Short stories: The promise & danger…

diamond-33086_1280“The short story is incredibly challenging – especially as a tradition or a convention. It’s one of those forms which requires… well, you have to be a gem-cutter in a way.”

Thank you, Junot Diaz, a novelist and short story writer who, in speaking to The New Yorker’s senior editor recently, made it quite clear that for him, short stories can be irksome.

I, myself, used to avoid them, then slowly came back round to the idea again and have managed to produce some which I quite like, but it always does tend to be when you’re sailing merrily along, that the short story decides to remind you who’s boss.

I’m currently attempting to tie up my short story for October (I’m writing one a month), which for a while, I thought was never going to materialise. Thankfully though, once I caught the whisper of an idea, the words took hold and a story began to reveal itself to me. As usual, said story has subsequently taken a few twists and turns from the path I thought I was on, and I’ve gone from definitely not liking this one and not seeing how it fits with the rest, to slowly coming around to its merits and wanting to delve in deeper, but I quite like it now. It’s not my favourite, and editing may tear it apart, but it’s a result at least.

What is it with short stories that makes us so pedantic and stressed about the process? (or is it just me?!)stress-111425_1280

Back to Junot.

“The slightest default shows in a short story, as it doesn’t in a novel.

“The promise and danger of a short story is that it can be perfect. The promise and danger of a novel is that it can never be perfect.”

Ah, yes, that might be it. Such is the short story, that the reader can whizz through it; can stop and savour EVERY SINGLE WORD at their leisure and then go back and read it again if they particularly want to pick it apart – at no real inconvenience to their time. It’s a snippet of a novel and it can be put much more easily under the magnifying glass, so the expectation is… it had better be good.

No – perfect.

It’s a challenge every writer faces, and quantity doesn’t necessarily mean a writer is more relaxed about the process. Junot obviously isn’t. He’s written a fair few short stories and he hopes never to have to write one again! He does, however, like the fact that the reader can “make decisions as to what the book is” when reading a short story collection.

books-20167_1280“Is a short story collection a short story collection, or is it a novel? The reader can make (these) decisions…”

I’m working on a short story collection right now, and I said recently to a friend that they all, so far, interlink a little and could, therefore, work as a weird, dysfunction novel – or the short story collection I intend them to be.

 

Reader, if I get them finished to my satisfaction and (wonder of wonders), if they should ever be published anywhere – I give you leave to decide…

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Write or Die!

halloweenwitchWell, with Hallowe’en looming large on the horizon, how timely to have discovered this handy little app which literally eats your words if you stop typing! Write or Die - it was created by Dr Wicked no less.

Apparently lots of NaNoWriMo people have been using this for a while but, as I often say – I’m sometimes late to the party…

I was interested to hear that David Nicholls used Write or Die when he first started to pen Us. He binned most of his efforts, although he subsequently used the essence of what he wrote to inspire what became his latest bestseller.

Myself? I see how it could be useful, but I have to admit – the idea of actually using this app makes me sweat. With a bit of pre-planning of course, you could just sit down with a mindful of ideas and type away to your heart’s content for however long. I find the ticking clock and threat of deletion however, a little bit unsettling. Or is that just me?!clock

We all need something to inspire us though, and if this works for you, I’m all for it. Whether you suffer from procrastination or writer’s block, it’s good to know there’s someone somewhere cheering you on, so to speak.

Even if it is Dr Wicked…

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Resting poetry

When you write a story, a poem, a novel, it’s always best to let it breathe for a little while afterwards. You write it. You edit it. Then – you put it away in a drawer and you let it be. You let it rest.

Sleeping Beauty... Henry Meynell Rheam (1859–1920)

Sleeping Beauty… Henry Meynell Rheam (1859–1920)

I thought I’d done that with my manuscript last year. I left it for weeks, no months, but still, over a year later, as soon as I read it, I immediately spotted things I wanted to change. Why didn’t I see these before? Well, I was too close to it, despite my resting period. I had lived in the story so much that, well, much longer was needed before I should have been doing the ‘final’ editing.

I’ve now rejigged the first three chapters and I intend to do the same with the other, er, 40-odd, but I think I’ll take my time…

With short stories and with poetry it’s the same and, as an admittedly quite impatient person, I have to remind myself to letPicture 1 my words rest for long enough before I say, ‘I’m done’.

My reflection for this post tonight was inspired by my former creative writing tutor, Damian Gorman (right). A writer with many hats, in his latest project he has recorded a series of poems – courtesy of the independent UK-based record label, El Foreigners - which he has lived with for some time and which he both reads and reflects upon in what will be a nine-part video series. I love the idea of this and I’ve already enjoyed listening to the first instalment – a poem which evokes vivid imagery of childhood memories and which is well worth a look.

Interested? Check out Considerations#1 The Giant Basket…

 

 

 

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Crowd-editing: Yay or Nay?

Flying lettersWith many musicians now turning to crowd-sourcing (or crowd-funding) to finance their latest album, it was only a matter of time, perhaps, before writers got in on the act. True, with singers and bands, it’s mostly the newbies who are making the most of this creative way of getting their music out there sooner rather than later, but more established artists are also catching on.

Essentially, you ask your fans to contribute towards the recording of your album or EP and as you go along, these contributors receive little perks, such as a signed copy of the album when released, previews of the music and other merchandise, depending on how the artist has decided to reward you. I know people doing this and it’s working really well. It helps them to fund their work and the ‘crowd’ is basically just buying what they’d be buying anyway, but at an earlier stage. It requires a certain amount of faith on behalf of the supporters, but the amounts paid don’t have to be huge.

Now, what’s this got to do with writers, I hear you say. Have authors started to charge people for bits of their books before they’re even published? Well, no. Actually, I don’t know – perhaps some writers, somewhere, are. But what I’m referring to is… Advance Editions.IMG_1982

This recently launched website is an initiative by my old friends at Book Drum, which I previously contributed to (check out the link – it’s a great resource for really delving into books!). Anyway, Advance Editions allows contributors to download the first half of an edited book for free. Their task then is to read the book and subsequently make any suggestions they have about it to the author – such as areas which could be refined, plot problems and the like.

If the reader wants to read the entire book, they can then buy it at a 60% advance discount. Meanwhile, the authors will revise their books and if they include your suggestion, you get a mention in the paperback and ebook when it comes out.

It’s an interesting idea and, as we’re told on the site: ‘This is a revolutionary time in publishing’.

I’m interested (as I’m sure Advance Editions are) to know what readers and writers think of this. Sure, we sometimes do it for friends (maybe!) and we may do it for work, but do we want to do it like this? I think the answer may, for many, be yes. The first two books on the site have already garnered a good bit of feedback and has also attracted the attention of The Guardian newspaper.

As the digital era pushes onwards, it’s good to try new things, see what works and what doesn’t. Traditional publishing is more than aware that the book world is changing, so we’ll see how crowd-editing works out.628px-The_Sun_by_the_Atmospheric_Imaging_Assembly_of_NASA's_Solar_Dynamics_Observatory_-_20100819

My thoughts? I think it will be good for:

  • Plot improvements/tidy-ups
  • Insights into what your specific readers want
  • Unique expertise on subjects (although… research!)

I think it might be unhelpful because:

  • Readers aren’t always writers
  • Everyone has an opinion and they ain’t generally all the same!
  • If you’re a new author, you may be put off by a multitude of ‘helpful’ comments re potential changes

Okay, I’m just thinking aloud here, but I’m intrigued to see how this goes and may well delve in myself at some point. I think the idea isn’t to get ‘expert advice’ but, rather like a writer’s group, to ask for useful feedback, and I think that the majority of people who’ll take the time to contribute, will take the time to be insightful and helpful to the author.

What do you think…?

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Tantalising Titles

A quick one this week, in keeping with the subject matter…

How do you choose your titles?

IMG_2232Whether it’s poetry or prose, how easy do you find it to sum everything up in a tight little title? Do you sum it all up? What inspires you when you come to this part of the writing process? When do you write it? First or last? Does the title inspire the story/poem, or does it grow from the writing? Do you want your title to hint at what’s to come, or be a bit more open-ended?

I’ll admit it – titles are like book covers to me – they definitely help me decide what to pick up. A lovely artistic cover design (bright and bold, or dark and macabre) will get me every time. Likewise, an intriguing title and, well, anything with the words ‘magic’ and ‘enchanted’ is always going to hook my attention… (What can I say – I’m a fantasy writer!)

As a journalist, I’m used to writing snappy headlines, but when it comes to creative writing, I find the task a bit more challenging. Whether you want to admit it or not, a good title can make the difference, I think, in getting someone to stop and pay attention to your book/story/poem.IMG_2234

I’m currently writing a short story collection and my choice of titles are all quite similar (intriguing? Perhaps. A good idea? Hmm, we’ll see), in that they seem self-explanatory but the story reveals so much more. I’m being deliberately cloak and dagger here, as I want to wait until the collection’s complete before putting it all out in the open, but let’s just say – titles are on my mind.

I’m a sucker for alliteration (see above!) and although I, ironically, can’t stand hearing too much of it myself (TV presenters I refer to you for starters!), I have to keep it in check when I write. Somehow, it has sunk it’s claws into me and so, yes, my titles are often alliterative.

I sometimes write them first; I sometimes write them last. They can come to me mid-story, or take an age to be picked out. Sometimes I love them – sometimes, I’m not so sure.Q

How do you do titles? I’m intrigued to know…

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Making each word count

I’m often late to the party and this weekend I finally joined the abundance of writers who have enjoyed the wisdom and wit of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. To be honest, through my own experience and reading to date, I can’t say it was a revelation as such, but it’s always good to hear these things again and I particularly enjoyed his opinion that ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.’ A man after my own heart is all I will say on that one!

I also whizzed through a certain Archie Greene book (see last week’s post) by DD Everest and the two together made for useful reading. Having had the opportunity to speak in person with Mr Everest last week at the On Home Ground Festival in Magherafelt, we chatted about book length (yes, I’m still pondering word counts!), and of course, Archie Greene was cut quite dramatically before it made it to print.

Archie Greene and the Magician's SecretReading Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret this week, I have to confess I was absorbing more than the story (which, by the way, is exceptionally good), as I was taking careful note of how DD Everest described everything. Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the book, which gives the reader some assistance on that front, but when it comes to describing the book’s main character, i.e. Archie, it’s brief and to the point: ‘He was small and wiry with mousey-brown hair. What Horace noticed about him, though, was the colour of his eyes. One was emerald green, like the deepest lake, and the other was a silvered grey, the colour of weathered oak.’ 

It may seem obvious, but I like describing things in prose and let’s just say, my main character got more than this when I committed her to paper. Quite a bit more, but not, I thought, too much. In hindsight, I think perhaps it was too much. With my character, we get what she’s wearing, her hair colour, features and build and, well, it may be a bit OTT. Personally, I wanted to describe her clothes, because I wanted to show her quirkiness, but I’m theoretically writing for a mixed sex audience and… well, boys probably wouldn’t be overly bothered if she was wearing a blue skirt or jeans. To the action!

In ‘On Writing’, King says: ‘The key to good description begins with clear writing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.’

I think my descriptions are clear, but some may still be destined for the cutting room floor… The old adage of ‘never tell us a thing if you can show us’ (also King here) is sometimes easy to forget when you get caught up in the throes of creativity. Perhaps my character’s quirkiness has already been made obvious through her actions (which I think it probably has) and so, all this extra description is just dead wood (however nice I might consider it to be!). ‘Kill your darlings…’

It’s just one of many things which popped out at me as I read both books, one after other. I’ve finally picked up my own manuscript again, having left it for many months, so I’m approaching it now without the baggage of before and my red pen is ready for action.

Anyway, I digress. My intent was to post a review of old Archie’s adventures and suffice it to say… if you like the sound of terrible tomes, motion potions, talking books and magical beasts, then this is the book for you. There’s a heck of a lot more than that besides, but I don’t like spoilers…

DD Everest

DD Everest

There are always going to be comparisons made with children’s fantasy writers that they’re ‘the next JK Rowling’, which is unfair, but wholly unavoidable, although I don’t believe this is Everest’s intent at all. Like myself, he’s just always wanted to write a book about magic and adventure and to create a wonderful world where anything is possible, which I believe he has done incredibly well. No matter what we write, our inspiration will always be flavoured by the books we’ve read and Archie stands up by himself as far as I’m concerned. He’s worth a read for sure.

With short, punchy chapters, Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret is one of those page-turners, which is perhaps even more important with children’s books. It has you hooked from the outset and things just keep happening – which sounds pretty obvious, but what I mean is – there are no stale moments when you feel like skipping over something – every word counts here and the writer’s craft, I feel, is exceptionally good. The book also achieves what I believe to be a key element – it side-steps gadgets to maintain a timeless feel. You could have read this 50 years ago or be reading it 50 years from now – the appeal is universal.

As I said, I don’t like spoilers, so I don’t want to spill too much about the content. I simply recommend that if you like fantasy fiction (kids or adults!), write for children or, to be honest – just enjoy a good read – then Archie is worth a look. Believe me, it won’t take up much of your time – you’ll whizz through it as quickly as if you’d downed one of those motion potions.

Now – fruit shot, or choc-tail…?

 

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On Home Ground

On home ground

The only thing which could possibly warrant a late blog post is… well, it has to be a literary festival of course! The past four days have seen a wealth of poetry, literature, art and music mingle with sumptuous amounts of tea and scones at the lovely Laurel Villa Guesthouse in Magherafelt.

Singer/songwriter Ciara O'Neill (far right) with poets Alice McCullough and Nathanial J McAuley, who all performed at the On Home Ground Festival 2014

Singer/songwriter Ciara O’Neill (far right) with poets Alice McCullough and Nathanial J McAuley, who all performed at the On Home Ground Festival 2014

This was the On Home Ground Festival 2014 and having launched last year after Seamus Heaney sadly passed away (he was to have been the guest speaker at the opening), it embraced all things Heaney this year in his memory. Celebrating his life, work and legacy, the festival brought together an impressive array of talent and it’s a festival which will hopefully continue on into the future.

I was once again literally on home ground, as Magherafelt is my old stomping ground, where I grew up and developed my own love of literature at the Rainey Endowed Grammar School. I return as a visitor but rarely, although I think that like Heaney (yes, I’m about to compare myself to Seamus Heaney in the loosest possible way!), I too have a connection with the place which will never go away. You always have a history with your hometown, no matter how long you’ve been away from it.

Anyway, I didn’t get to enjoy as much of this brilliant event as I did last year, but I did manage some poetry readings by Damian Smyth of the Arts Council NI, Myra Vennard (who incidentally, lives up the road from me here on the coast, in Ballycastle) and singer-songwriter, Ciara O’Neill (one to look up – her music is hauntingly beautiful).

DD EverestI also caught up with business journalist turned children’s author, Mr D D Everest and I am now in possession of Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret. Will Archie be one to rival Harry Potter? Will Everest reach the dizzy heights of fame that JK Rowling has attained? It’s early days, but I relish delving into this magical mystery and finding out just what it’s all about.

The man himself was a pro with the kids, despite this being his very first reading (the book was only published by Faber & Faber last week), and he was extremely encouraging and helpful afterwards when I chatted with him. Watch this space for a review of the book soon…

As I left the On Home Ground Festival yesterday I have to admit I was even more motivated to continue with my writing and to push on with trying to get my own children’s novel published. I may only have dipped into the wealth of creative inspiration on offer, but I tasted enough to sustain me for a little while longer…

(PS Read my official review for Culture NI here)

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