Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Roundup of news

While we're all waiting for the Sean O'Faolain longlist to be published - soon, soon! - here's some news from me. First, I've just had an audio story accepted by the brand new audio magazine 4'33, which refers to roughly the minutes it takes to read a 1000 word story. The mag is looking for "edgy, engaging stories about modern life" of under 1000 words, and they've accepted me reading my flash story, Vegetable, Mineral, which was joint winner of the Biscuit Flash Fiction competition and a runner up in the PANK 1001 Awesome words comp last year (this year's comp now open) and will be published in PANK in September. It wasn't a story I'd ever read out before, it is mostly dialogue and I wasn't sure it would work. Anyway, the editor seemed to think it did, will let you know when it's available - do check out 4'33, it sounds (ha!) wonderful!

I've also got a new story, Einstein Plays Guitar, in the next issue of an excellent print mag A Capella Zoo, out soon.  Talking of lit mags that want your short stories, I had a request so I've turned my Ever-Growing List of UK & Irish lit mags into a PDF for you to enjoy offline. Click here and take it home. 115 mags and counting...

And if you think that since I don't have another 849 stories to read I'm just lazing around, painting my toenails, here's a heads-up of my events for September. Taking a deep breath:

Sept 1st: I'm sharing the bill at Word of Mouth at the Thunderbolt in Bristol at 8pm with songwriter Richard Burley. I'll be reading flash stories, he will be singing, and great fun will be had by all!

Sept 15th: There's Science in My Fiction... And Poetry, 7pm: Along with my science-loving writer friends Brian Clegg and Sue Guiney, I'm running a science-inspired fiction and poetry Open Mic night at the British Science Festival in Birmingham. Come along and read your sci-lit to win great prizes, including champagne and a subscription to Focus magazine - and much glory! It's free! Details here.

Sept 16th/19th: Frank O' Connor Short Story Festival, Cork, Ireland, Sept 16th 7.30pm: I'm delighted to be reading together with two excellent writers shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, Robin Black and Belle Boggs. I'll be warming up the crowd with some short shorts.... and then on Sept 19th I'll be presenting the Sean O'Faolain award to the winner just before the Frank O'Connor award is announced. Nailbiting stuff. The festival line-up is extraordinary: Claire Keegan, TC Boyle, Ben Greenman, Karen Russell, David Constantine, Tess Gallagher, Laura van den Berg, David Vann, Louis de Bernieres.... wow. Check out the brochure.

And yes... there is more.

Sept 23rd: I'm running a workshop on research-inspired fiction at Bristol University's Engage public engagement conference, looking at conveying research - and science in particular - to different audiences through fiction. I'm quite into that sort of thing, in case you hadn't noticed! I'll be talking about lots of my favourite science-inspired novels and stories, and we'll be doing a bit of writing too.

...and straight afterwards...

Sept 24th: An Electric Flash: My great friend Vanessa Gebbie and I are bringing the smallest of wonders to England's only Short Story Festival, Small Wonder, in Charleston. We will be talking about flash, reading flash stories and generally extolling the virtues of extreme brevity!

Looking further ahead, I've got some plans for a Bristol event for National Short Story Week...

and then in 2011 I am thrilled to announce that I will be teaching an Arvon Foundation course on the short story together with the most fabulous Sarah Salway (who is up a mountain right now), at The Hurst! When Arvon asked me, I got quite emotional, because the two Arvon courses I went on were life-changing experiences. I only hope we can attempt to pass that on.  Our guest that week will be Jim Friel. It's going to be amazing.

Ok, so that's pretty much it. I'm quite exhausted just writing that, but immensely excited. It's ALL short stories, and some are even sci-lit. How lucky am I??! Hope to see some of you there, somewhere. Going to lie down now for a bit, save my energy.


Two more bits of niceness: just got invited to read at the UK's first literary festival in a shed! (I have a very short story set in a shed, will try that one out).  And... my grant money from the Arts Council has just been paid in! Now I really have to get to work.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My judging process or How I read 849 Stories in Two Months

I've finished the judging for the Sean O'Faolain short story competition, sent my decision in on Monday. The longlist will be announced next week, I'll let you know when it's posted. In the meantime, I thought I'd reflect on how it was for me, what I learned as a reader and as a writer.

849 stories. No sifters, no first readers. Just me. I'd heard from previous judges that I should pace myself otherwise I could be overwhelmed! So I did. And although I was getting 100 or so stories at a time - and two large parcels in the post of about 100 printed stories each - I remained mostly calm. It's a joy and a privilege, first to be asked to pick only what I love, and second to have hundreds of writers entrust me with your stories. I don't take that lightly. I've done it myself, many times. You do send out a small piece of you whenever you submit anything. I took that responsibility very seriously.

I am not, of course, going to mention individual stories, nothing like that. But I thought it might be useful - for me and for others - to talk about what it was like to be the sole judge. Of course, each judge is different, each short story competition is different, and most will have readers and only pass on a long- or short-list to the final judge.

What I tried to do when opening or picking up each new story for the first read was to say to the story: "Wow me. Show me what you've got!" and be completely open. At the beginning, as I read the first 100, I was quite nervous. What if I didn't find a single story that I liked? I mean, really, I'm very picky, I read lots and lots of short stories, all the time, and I know what a great story feels like, what it does to you. I was going to settle for nothing less than that physical jolt of a fantastic short story, that slap in the face, that sensation that you simply can't read anything else, you have to stop and digest what you've just read.

As I read, stories started making it into the Maybe pile. These were stories that stood out for various reasons: beautiful use of language, strong character voices that I could hear as I read, unique settings or situations, utterly bizarre plots I felt I had to read again!

The ones that didn't make it into the Maybe pile were those that tended to take a long time to get to any action, to explain too much to me, to overdo it on the background information, to not have a "voice" so that I couldn't hear the character, or to use very flowery language which I felt got in the way rather than enhanced the story. Stories that didn't make the Maybe pile were those that felt as though I'd read them before, somewhere, that they were familiar, too familiar, in terms of storyline or characters.  

Very very few stories made it straight into the Yes pile, and those were the ones that on first read gave me that jolt. No doubt about it. They shook me up. They had everything that, for this reader, makes a great and winning story.

After reading a few hundred of the earliest entries, I had quite a few Maybes and one or two Yesses and so I was feeling far less nervous. I had stories I liked, loved even, and from that point on, while also saying to each story "Wow me", I was also reading with a slightly different eye. As more stories went into the Maybe pile and I realised I had "enough" stories that I liked, I think that I was tougher on the later stories. I asked slightly more of them, I said to them "So, how are you better than the ones I already like?" And as I got closer and closer to the last of the entries, this probably became more exacerbated, as I imagine it would for anybody.

I don't believe that this meant I gave less consideration to the later-submitted entries. Every story got equal consideration. But it is an inevitable part of a process like this. One way to completely avoid this might have been to wait until all the entries were in and then read them in random order, unrelated to when they were submitted. But that would have meant reading 849 stories in one week - and that would have been impossible!

However, on second read, things changed. I was going back and re-reading the Maybes, and the earlier entries were now being read in light of the later entries! So the process was balanced out. Several Maybes were moved to the No pile, and then I had my longlist, and it includes stories that were sent all throughout the entry period.

I then began the next stage, reading the few Yesses and the Maybes again and assigning each a score. This seemed to me to be the only way to try and narrow the list down. I didn't have a very elaborate scoring system, it was more of a gut reaction to each story. And on second read, not all the Yesses stayed in the Yes pile. I was looking for a story that gave up more of itself with every read - a story that has layers, that remains fabulous even when you know how it ends. This, for me, is the mark of a great story. There were several I had adored on first read but on second read, the magic, the jolt, just wasn't there. 

Anyway, narrowing it down was incredibly hard. All the longlisted stories wowed and delighted me in some way. All of them. Really, getting onto my longlist was the major achievement because it meant that a story leapt out at me from amongst hundreds. 

So, what made the move from longlist to shortlist? Much of it was down to those extremely difficult aspects of a story: beginnings and endings. In a few instances, stories had quite slow beginnings, they took too long, in my opinion, to get to the action. Once they got there, the story was great, but they needed a bit more revision. In other cases, endings let a story down. The story had gripped me, the voice was great, but I'd felt that the ending didn't satisfy me, didn't give me any kind of jolt. 

And what of the winners? Well, that was really really hard. In the end, all I could do was go with my gut feeling. It was so close, between all of the top stories. But the 1st and 2nd placed stories were the ones that brought me to tears as I read them again and again, they just had that power. I felt that they addressed so many themes so well and concisely, without labouring a point, and there was really nothing in there that wasn't in the service of the story, nothing extraneous. They both used language beautifully, with rhythm. And they had an oddness that I found very appealing but they were completely consistent within the odd worlds they created. 

I am sure that a different judge would have picked different winners. Maybe a similar longlist, I don't know, but I chose a winner that I felt really reflected my personal short story tastes, what I love to read. You'll get to read all six top stories in the next issue of Southword, so you can judge for yourself!

Is there anything you - and I - can take from this as writers? Well, here's the big one: to catch the eye of a judge - or a sifter - you have to do just that. Be eye-catching. Be DIFFERENT. But, and here's the hard thing, not gratuitously different. Not whizz-bang-let-off-fireworks different. Being different can be very very quiet. Being different can mean tackling the same theme - love and relationships, family dynamics, etc... - in a way that only you can do in your writing. Catch the judge's eye with your love for language. Or with a character who has such a distinctive voice from the first line that the reader is dying to find out more about him and what happens to him. 

Does a story submitted to a competition have to be different from one submitted to a literary journal? Now that's a very good question. It's been floated that there are "winning stories", that a competition winner is somehow more polished, better crafted. Well, I can only speak for myself but in the three comps I've judged this year, I wasn't interested in polish and craft. I'd far rather read a slightly messy and somewhat confusing story that took risks than a very neat story that plays it safe. 

I think, reading back over this blog post, that in fact none of it is very useful! I can't generalise much about anything. I still know what I love to read and what I don't. But there is never any way of knowing what a competition judge loves to read. As I mentioned a few months ago, I definitely don't love only the kinds of stories I write. 

So, in conclusion: write only what you want to write. Write only what you have to write. If you get longlisted, well that means you caught the judge's eye. If you don't that means that the judge liked other kinds of stories. Don't be disheartened. Send it out again. I'm happy to be back to doing that myself. I just sent 6 stories in to 2 flash fiction competitions. Will my experience as a judge help when they fail to get anywhere? I'm not sure, it will still sting. But I'll just send them out again.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Calls for Submissions for New International Journal: Short Fiction in Theory and Practice

As I settle down to read the last 200 or so submissions for the Sean O'Faolain competition that arrived in the post this morning (very heavy box!), I got this email from the wonderful Alison MacLeod, and thought I'd post it here:
We are still accepting submissions for the new, international journal Short Fiction in Theory and Practice until the end of this month. As some of you know, we're aiming to publish a terrific range of pieces -- from writers, academics and editors.

If you feel you might have an idea to develop or a piece that is already taking shape, please see the Call for Submissions. We'd be pleased to hear from you. Although the standard submission length is, as you will see, 4,000 words (plus) for articles, we're also happy to consider shorter pieces. If you'd like to discuss an idea or a piece briefly before submitting, you're very welcome to email Ailsa Cox, the Principal Editor, at .
This sounds like it is going to be a very interesting publication, a worthy addition to the short story scene.  If you have an idea, do contact them.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Problem With Second Books: Advice Please!

I always heard people talk about how difficult writing the Second Book was. The first book is almost always written without any thought of publication. Dreams, maybe, but no realistic expectation that anyone is ever going to read it. That's how it was for me, anyway. The stories in The White Road and Other Stories were written over about 2 years. All the science-inspired ones, the longer ones, were written while I was doing an MA in Creative Writing, and I'd never had anything published. My only thoughts then were, Please let me have enough words to pass the MA! I just wanted to get enough stories written to make the word count. I wasn't thinking about how they might work together, it was hard enough to write one story, let alone consider questions of collections and structure. 

Now, things are very very different. Now my name is on the spine of an actual book, a book that's been read by people I'm not related to, a book that's received reviews. What a wonderful thing! But it certainly makes the writing of Book 2 a different experience. I feel watched. I have thoughts in my head of what a reviewer might say... and this is before I've really even started writing it! 

Also, it's going to be another collection of short fiction, but this time with a very strong theme or concept - inspired by biology, inspired by being in the University labs, and also as a fictional response to a classic 1917 biology book. I've never been in this situation before, having committed to writing an entire book that fits this concept, being funded to do this by the Arts Council. How do I conceive of this project in my mind? Yes, I wrote the Arts Council application and said I'd do all sorts of things that sounded so impressive - but how do I actually now carry that out?

One thing I am mulling over is whether I write all the stories and keep them to myself until the whole collection is ready, or do I send individual stories out along the way to see if any get published? This immediately throws up another question: should the stories stand alone? Now when you talk about short stories, or when I'd always talked about them, I'd always asserted that yes, any short story in a collection should stand alone. Should? Is there a should? I'd love some opinions here. 

This isn't quite the same as something like a novel-in-stories, I don't imagine the same characters cropping up. But the stories will seem different when read in the context of the concept, the fictional response to the 1917 book. Yes, I could include a quote from the book at the beginning of a particular story when I submit it to a lit mag... but increasingly I am wondering about the effectiveness of quotes at the beginnings of stories. Yes, I did it a lot in TWR, but I imagine a lot of people skipped the quote and just read the story.

Ok, I can already hear many of you shouting at me, "Don't worry about all that now! Just write and see what happens!" Yes, you're quite right. I should do that. This is me being neurotic, right? But it also feels like I should spend a little time contemplating before I embark on this, to set sail in the right direction. Or at least to set sail in a direction even if I then change course. Advice appreciated - has anyone else approached a second short story collection in a completely different way from the first? Or any second book? Also, as readers would you want each story to stand alone?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Southword 18 now online with my fiction selections

The fruits of my first gig as Fiction Editor are now unveiled, with the publication of Southword Issue 18! I am delighted to announce that the fiction line-up is:

Felstead & Waddell- Hair Stories
Paul McMahon- The girl with drowned sailors in her eyes
Nora Nadjarian- La Dolce Vita
Helen R. Peterson- The Honeymoon is Over
Angela Readman- Belief
Ethel Rohan- At the Peephole 
and  a short story translated from Chinese by Wang Zhousheng- The Beautiful Mushrooms

I hope you enjoy my picks, I'm off to finish reading the Sean O'Faolain entries! Some real gems there too.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex

 A friend of mine, a published novelist, has just self-published a book under the name Alice Turing - and she is discussing how this came about over at Sue Guiney's blog today. It is a fascinating and inspiring story.The book was originally published by Random House in Germany and then no-one else picked it up, which left her feeling incredibly despondent. But then she had a thought. She says:
But what if I moved the goalposts, and made my own satisfaction the primary goal? What if my aim was to produce something beautiful, of a high standard which could be enjoyed by people I knew? What if I stopped jumping through hoops to sell books to readers I would never meet or hear from? What if I didn't have to make money from writing? What if I could just BE self-indulgent? Wouldn't that be lovely?

Well, it does sound lovely to me! Read the rest of the blog post here... I'm off to buy the book!

Monday, August 02, 2010

The First Story Sunday on Twitter

After leaving Facebook a few months ago, I've been using and enjoying Twitter much more than before, for its simplicity (no farmville, no distracting games!) and its usefulness, with people posting links to interesting and relevant articles, blog posts etc...Yesterday, I decided to start something up and see what happened: #StorySunday. If you're not familiar with Twitter, this is what's called a "hashtag", in other words it is how you set the topic of your tweet. And then people can search by topic. So, for example, #UKelection is a hashtag, or #WorldCup.

There is already #FollowFriday, where you post a tweet with names of people you follow on Twitter that you recommend to others, and #WriterWendesday, and also #FridayFlash, which is something I'm not completely clear about, but it sounds good!

The idea behind #StorySunday is that you link to a short story by somebody else that you've enjoyed recently. I was inspired by Sarah Salway's speech at the Bristol Short Story Prize awards ceremony where she said, stop having those discussions about whether the short story is alive or dead, if someone starts that, then just recommend some excellent stories for them to read instead. Such a great idea, something practical, show not tell!

For those of you who missed this and you are on Twitter, you can go and search for StorySunday. But I thought I'd also post all the stories people recommended here, so everyone can enjoy them, along with the name of those who Tweeted:

@taniahershman: The Father of Modern Chemistry" by Stefanie Freele in @PrimeNumberMag

@danpowfiction: here's a link to Dorothee Lang's 'Sky Blue @Metazen top piece of flash fiction

jonpinnockI enjoyed this one by @orbific this week:

@sara_crowley Enjoyed by @kirstylogan today (loved "squick of wet trainers...)  

@ benjaminjudge I'll add by @lonlonranch to the mix if that's ok

@kirstylogan "I take long leisure tipping the velvet..." Still wildly in love with this Rachel Swirsky story: 

@SteveHimmer Mark Neely, "Self-Portrait on the Mountain" @wigleaf 
@Jo_Simmonds Great story 'Spring never grows old' by Sam Jordison: Love 3am magazine 

@sarahsalway one of my absolute favourites, A Real Doll by A M Homes -

@JHammons "Stations of the Cross" by Maggie Sokolik on @fictionaut

@sarahsalway   And here is interview with Alice Elliott Dark, author of the story I raved about at @BristolPrize -
@AJAshworth Just taught me at Arvon, he's fab - Peter Hobbs, Deep Blue Sea

@OscarWindsor My first submission - a short short: 
This is one of my fave, recent, shorties:

@scMFA   A  terrific story by @scMFA faculty member David Bajo archived at @FiveChapters:

@ OscarWindsor --A quirky, bloky, funny and really quite intellectual story from a fine short story wordsmith

@ Perednia   What You Pawn I Will Redeem by Sherman Alexie:

So there you go, StorySunday recommendations for this week! Hopefully it will spread further next Sunday. May we all spend the week discovering wonderful new stories to share!

I managed to add a widget - see right - to display the latest #StorySunday Tweets! I'm quite proud of this.