Monday, 3 July 2017

These notes have been shamelessly culled from notes other people have written about writing short stories - they have been squeezed to extract the juice!

 Length.  Short story competitions usually ask for work under 2,500 words, but individual contests vary. Flash fiction is very short fiction, under 250 words or half a page. A novella will be between 15-20 thousand words, and a novel between 80-100 thousand.

However, filmmakers and screenwriters like short fiction because it's condensed, to the point and it's easier to extend a good short story than to cut down Gone With The Wind or War and Peace, without leaving out important details.

So if you have a story in mind and you think it might take 2,500 words, every word has to count. This brings me to our second point:


Characters.    Keep to a small and memorable cast of characters. I think five is about the limit. Too many and it becomes a saga. Herman Melville's excellent short story The Scrivener has two main and one ancillory character. Meeting in Samorra by Somerset Maughn and copied by others,  has three – Death, the Master and the Servant.  Choose your characters carefully! Make them stand out from one another and give them individual voices.  First person narratives are immediate and grab the reader's attention at once. If we identify with the main character, we're more likely to read on, so your main character should be believable.


Plot   The traditional wisdom is that there should be a beginning, middle and end to your story. However, clever writers often subvert this. The funeral is sometimes the start of the story, which then goes backwards in time to  events at the start of the story (if you see what I mean), or the ending comes as a surprise.  Usually the plot will follow a course like this:  Characters have some conflict, challenge or dificulty to to resolve, embark on a course of action and await the results. The bit of the story where they wrestle with the task (kill the dragon, confront the murderer, find the treasure) is the climax of the story,  and this can come anywhere, though most often in the middle of the story.  Boy meets girl/boy loses girl/couple reunited after many trials, is still a bestseller.


Setting  For some authors, the setting is as important as the characters or plot. I'm thinking of the Congo, described by Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible, or Newfoundland described by Annie Proux in The Shipping News. For other authors, it's simply sketched in and the reader fills in the details. Generally it's good to stay with what you know, so if you do travel about, take a notebook with you, then you'll have the details of that hotel you stayed at on the wasteland near Athens Airport; you'll remember the fact that snakes lurked in the long grass and the owner planted zinnias along the boundary and hawkmoths visited them every night...  See?    I got quite carried away just re reading my old notebooks! The details are important.


Point of view   Sometimes known as P.O.V., this answers the question: Through whose eyes are we seeing the action?  Who is the narrator?  Does the P.O.V move around?  Who is telling this story?

The Poisonwood Bible, for example, is narrated by each character in turn. In a short story the omnipotent  narrator, like a puppet-master, often oversees all the action, or it may be a first person narrative, or one where the reader inhabits the head of the main character. If you read Kafka's Metamorphosis, the reader is asked to identify with a man who has inexplicably turned into a cockroach overnight. We feel pity for his predicament, and disgust at his appearance.


Beginnings and endings:    The first few sentence are important. They should hook the reader into the story and make them want to know what happens next. Choose some short stories to read  and make a note of the opening sentences. What intrigued you or put you off reading more?

An ending should add a sense of completeness to the story, I think, but rules are made to be broken and a sudden, unexpected,  incomplete or tragic ending can also work well.


Starting points for stories:  If, as I do, you collect books with odd facts, anecdotes and overheard snatches of conversation, you'll never be short of material. Go to places you don't normally visit. Make notes. Talk to people. I'm thinking of greyhound tracks, bikers' cafes, fairgrounds, antique auctions, stations – anywhere where people are doing something a little different and you'll hear stories.  Ask if you can write about what they tell you – people rarely refuse. Or you can change all identifying details and keep the bones of the story, though it's good manners to acknowledge the source. Most stories are a mixture of the writer's real experience and stuff s/he's invented.

Asking the question  What if.....? can be fruitful as well. What if Aladdin had rubbed the magic lamp and the Genie appeared but was really lazy and couldn't be arsed?  What if Red Ridng Hood's Granny kept a shotgun by the bed?  What if the Three Little Pigs told the Wolf to come in – no, let's not go there!


Where to submit short stories.

Good free site:

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Another Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood's brilliantly realised drama, brought back some memories for me: -

A while ago, when I worked in mental health, I came across a very interesting experiment carried out by scientists investigating the survival instinct in animal behaviour. This is what happened:

Dogs were kept in kennels where they were fed, cleaned out and watered regularly and had a comfortable place to sleep. They were not petted, walked or groomed. There were electrified fences around each enclosure, and each enclosure had a low roof over it.  After a number of weeks the scientists took the roofs off the enclosures and watched to see what would happen.  Most of the dogs stayed right where they were, in the knowledge that food and water would arrive at regular intervals.

However, a small number of dogs saw an opportunity to escape, and risking the mild electric shock from the fence, jumped out of the pen and, not knowing where or how they would be fed, ran away to face the unknown dangers of OUT THERE, rather than stay in the relative safety of their pen.  I thought, when I read this, that people are like this. Some seize an opportunity with both hands, no matter what the cost to themselves. Others remain in situations which have become prisons, stifling and punishing free thought, creativity and relationships. So I wrote The Marsh People, a dystopian fantasy, where the situation is reversed. This time the dogs are in charge...
Kelpin, the real heroine of the story, is adaptable and quick witted enough to survive. Others fare less well. Scummo, in taking care of her, finds a role for himself for the first time.

Published by Immanion Press. Kindle Edition £2.24. Hard copies £6.00

The Marsh People is a story about a captive people who make a bid for freedom and survival, beyond the shelter of the City, on the land around the Burham Estuary.

Dogs have rounded up the villagers and herded them into the teeming, inhuman City to work under the control of the Masters. The workers can barely remember their previous lives and have grown used to conditions in captivity. Scummo, however, impulsively makes a bid for freedom, whatever the consequences, taking with him his neighbour’s orphaned daughter, Kelpin.

Meeting up with The Outsiders, a group of rebels opposed to the rule of Masters, Scummo meets an array of eccentric and colourful individuals, who, like him desire freedom.

But the Masters are not about to allow them that luxury without having to fight for it.

A dystopian fantasy.  ‘a great imagination on show’.