Sunday, 25 May 2014

Short Story Club - a reading group for short story lovers

Short stories are more tangly than you might think

Short stories can be fleeting things, and like intense, exquisite truffles, the flavour of the most recent mouthful often supplants that of the one before. Because of this, and perhaps because of voracious reading appetites, it is a rare thing to be able to discuss in depth a story you have just read with someone who has read it equally recently.

To switch similes: like poems, good short stories demand and reward several readings, and as someone pointed out to me yesterday, re-reading can make a story (simile number 3) open up like a flower, showing you far more than you first saw.

So it is a mind-expanding delight to be co-hosting the short story club at the Word Factory every month. Sophie, also hosting, circulates a copy of our chosen short story by email, and a small group of us – already we have stalwarts, but there are always new faces – gather before the main Word Factory event at Waterstones Piccadilly to discuss this, our most recently savoured short story truffle. So far we have read and talked about stories by Alice Munro, James Salter, Flannery O’Connor, Steven Millhauser, and yesterday Hassan Blasim.

A particular delight in coming together as a group to talk about a short story is being reminded each time that no story is ever read the same way twice. Everyone there has had a unique experience with each of their own readings, and it is enlightening to say the least to hear how fellow readers have interacted with the text.

Hassan Blasim was a timely choice for May, as just a few days ago he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his collection The Iraqi Christ. In the group we discussed the title story, which in just a few pages combines the feel of a parable, elements of the supernatural, and moral ambiguity that had all our mental cogs whirring.

The story is told by Ali, a Muslim Iraqi soldier who recalls Daniel, a Christian in the medical corps nicknamed ‘the Chewgum Christ’. Daniel is both obsessed with radar and a kind of human radar himself. He has premonitions of enemy attacks, which save the lives of many fellow soldiers who follow him ‘frightened as ducklings’. But after the war, when Daniel is caring for his sick and elderly mother, an encounter in a cafe with a suicide bomber forces him to make a horrible choice about life and death, not just his own.

I’ve given the story a voice-overish prĂ©cis so as not to spoil it for would-be readers, but it was Daniel’s actions and implied decision at the end which really got us talking. There were so many interpretations in the room: religion causes deaths; the suicide bomber, not Daniel, is the ‘Christ’ of the title, despite the latter’s nickname; good people can make bad decisions; or simply, that there is no sense to life.
We pored over the religious allusions, mixed as they are with humour and dark philosophy. We wondered at the matter-of-factness of both revelations and descriptions of horribly intense situations, especially in light of Blasim’s own experiences (see links to interviews here). Sometimes the directness and plainness of language led to speculations about how this translation compares with the original (in Arabic), and beyond that how such a story translates across cultures. For a very short story packed with strangeness and surprise, we agreed that it is emotionally very powerful, and this even despite a seemingly deliberate blankness about the inner states of Daniel the Chewgum Christ. 

Whether or not there is a single message to be gleaned from any story, but particularly one with elements of the parable (a topic that came up last month, with Millhauser’s ‘In the Reign of Harad IV’), our discussion highlighted the power of a short story to transport readers, though never to quite the same place. 

Next month we will be reading and talking about a story by Zadie Smith, so if you can get to Waterstones Piccadilly and fancy comparing your views with other avid readers, email, join the mailing list and join us. It’s free.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

Not a vineyard tour, though this is also good for writing

This week I have taken up the baton from Kate Smalley Ellis to take part in a writing process blog tour. It's been a revelation and a relief to dicsover the sheer variety in how writers work, and also what is common amongst those of us who are plugging away. Kate and I were part of the same writers' group in London for years, and met again by surprise recently when we were both shortlisted for the Myriad Editions Writer's Retreat Competition, which I wrote about here. This goes to show regularly presenting your work and receiving critical feedback should be part of your writing process if you can acccess such things. I wholeheartedly recommend this to all writers.

Here are my answers to the writing process blog tour questions: 

What am I working on?
Mostly, my collection of short stories inspired by elements of British folklore, all set in the same island community, and driven by my interest in the fantastical, metaphor and ambiguity in short fiction. I am currently trying to limit writing other material, as this collection is part of my Creative Writing PhD, but sometimes things will insist on popping out. It’s a pretty good outcome when your displacement activity for writing is other kinds of writing.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Genre itself is an issue for me. I am not writing fantasy, but use fantastical elements. Some of it is not even speculative fiction. Yet all the interconnected stories are set in a place that has no ‘real’ location, nor a particular time in history or the future. I use folktales and folklore only, rather than fairy tales, which pop up an awful lot in contemporary short stories.

Why do I write what I do?
My mother says I write the world I would like to be in, and to some extent that’s true (though it can be rather brutal, which I can live without). Certainly there is an element of escapism from London and work and technology. I am interested in worlds where less is explainable by science, where magical explanations do just as well, or better, than rational ones. I also believe that the story a person reads is a combined effort between the writer and the reader, so I like to use ambiguity to force the reader to have an input, and come up with their own interpretation of events.

How does my writing process work?
I have been lucky enough to learn early on that having acres of time is not good for me as a writer. I am far more productive when I have to squeeze writing in as a precious activity, around the necessities of life such as work. I write in coloured pens in a Moleskin notebook, which I also fill with snatches of folklore and quotes or words that inspire me. I spend a lot of time poring over an old Anglo-Saxon dictionary! Things flow best when I don’t know what is going to happen in a story, but sometimes I do character sketches, or think through events. Editing takes far longer than writing, but I have my wonderful supervisor, Alison MacLeod, to guide me in this. At some point I always follow Adam Marek’s advice, and look for the heart of the story, the beating centre which is served by all the veins and vessels that make up the details. If you don’t know what the heart is, you’re in trouble.

For stories of mine available online, click on the 'short stories' tab above.

Next week novelist Lily Dunn and poet/short story writer/performer Alison Lock will be taking up the writing process blog tour baton, so have a look at their blogs and be inspired.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

From the judge's mouth - an insight into writing competitions

Writers and judges should be brought together more often!

This week I took part in an excellent event put on by Myriad Editions to celebrate the fifth year of their writing competition. They run this with West Dean College, and the prize is a week’s writing retreat in that wonderful place. While I and thousands of other writers continually submit work to magazines and competitions, it is extremely rare to get any feedback, or to gain any kind of understanding of how and why certain pieces are chosen to be published or shortlisted. Myriad’s event was brilliant because it aimed to fill that gap. Their panel of publishers, writers, writing tutors and agents discussed writing competitions themselves, took audience questions about these, and revealed why they had chosen the shortlist they had from 180 entries. This was followed by very brief ‘taster’ readings from all the shortlisted work.

I took part in the event because my entry had been shortlisted, but also because I could see how valuable this kind of information would have been to me back when I was just starting to send out my own work. The workings of writing competitions can be utterly mysterious – do decisions come down to taste, whim, critical judgements of originality or commercial potential? What is the point of them, as part of developing as a writer?

These and other questions were answered in an all round illuminating evening. The shortlisted entries were all wildly different in style and conceit, which was pleasing as it showed the judges had not been swayed by tastes for particular kinds of writing (in the way that some magazine editorial boards clearly are). The most fascinating and useful part came when each member of the judging panel explained what had made them pick out, and argue for, particular pieces of writing. The main factors they highlighted were:

  • The work stayed with me after reading 
  • It made me want to re-read it several times
  • It had lots of ‘yes’ moments – beautiful and interesting phrases, original and new ways of expressing things; those sentences you wish you’d written
  • The work was truly original
  • It made me feel certain that, once published, this was a book I would want to own 
  • Being excited by the sense of potential in the work (this was a competition for work in progress)

I did not win the competition, but what I did win was some new champions for my writing, which are invaluable to any writer trying to make a wave in a sea of words. To know that serious writers and publishers have spent hours reading, analysing and arguing for and against your writing is a boon and a privilege. All six of us on the shortlist are now firmly on the radar of those on the judging panel and also several audience members who were moved by particular pieces, all of which helps with motivation and the ability to take yourself seriously as a writer. This, I would say, is reason number one to enter writing competitions and send work out to magazines. Even if it does not win or get published, people who are deep in the world of literature and spend hours every day thinking about it are reading your work, and if it is good they will notice, and remember you.

One clear message that came from the publishers and agents on the panel was that, despite horror stories of ceiling-high slush piles and the endless wade through dire material, the gatekeepers of the publishing world are always dying to read good writing. That is why they do the jobs they do. When it is not possible to get feedback, or insight into decisions of the kind that Myriad Editions provided in this instance, all you can do is keep your faith that somewhere out there is an agent or publisher who will be a match for your writing, and will love it.

And to those running writing competitions or calling for submissions, I would say, find ways (like this event) to talk more about what you choose and why. It is so useful to writers, both those chosen and those rejected, and even indirect feedback is such a great motivator, it can only improve the work that gets submitted in the future.

Huge thanks to Myriad, and congratulations to my fellow shortlisters!