (men in suits and wearing ear-pieces patrolling the library, lots of waiting and chatting with tea and cake, forming a literary ‘horse-shoe’ so the Prince could meet us all easily).
But the real event for me was announcing Sally Tissington as the winner of the short story competition, and David Constantine announcing Ingrid Jendrzejewski as the runner-up.
Last August I was invited to be a judge of the Jane Austen Short Story Competition, along with David (a writer and poet), but it wasn’t until April this year that we got to see the longlist of 25 entries. (There were almost 300 in total from around the world.) I read the hard-copies I’d been sent many times, each re-read whittling the list down further until I had six that I liked the best. Luckily David had a similar number on his shortlist, and we crossed over with a few. We met (in a stationary cupboard, but with coffee, grapes, and biscuits) to argue our case for those stories we liked best, while understanding that we had to be willing to let some go. It was a difficult decision.
This was my first taste of being a judge and on the other side of the fence (I have won both the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines short story competition, and the Royal Academy / Pin Drop competition), and I enjoyed it so much I’ve agreed to do it again for another short story competition run by Rye Literature Festival.
While I was reading the 25, I jotted down some of the things that made me put a story on the reject pile. This is not a definitive list of what to avoid when writing a short story (even our winners may include some things that made me reject others) – it’s just some subjective observations from those I read, which might be helpful:
- Many stories were lacking enough forward motion (too much internal thought), especially at the start.
- Many stories began with an event in the future and then spooled back, resulting in a pluperfect tense (eg – she had arrived), which meant that the forward motion of the story wasn’t as strong.
- Lots spent too long on the backstory and justifying the actions of the characters. Have I mentioned forward motion?
- Some stories were too big for the word limit, which meant characters, plot and location were skimmed. (Although our runner-up breaks this ‘rule’ to great effect.) Covering a lifetime in 2000 words is tricky to pull off well.
- Nearly all the stories had a cliché or two (or a few more).
- Sometimes the characters didn’t feel real. (This also comes back to avoiding clichés.) Real people have quirks, and ticks, and odd thoughts and mannerisms. I wanted to see these.
- Too many stories had too many typos.
- There were quite a few exclamation marks. And adverbs.
- The majority of the stories were written in the first person. (Third person will open up more possibilities.) But if the writer had decided first person was best, it was those with a really strong narrative voice that worked well for me.
- Many stories didn’t have a powerful enough opening. They lacked the ‘story questions’ I was looking for. I wanted to be intrigued, beguiled, puzzled and above all to have to read on.
- Some endings were lacklustre. I wasn’t looking for things to be tied up neatly, but I wanted some logic and satisfaction.
- A few stories started in the middle of a scene or with dialogue, and this is difficult to get right. It made me think, ‘who are these people, where are they, what’s their relationship?’ rather than paying attention to what was being said.
- And finally – this didn’t make me discard a story but it did niggle – even if the competition didn’t specify layout requirements I saw too many stories with a confusing layout. I would have liked: double-spaced, no extra gaps between paragraphs unless it’s a change of scene, Courier, 12 point, first lines indented unless they were the very beginning or the start of a new section, etc.
Both the winning story, and the runner-up are available to read online here.
I hope this post has been helpful if you write short stories and enter competitions. Do let me know in the comments below.
(*Not a royalist at all in fact.)
It was Sylvie’s idea. She sorted the date, the diner, booked the motel; she sent the emails. They’d met twice before – at the hen do and the wedding, but that was years ago. When they’d almost arrived – all three women driving from different directions – Sylvie texted that she couldn’t make it, some family emergency.
At first there was awkward conversation about their journeys, the weather and the cherry pie. They ordered cocktails, wine, they laughed and swapped stories, mostly about their mutual friend; went to bed late. They arranged to meet again. None of them invited Sylvie.
It’s been a very long time since I last wrote and published a Friday Fictioneers flash fiction piece. I’ve been writing my third novel (hopefully more news on that in the coming weeks). Novels allow a lot of wriggle room, so it’s lovely to be back and being forced to write so tightly. If anyone wants to join in with their own 100-word story inspired by the picture above, click here. Or if you’d like to read some others visit this page. Picture supplied by Roger Bultot.
Tonight I’ll be in Ealing (West London) at The Pitshanger Bookshop talking about my second novel, Swimming Lessons. And on Saturday I’ll be at the Wimborne (Dorset) literary festival. Do come if you live nearby. More information here.
This is a video that I produced for the US launch of Swimming Lessons, which I forgot to put up here when the book came out. My daughter helped with the animation, and my son wrote and performed the music. He is available for commissions for videos or short films, and also for bookings for launches, openings, private views and other events (he’s based in Oxford, but can travel). Henry’s website.
Watch another drawing video I created for Swimming Lessons.
Watch a drawing video I created for Our Endless Numbered Days.
The prize is some earl grey tea (my favourite), biscuits (or cookies to all you Americans), book club questions, signed book plates, and a Skype call with me when your group meets to discuss the book.
I have been busy doing events and signing copies of my second novel, Swimming Lessons. There are signed books in New York, and Philadelphia, and many in bookshops in the UK. One of the themes of the novel is the things that people leave behind in books, and so in the books I’ve been signing I’ve also inserted a piece of ephemera – a receipt, an old letter, a photograph. My friend, Bridget said it would be nice to have a place where I can show some of the things that readers find. So, here is that page. Continue reading
Bupestris Beetle specimen in Hunterian Museum, London. March 2017