What a judge looks for in a short story

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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 Ingrid HCT_RV_009story 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) IMG_5675to 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.)

Swimming Lessons Animation

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.

Ephemera

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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

Publishing Interviews: The Publicist

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This is the last in my series of publishing interviews. I’ve discovered so many things about how this world works including answers from a publishing director, to an art director to a literary agent, and many roles in between. And of course there are a lot more people who help get a book written, published and on the shelves that I haven’t managed to talk to: booksellers, writing course teachers, sales reps, editorial assistants, and many more. But I need to take a break because I have lots of Swimming Lessons events coming up; if there are any roles in particular you would like me to interview, just drop me a line, or comment below, and I’ll store up the suggestions for later in the year.

Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Copy-editor

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I’m a little nervous about today’s publishing interview; what if there are any mistakes? An unwanted comma, a typo? This interview is with my copy-editor, Caroline Pretty. Penguin and other publishers use her to check manuscripts before they go to print, and I asked her a few questions about exactly how that works.

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Claire: How would you describe the role of a copy-editor?

Caroline: Once a manuscript’s been typeset, it’s expensive for publishers to correct mistakes, so the main focus of my job is a close reading of the manuscript before it gets typeset. I’m editing primarily for sense and consistency. Sense is about making sure the author has conveyed what they intend, without repetition or ambiguity (unless this is deliberate). Consistency involves checking spellings and punctuation, following a publisher’s house style or an author’s preferred style; in fiction, it also includes checking plots for any holes, making sure the action can realistically take place in the time the author has outlined, and character details such as names, ages and eye colour. There’s often a lot of fact-checking too, and I also mark up the typescript for the typesetter – coding headings and different design features. So it’s very much a technical process as well as a creative one.

Claire: What’s your copy-editing process from when you receive a book from a publisher, and do you work on paper or onscreen? Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: Head of Sales

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This week I’ve been asking questions of Samantha Fanaken, Head of Sales at Penguin General. Penguin General is a publishing division of Penguin Random House, dealing with the imprints Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Ireland, Penguin Life, Portfolio and Viking. Read on to find out how many meetings Samantha has to cram into a day, and whether she reads all the books.

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Claire: It seems to me that Head of Sales in a publishing house sits right in the middle of things: talking to editors, marketing and booksellers. Is that how you see it? Can you give a job description of your role? Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Translator

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I’m lucky enough to have had my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, translated into eight languages, with a few more on the way. Swimming Lessons, my second novel, has so far only been translated into German for the publisher, Piper, by Susanne Hoebel, and she has agreed to answer my questions about what it’s like to be a translator of fiction.

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Claire: Hello Susanne. How did you come to be a translator of fiction?

Susanne: It′s what I always wanted to be. (Short of becoming a writer, of course.) French was my first choice, and I remember when still at school trying to translate the opening sentence of L′Etranger by Albert Camus and getting stuck immediately.

Claire: This may be a naïve question, but you only translate from English into German and not the other way around. Why not?

Susanne: This was a hard truth for me to learn: Translators of fiction only translate into their mother tongue. (Translators of technical or legal texts or conference interpreters go both ways, they also  often have more than one foreign language). It turned out alright for me because as a student of English literature I was interested in translating works of English language fiction.  But it meant I couldn′t continue living in England as intended while trying to establish myself with publishers and trying to find translation work.

Claire: When you’ve been given a book to translate by a publisher, what’s your process, and how long does it generally take?

Susanne: Publishers have quite a rigid timetable and assign a translation with a deadline. Usually I have four to five months for a project, and usually that is sufficient.

The process is quite mundane. I start at the beginning and translate every sentence and continue until I have reached the end. I don’t read the book beforehand, as I will be reading it four times at least before I am done with it. I do a first translation that gives me a good idea of what the book is about and what difficulties and tricky aspects there are. I then revise it bearing everything I have learnt about the book in
mind. Choice of vocabulary, tone, register, etc. Quotations, repetitions, place names.
I use real dictionaries, but most other research for which I used to have an encyclopaedia and go to the library, I now do on the internet, although I have books about plants, a technical dictionary, a pictorial dictionary in both English and German and various other reference books which I love. To get a better feel of a word I often use the ODE (a short version of the OED), and with an idea of what the German should be I use a German
thesaurus.Once the revision is done – which can take as long as the initial
translation – I read the whole text again.

The fourth reading comes later when I get the proofs. My last chance to
make changes, so I always take that stage very seriously.

Claire: What type of person do you think makes the best translator?

Susanne: Someone who loves books. Who loves language, both the language and culture of the original work and their own language. Who has the self-discipline to organise their working day and doesn′t get distracted easily. Who has perseverance and stamina. Who can sit down and write day after day (you don′t have to wait for inspiration, it′s all there on the page). Who is interested in details and niceties and never tires of caring for them. Who likes working in solitude and doesn′t miss the camaraderie of the office. Who doesn′t mind disappearing behind or in the original work. Also someone who doesn′t mind not earning a lot of money.

Claire: What is the hardest thing about translating from English into German? Have you come across anything that you would say was untranslatable?

Susanne: There is something untranslatable practically every day. I consider the art of translation as an approximation. Similar to communication, really. Take a word like “lunch″. There are many connotations, not one of which is conveyed if you translate it as ″Mittagessen″, which has a myriad of connotations of its own. Or consider the ambiguity of this sentence: “Flying planes can be dangerous.″ You need two sentences in German to render this. Okay, so you can translate both meanings, but the highly satisfying cleverness of the sentence structure is lost. Hence it is untranslatable.

Claire: What are you trying to achieve when you translate a book?

Susanne: I want the book to be as good a read in translation as it is in the original. Ideally I want the reader not to think of the fact that it is translation. (Most people don′t anyway.) I want the German to shine and be completely idiomatic. I don′t want the original to shimmer through.

Claire: You’ve translated over 80 novels, including books by Nadine Gordimer, John Updike, and William Faulkner. Which has been your favourite to work on?

Susanne: The Novel Light in August by William Faulkner is the highpoint of my life as a8764189 translator. Not only is it the most brilliant book I know, with the most compelling language creating incredibly powerful images and scenes and several storylines that are so cleverly intertwined that the reader is often unaware of being shunted backwards and forwards by the author. It is also the book that my partner Helmut Frielinghaus and I worked on together, and we gave it our complete attention and concentration and worked on every word and every sentence until we had the desired result. It was the most joyous and fulfilling time of both our professional lives. We both loved the book and the work on it.

But there are two – in terms of world literature far less significant – books that I loved to bits when I translated them, and these are Helene Hanff′s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Letter from New York. I was enthralled by Hanff′s loving and engaging look at England, her eagerness to explore everything about it, from leaky showers to Cream Tea at the Ritz, her enchantment with what she discovers. Perhaps this is so because it echoes my own 515qtv75ecl-_sx288_bo1204203200_enduring love affair with England.

Claire: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in becoming a translator?

Susanne: This is a question have been asked by young translators, and every time I have felt moved to say, ″Make yourself a sponge.″ Meaning, soak up everything you can about the culture, the literature and language of your chosen country. Never allow your curiosity to tire, learn as much as you can about it day after day. Read the dictionary. And the literature.

Of course they should also be proficient in their own language and broaden their outlook by reading voraciously in their target language.

Claire: And this is a bit of a cheeky question – were there any particular challenges in translating Swimming Lessons, or Eine englische Ehe?

Susanne: I loved Swimming Lessons from the start, although it has something decidedly weird about it. What fascinated me was the elliptical nature of dialogues and descriptions and the brevity and succinctness with which you render scenes and characters.produkt-13255 I liked the peculiarly hovering language that rarely tells the reader what anything is and leaves everything to conjecture and interpretation leading to different readings of the story.

Sometimes I feel it is sufficient to translate faithfully what is there on the page. At other times I feel I want to creep inside the text and translate form the inside out. The result may not be that different, but obviously with the second approach you employ more empathy, and I felt that it was the best approach for your book.

Claire: Finally can you tell us anything about yourself and your job that would surprise readers?

Susanne: I still love my work and feel lucky every morning when I sit down to work.

I am incredibly grateful when an editor rings up and offers me a new project.

I am glad I am not a writer (despite of what I said at the start, but that was when I was very young) and glad that somebody else has worked out the plot and the action and is in charge of the characters.

I sometimes feel I have stolen the author′s book, because there it is, his or her book, but they haven′t written a single word in it, nor do they understand what is written.

I love being a translator although I often have doubts that translation is really possible or even exists.

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Read my interview with a reader in a literary agency
Read my interview with a literary agent
Read my interview with a Publishing Director at Fig Tree / Penguin
Read my interview with an Art Director at Tin House
Read my interview with a Foreign Rights Agent in a literary agency
Read my interview with an Editor at Tin House

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Swimming Lessons

My second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in January 2017 in the UK, and Canada, and February 2017 in the USA. Click on the country links to pre-order.