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Our compilation of writing advice

To help you do that final shaping and editing of your short story, we’ve compiled a selection of tips from the  writers we’ve interviewed since our first competition was launched in  2012. Advice on beginnings, endings, themes, creating a stand-out story, titles and that all-important fine-editing.

Jude, March 2016

On Beginnings,Paul McVeigh says:

  • Beginnings are very important. Talking specifically from the point of view of judging competitions and reading stories in an endless feast with a view of festivals etc., I find beginnings are crucial to keep me reading. For these platforms (which I don’t think have to apply to stories in a collection), one way to get my attention is to see the first page as pulling the ring from the grenade. I will read to see if it goes off – I assume it will and cause the maximum amount of damage possible. If that grenade doesn’t go off and you’ve written an end I believe in and welcome, then I will tip my hat to you. I will also be a bit jealous.

In 2014, we interviewed Colin Barrett, winner of the Guardian First Book prize 2014  for his brilliant short story collection, Young Skins. He has more to say about beginnings-

  • Try to make something interesting happen as near to the opening as you can. Now this doesn’t have to be some showy eruption of plot or an aphoristic nugget of an opening line, though it may well be; it might just be the deployment of an unobvious adjective or unexpected detail seamed somewhere into your opening paragraphs. A nuanced little observation or moment, carefully placed. If you can get a small moment right near the start it sends a signal to the reader that you can trust me, you can keep reading. There’s nowhere to hide with short stories, if its five or ten pages long it’s got to start well, do well in the middle, and end well. No point saying it gets good half way through.

Short story writer and novelist Annemarie Neary adds this:

  • Delete that first paragraph (probably). In any case, take us right into your world before we have a chance to back out. And voice your story. Breathe it. Make sure you’ve read it aloud before submitting.

On Standing out from the crowd Vanessa Gebbie has this to say:

  • All a writer can really do is learn the craft well, then forget it, and just tell a brilliant story. It does not have to be the ‘bells and whistles’ sort – quiet will do – but write your heart out onto the page, write the story you can’t not write – and keep your fingers crossed. And if, as happened to mine many times, your stories don’t make it – roll with the punches. Writing is not an exact science. Learn to accept the knocks along the way, and never, ever give up.Having given a sermon – for this reader,  a distinctive voice combined with great characterisation makes a piece stand out fast.

Novelist and short story writer, A L Kennedy, who we interviewed in 2013, adds this

  • Just try to say something you really care about as well as possible – as if you were writing for someone you love and respect. That will help.

Novelist, short story writer and poet Gerard Woodward says:

  • Make use of the limitations the form imposes on you. You can’t get everything into a short story, so don’t try to.

Second-prize winner BSSA 2015 Dan Powell has this to say:

  • Read the very best examples of the short story you can get your hands on. Look closely at how good stories work. Then write the story only you can write. Write the story you want to read that no one else is writing. Make it a bold and unique vision which can’t help but stand out when the judges make their selections.

On themes and subject matter:

Short story writer and poet Tania Hershman has this to say:

  • When I’ve judged competitions in the past we’ve seen certain topics that tend to be popular – elderly parents with dementia is one, for example. I’m not saying avoid these, but do think about whether you have something new to say about it, a different take. I think anything can be a great story, it can be a moment in time or a whole life in a few pages. A short story competition can only be won by one person, but if the deadline has inspired you to write something new, then you’re already a winner. Being longlisted and shortlisted are huge achievements, it means your story stood out to the judges and it should give you a real boost.

On endings, acclaimed short story writer Danielle McGaughlin says this:

  • As for endings: stop in the right place. Easier said than done, I know, but a short story can be ruined if the writer insists on carrying on past the ending. “… already in that space the light begins to fade into the calm gray even light of the novelist.”That quote is from a paragraph in The Lonely Voice where Frank O’ Connor is discussing an aspect of the work of Mary Lavin, and whether or not you agree with his assessment of Lavin’s work, I think the analogy of the fading of light is a good way of explaining the loss of intensity, the loss of explosiveness, that can occur when a short story continues on further than it should.

On editing, Antony Doerr says this:

  • Reward the generosity of your reader!  Try to examine every single word in your story and ask yourself: Is it a lazy choice?  Does this adjective/article/noun/verb absolutely need to be there?  If someone is nice enough to spend a half-hour reading something you’ve written, try to make your prose absolutely worthy of his or her time.  Make the dream that unfolds inside your sentences so persuasive, seamless and compelling, that your reader won’t put it down.

And our first prize winner BSSA 2015,, Safia Moore adds this:

  • There is no such thing as too much editing – you must be prepared to constantly read your own work, re-read it, make changes every time, cut anything that adds nothing to the storyline or characterisation, tighten up dialogue and enhance your descriptions with details that sound fresh, not clichéd.

Novelist, short story writer and winner of our second prize in 2014, Kit de Waal comments:

  • If you’re entering something for a competition, work it and then pull back. By that I mean, work over every line, work the tale, work the character, work the paragraph, work the ending and beginning, work the jokes and then look at what you can edit to leave only the essence. I suppose it would be like Coco Chanel says about getting dressed. She said that you should get all dressed up and then just before you leave the house take one thing off. Less is more.

On finding the right title

Short story writer and poet, Tania Hershman has this important advice on titles:

You want your work to stand out from the beginning in the huge pile that the judge has in front of him or her, and a good title will do that better than a quirky font or odd layout (avoid those). If a judge has ten stories called “The Visit” or “The Day it All Changed”, he or she might be rather jaded by the time it comes to the 10th. But don’t make your title too interesting or creative if your story can’t live up to it – make sure it does!

And finally, we love this comment by Tessa Hadley who we interviewed in 2013 –

 A title clinches something, it crisps the story up and seals it like a top on a bottle.

Interview with Paul McVeigh

Paul McVeigh

Photo by Roelof Bakker.

We originally published Jane’s interview with Paul in March 2015 and have now updated and reposted it this year for more of you to read and learn from before submitting stories for our 2016 Award. Since our interview, Paul’s debut novel The Good Son has achieved massive success, has been translated into French and German and chosen for Brighton City Reads 2016. We’re excited that an audio book of the novel, narrated by Paul, is now available. Paul is a brilliant reader. The Good Son is also up for another award – The People’s Book Prize  so if you’ve read it and loved it, do vote for Paul. Voting ends in May. If you haven’t read the book yet, buy it, read, then vote. We guarantee you’ll  fall in love with Mickey Donnelly the ten-year old protagonist.

Jane’s updated interview

About Paul

Google Paul McVeigh and a canary shirted 1st Division footballer pops up and you think, are there no limits to this man’s talents? No it’s not the same Paul – but writer, blogger, playwright, teacher and festival director Paul McVeigh has created such a powerful presence on the literary and, especially, short story scene it seems he’s everywhere . His Twitter account @paul_mc_veigh has over 10,000 followers and his blog, which has had over 1 million hits, is one of the best sources of reference for any writer

Paul’s a Belfast boy and The Troubles in 80s Northern Ireland create a dramatic context for his debut novel The Good Son (Salt) which was published in April 2015, is now in its second edition, is currently nominated for The People’s Book Prize It was also shortlisted in The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize, 2015 Longlisted: Waverton Good Read Award.ELLE Magazine Best Books of 2015.The Irish Independent Top Reads of 2015.One of The Reading Agency Staff Picks Best of 2015.Wales Arts Review – Fiction of the Year.Number 1 Beach Read The PoolA Gransnet Best Christmas Read for 2015. Savidge Reads and Pam Reader Blogs Books of the Year

Paul’s also a playwright and co-founded the Armada Theatre Festival and Scarecrow Theatre Company. His plays have toured the UK and Ireland, been nominated for a BBC Entertainment and Media award and his comedy shows performed in London’s West End. His masterclasses on a range of subjects from writing to social media sell out and create an enthusiastic buzz on Twitter and Facebook from London to Melbourne. He ran a very successful workshop for us in Bath last autumn and entertained us, along with novelists Sarah Hilary and Rachel Heath at a wonderful evening of readings afterwards

Paul was the co-founder and Director of the highly successful London Short Story Festival, is Associate Director of short story salon The Word Factory and has had short stories published in Flash Flood Journal, New Century New Writing, Rattle Tales 2, Harrington’s Fiction Journal, Unbraiding the Short Story,The Stinging Fly and upcoming The London Magazine. Listen to his story Tickles, originally broadcast on Radio 4

Interview with Jane Riekemann,

  • You are such a presence in many areas of the literary world with your blog, masterclasses, multi-festival involvement etc. so when and how do you find the time and impetus to write? Can you jump in where you left off or do you need space for ideas and stories to develop? Do you have a routine –a special place to write? And what about journals etc.?

When I am writing I find I work on a short story in my head for a long time, sometimes years, then when I sit down to write it comes out pretty much fully formed. I tend to leave that first draft for a few months between edits. At the next stage I can nibble at time and tinker with the text. With the novel I needed long stretches. I had to read the novel from the beginning to get into the flow and be in the moment of where I’d started back. The Good Son is written in the voice of a little boy and I needed to get into character, like an actor, then I could just play. Now I can get there really easily with him. If you asked what would happen if Mickey went to the cinema, I could write a chapter in an afternoon. Such a pity you have to leave a character when they are finally alive and part of you.

I keep a journal when I travel. When I kept one in the routine of my life I found I bored myself senseless. It became like a schoolboy’s homework project. Lists of things I did that day or had to remember. When travelling, the stimulus seems to shake my brain, I become detached from my world and new connections are made. I become inspired to explore and what I find internally and externally I record.

  • Tania Hershman, in a guest post for Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, says: ‘writing has no borders, that good stories are good stories’, adding, ‘I don’t need to write “like an American” for an American reader to connect with my work…’. Any thoughts on this?

I agree. I also think the more you reduce a story, an action, an intention, down to its basic human driving force the more universal the story becomes. I haven’t read the article but there is this outside pressure when considering publication, markets and readership and it can play with your mind.

When I write, it comes from the desire to get into an emotional need or truth and I connect with that via some other place, without considering the market for the work. In fact, I think that is why I have become stuck with my writing. Having dealt with the business of getting my novel published, the compromises and the worry of ‘will anyone publish this after years of work?’ have made me shy of starting something new. This is turning into a therapy session. Do you charge?

  • What is the essence of a brilliant short story?

I’m still relatively new to short stories. I don’t feel in any position to say what that essence is. As a reader, there are certain types of story I’m more likely to connect with, that will stay with me, and others that don’t engage me. I can tell you how things work for me as a reader. I like to be moved. I like to laugh. I like to come away enriched from the experience. If I think about brilliance I think about the author’s voice. And their eyes. What is it they see? How do they turn the world on its axis so the sun hits it at a new angle and things that were in the shadows become exposed and things I thought I knew now look different? I love it when a story makes the ideas I have about the world become more three dimensional.

  • Beginnings and endings – how important are they to a short story? Does the title really matter?

Beginnings are very important. Talking specifically from the point of view of judging competitions and reading stories in an endless feast with a view of festivals etc., I find beginnings are crucial to keep me reading. For these platforms (which I don’t think have to apply to stories in a collection), one way to get my attention is to see the first page as pulling the ring from the grenade. I will read to see if it goes off – I will assume it will and cause the maximum amount of damage possible. If that grenade doesn’t go off and you’ve written an end I believe in and welcome, then I will tip my hat to you. I will also be a bit jealous.

The great Australian short story writer Cate Kennedy said to me recently that at the beginning of a short story the writer makes a promise to the reader and that promise has to be fulfilled or the reader will feel cheated. Endings can be neat but they can also be open, more symbolic, a space for the reader to take a breath so that the story is still alive afterwards and not shut down.

Titles tend to have an after-effect with me. I don’t often remember the title of a story, perhaps because I’m reading a lot. However, I think a good title enters my head subliminally, like someone hitting a tuning fork before the music begins: it sets the key, the tone. It can also resonate for a while after. With stories I love, I go back, look at the title and think about it. A title can be a Rosetta Stone, unlocking the author’s intention.

  • Word limits? How short can a short story be? Your thoughts on flash fiction, prose poetry or any of the new trends?

I have written some ‘shorter than short story’ pieces and felt they were as complete as any longer story I’ve written. So, as a writer, I say write what you want and let it finish when you/it’s done. For competitions and journals the word limits seem to be getting shorter, averaging around 3,000 (not in the USA). Around 2,000 for radio and live readings (if you want to read a complete story). As a reader I prefer around 3,000 words but will happily read more if the writing carries me.

  • Do you have any advice for new writers finding their way? The best ways to access a wider readership?

Dig deep. Ask yourself why you are writing? What do you want to say? If your foundations are strong then you’ll endure the inevitable knocks a writer can’t avoid. Social media can be useful in getting people interested in you and your work, building a readership as you grow.

  • Your debut novel The Good Son, published by Salt, was out last April, 2015. What have you been up to since?

It’s been a wild year. I’ve been to Mexico and Turkey with The British Council. I met inspiring writers and seen wonderful places. It’s been fascinating to look at wildly different cultures and see similarities, especially coming from Northern Ireland, I found deep stirrings in the history and current dilemmas these countries find themselves in. The London Short Story had an amazing second year and Word Factory continues to regularly hit that level of quality that if you look over is history, is pretty mind boggling.

The novel has kept me busy; launches, festivals, interviews, promotion… it’s a part time job. I’ve been writing some essays, tinkering with some stories and dancing around a novel.

  • Which writers have influenced and inspired you the most? And which short story collections would you take to BBC Radio 4’s desert island?

It’s hard to say who have influenced me the most. When I first fell in love with writing it was with Hemingway, Henry Miller, Carson McCullers, Anaїs Nin, James Baldwin, Tennessee Willliams, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez… I’m not sure who has replaced them. I read so much for work now, that reading hasn’t brought as much joy as it used to. Some switch clicks in my head and activates the technical part of my brain and that gets in the way of inspiration. The same happened to me in theatre after a few years. My mind would pick apart the mechanics of the production rather than the flow of the words accessing something deeper.

I’d take George Saunders’ Tenth of December to laugh, and marvel at his imagination and the brilliance of his ideas. Anything by Claire Keegan for nourishment of the soul.

Thank you so much Paul for sharing your thoughts with us.

Jane Riekemann, (orginal interview, March 2015)

More about Paul, his writing, interviews and the courses he teaches here

Interview with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal

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We are re-posting Jude’s interview from early 2015 with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal. Since that time, for the second year in a row, Kit won the Bridport Flash Fiction Award in 2015. Her second prize winning story in BSSA 2014, ‘The Beautiful Thing.’ was produced and broadcast for BBC Radio 4 in March 2015 by our 2016 shortlist judge, BBC Radio 4 producer, Mair Bosworth and Kit has recently been named as one of the Guardian New Faces for Fiction,2016 in advance of her hotly anticipated debut novel, My Name is Leon, which is published in June, 2016. We can’t wait to read it!

We also urge you to apply for, or tell people about the creative writing scholarship Kit has generously created and funded for Birkbeck College. The closing date for applications is 15th February, 2016. Read a full description of the scholarship on the link above. Here’s a summary:

“The first Kit de Waal Scholarship will be launched in October at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. This new scholarship will provide a fully funded place for one student to study on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA (part-time) over two years, from 2016–2018.It is intended to support a talented student who would not otherwise be able to afford to do the course, targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds — including but not confined to care leavers, ex-prisoners, members of BAME communities, people with a disability and those from socio-economically deprived and marginalized groups.”

Biography

Kit De Waal spent fifteen years in criminal and family law before becoming a writer. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and longer form prose. She is published in various anthologies (Fish Prize 2011 & 2012; ‘The Sea in Birmingham’ 2013; ‘Final Chapters’ 2013’) and works as an editor of non-fiction. In 2014 she gained second place in the Costa Short Story Award with ‘The Old Man & The Suit’.

In 2014 she was also longlisted for the Bristol Prize, won first prize in the  Bridport Flash Fiction competition with her story ‘Romans Chapter 1, Verse 29’. Her fiction, ‘Blue in Green’, won the Reader’s Choice Prize in the Sl Leeds Literary Prize 2014, and BBC Radio 4 broadcast her story ‘Adrift at the Athena’, which was commissioned for the anthology, ‘A Midlands Odyssey’ by Nine Arches Press. In December, 2014, after  a six way bidding auction, Viking secured rights to publish  her debut novel,  My Name Is Leon,  Venetia Butterfield, Publishing Director of Viking, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’

Interview by Jude, January 2015.

  • In 2014 you won second prize in the Bath Short Story Award competition, first prize in the Bridport Flash Fiction, the readers’ choice in Sl Leeds Literary Prize for your work, Blue in Green, and after a six-way auction, your debut novel My Name is Leon was secured by Viking. Can you tell us more about your novel?

My Name is Leon is the story of two brothers separated by adoption and is published on 2nd June this year. The story follows Leon, the older brother and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. I set the story in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy is lost and grieving and going unnoticed . I hear it keeps making people cry although that wasn’t my intention!

  • You write very short fiction, longer stories and full length novels successfully. We loved your second prize story, ‘The Beautiful Thing’ and totally agree with the comments of our 2014 shortlist judge, literary agent Lucy Luck who said it “involved very strong story telling” and “the ending was extremely well done” Have you always written stories in several different fictional modes? Do you have phases focusing on one form, or move regularly between them all?

I like all forms of prose, flash, shorts and novels.I don’t think I’ve ever read a novella though and certainly never tried to write one. They are very different animals and need different story telling skills. For flash, you have to choose your moment – chose the moment – one that illustrates a beginning and an end without actually writing it. It’s the moment in all the best films where the tiny gesture – the arm on the shoulder, the shake of the head, the door left open – when you say ‘yes’ that’s what the story is about.

In short stories you have more scope but the narration is everything.  I find if I have the voice of the story teller – not me – and I stay rigidly in that voice and in that point of view, it’s easier to move back and forwards in time and in depth.There are conventions though – I do try and stay in one place or not move about too much as I think it breaks the spell.

And for novels, well the sky is the limit. My Name is Leon is written in close third person almost but not quite in the voice of the child and it was a real challenge remaining with Leon throughout and not letting myself intrude too much. While I was writing the novel, I cut out a picture of a ten year old boy and stuck it on my computer and I would look at it and say ‘This is you speaking, not me’, or ‘What do you see in this scene? What do you notice?’ I think it worked. Novels give the writer the most freedom but also the most challenges and carry the most risks.  It’s devastating when you think something doesn’t work because it can effect the rest of the manuscript, maybe 30,000 words.

  • Is Blue in Green, your prize winning entry for the Sl Leeds Literary Prize, another novel in progress?

My next novel is nearing final draft stage. My usual process is for there to be a lot of research and thinking – staring out of windows and scrubbing.It takes a good while for me to start writing.  I’m a real plotter and like to have everything lined up –the end, the twists, the characters’ back stories – then I can let loose.

  • Can you say more about your journey as a writer?

I started writing seriously maybe ten years ago and three years ago decided to do an MA in Creative Writing. Doing the MA was as much so that I could tell myself I was taking seriously as wanting to learn about the craft. I read a lot of books, met some great people and did learn but overwhelmingly I decided during that year that I would write for the rest of my life, that I would get published and that was that. I had to make it work. I helped to set up two writing groups, Oxford Narrative Group and Leather Lane Writers. The people in those groups are my support network, my friends and genuine critics.

  • Which short story writers and novelists do you admire and why?

I am training myself to spend more time reading contemporary fiction. My first loves were the classics – Arnold Bennett, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Somerset Maugham. All of those writers – and I’ve read all of their works – managed to get under my skin. I would read them and I was there, not on the page but in the page, in the story.More recently I’ve read Kevin Barry who has a way of describing the ordinary that I dream of being able to do. I also like Cormac McCarthy.

  • Do you have some tips on honing a short story ready for a competition?

If you’re entering something for a competition, work it and then pull back. By that I mean, work over every line, work the tale, work the character, work the paragraph, work the ending and beginning, work the jokes and then look at what you can edit to leave only the essence. I suppose it would be like Coco Chanel says about getting dressed. She said that you should get all dressed up and then just before you leave the house take one thing off. Less is more.