The Magic of Short Stories

Today’s guest post is written by author Carys Bray, winner of Salt Publishing’s 2012 Scott Prize. Thank you, Carys. I am really enjoying the complexity of these short stories which are honest and gritty accounts of family life, bound up in a collection which leaves its mark long after the pages stop turning. Highly recommended. Carys also had a recent piece of short fiction published in Literary Magazine, Litro. My Brother is Missing is an emotionally charged story and just as gripping as her collection.

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I gate-crashed an undergraduate seminar a couple of weeks ago in order to listen to guest speaker, Chris Beckett. Chris’ collection The Turing Test won the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize and his novel Dark Eden was the Sunday Times SF novel of the year. During the seminar Chris talked about the way he approaches short stories by combining seemingly disparate elements in order to make his fiction three-dimensional. I once heard short story writer Adam Marek say something similar – I can’t quote him exactly, but he talked about how he often takes something fantastic and combines it with something ordinary.

I don’t believe there’s a ‘recipe’ for writing successful short stories, but I suspect Chris Beckett and Adam Marek are on to something when they talk about the way they mix their ingredients: short stories need depth and many of my favourite stories blend the mundane with the magic of the impossible.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is about a father whose son’s Tamagotchi has AIDS. On the surface, the story is about an impossible thing – a terminally ill toy, but it’s really about a father’s relationship with his son and the fundamental helplessness of parents. The father in the story can’t fix the Tamagotchi and he can’t ‘fix’ his son’s developmental issues. There is clearly a connection between the Tamagotchi’s illness and the son’s development – the metaphor may sound laboured as I attempt to dissect it, but it isn’t. The story is touching and funny, a beautiful exploration of a father’s need to make everything right.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is about an elderly woman who is both fascinated and repulsed by new technology. Clarissa is an Outsider in the Urban Consensual Field, a virtual city constructed in the image of London as it was when it ‘still seemed feasible for millions of physical human beings to casually consume what they wanted of the world’s resources.’ As one of the few physical people left, Clarissa can view the consensual world via an implanted switch. Old and frail, she embarks on a journey through the ruins of London to see the lights of Piccadilly Circus as it was in her childhood. It’s a wonderfully clever story set in an extraordinary world. Beckett addresses aging, our perception of reality and whether something is real if it can be turned on and off with the flick of a switch.

I think there’s something wonderful about these impossible stories. At first glance they’re entertaining, but they’re also illuminating; the blend of the familiar and the impracticable can challenge a reader’s perspective and assumptions.

When I started writing short stories I had tremendous fun creating improbable scenarios; supermarkets where children are bought, a baby carved out of ice, and an old lady constructing a gingerbread house. But in each case I suppose I was also writing, or at least thinking, about something else; the commodification of children and childhood, infertility, and the way outsiders are treated.

I’ve been working on a novel for some time now, but earlier this week I spent a day editing a short story I began last summer. It was lovely to handle something small again, to attempt to blend seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Tobias Wolff said, ‘There’s a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.’ I agree, and I think that same joy can be experienced when reading short stories, particularly the kind of stories that illuminate the everyday with a little bit of impossible magic.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is found in his new collection The Stone Thrower, published by Comma Press.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is found in his collection The Turing Test published by Elastic Press.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Remember the Bride Who Got Stung’ is available to read at Thresholds, the international short story forum.

Read about Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden in the Guardian.

Author pic from EH Prize edited Carys Bray’s short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines. She currently teaches at Edge Hill University and is a co-editor at Paraxis. She is working on a PhD and a novel.

 

Hemmingway’s Tip Of The Iceberg: Omit What the Reader Knows

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If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon[1

This quote from Hemmingway’s, Death in the Afternoon, is a timely reminder that most of what the reader picks up from a really good piece of prose is submerged. Writers sometimes go to great lengths to make sure that the reader understands every detail and assumes a lack of understanding. Writing can, in this instance, lose it’s subtlety and and crush the flow of the words. You can feel what a good writer is implying without the words actually reaching the page. A good book is charged with these undercurrents and the reader can dig down and grasp emotions and ideas which are never actually written.

To give an example, yesterday I read the Costa Short Story Award winner Avril Joy’s beautiful piece, Millie and Bird. I won’t give anything away but the key theme is always implied, never stated, and deftly written in the hands of a writer who knows her craft. Her story is both lyrical and compelling. Those of you who have been following know that I am currently immersed in short stories (both reading and writing) and I was particularly struck by this one. A well deserving winner, I would say.

Alison Moore’s, The Lighthouse, also follows a strong theme of rejection and loneliness without it ever being stated. The reader is swept away by the desperation of the protagonist’s situations in both his past and present.

I particularly like Hemmingway’s description of the dignity of an iceberg’s movement. Remembering that those critical seven eights of its mass are under water should serve as a warning not to push everything up to the surface or to write all the words into the frame of your picture.

Chekhov, Short Stories and Goals for 2013

This year has been a whirlwind of editing, marketing and publishing for me, a year where I started to build a platform and an internet presence as a writer – something which is a necessity for both traditionally published and self-published writers. It might sound familiar to many of you, but if I tell you that for the past five years I have been tucked away writing, with no sign of my name on Google and no contact with other readers and writers, you can imagine how much things have changed.

I winced at the thought of loading my photo and sharing ideas from my heart about my passions, and what I enjoy reading and writing. I shuddered at the idea of my thoughts being public, but what I have discovered is that the relationships you build online overtake any fears. The people I have met here, on facebook, twitter, and goodreads have been interesting, inspiring, and encouraging. These are all people who are passionate readers, a range or writers over all types of genres, and marketers with a vast experience of online communication.

So, now that we are nearing the end of 2012, I have been thinking about my goals for 2013. I haven’t had time to come up for air but my mind is always full of writing ideas and next steps, it is constantly wanting to create.

Having spent several years crafting ‘Take Me to the Castle,’ a novel which I am pleased to release, with the kindle version on special offer over Christmas and the New Year, I now want to spend next year reading and writing short stories and flash fiction. I wrote many of both types of story as I neared the end of the edits of my book, as I was craving some writing time. Editing and writing are two entirely different processes and I defy you to find any author who prefers editing to writing. The first draft goes through many many changes and morphs into a different form to the original version. This is a good thing – first drafts can sometimes miss essential ingredients, have too many unnecessary words, or just not be tight enough for a compelling story.

Short stories and flash fiction:

I found in these a style of writing which suits my writing. I love the condensing or framing of a story into 350 words or 3000 words. You can create so much suspense and exagerate themes in a way in which they would be lost in a longer piece of prose. I read many different stories, mainly short stories, and wrote many which I will be publishing next year.

I wanted to share with you two books which are on my table to read over Christmas and into the New Year:

Image I love Chekhov’s short stories, they are powerful, full of enticing detail, and captivating. His literary genius is timeless; he wrote in a way that makes his tales just as readable now as they were in the 1800s. Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short story author. As a doctor, also, who helped the poor, he was disturbed by the darker aspects of society. His father was a tyranical figure, and this has cast its shadows in his writing. I have already dipped in to ‘The Essential Tales of Chekhov,’ and am hugely enjoying the stories. There is a really interesting account of his life in the Guardian if you are interested in further reading…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/06/anton-chekhov-short-stories

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In time for this year’s National Short Story Week, ‘Overheard: stories to read aloud,’ was released. It is edited by Jonathan Taylor and, wrapped within it’s beautiful cover, are a collection of stories from over 30 of the UK’s most popular storytellers, including Louis De Bernières, Blake Morrison, Kate Pullinger, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Adele Parks and Hanif Kureishi.

I bought this as it was released in November of this year, as I really enjoy reading books by Louis De Bernières and Ian McEwan. It is now tucked it away for the cosy (post editing) winter evenings.

So my goals are to read and write many short stories in the coming year. What are your goals for books to read, or ideas to write?