Short Story Collections – Under-rated

interior of a bookshop

Browsing in a very large bookstore recently, I searched for the short story section. There wasn’t one. I had just read a collection of short stories, “Fabulous”, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I loved this clever collection where well-known the author has retold the stories of mythical characters but in a modern garb. I was ready for another such collection and to find a new author. Despite countless shelves of fiction, I could find only seven different titles for short story collections. There were more titles for knitting.

On Amazon, both .co.uk and .com, a search for literary short stories brings up over 50,000 titles, but these include many for foreign language learners. Local libraries rarely have a separate section for short stories, and there are few listed in their catalogues. You might expect a greater appetite for short stories than for poetry, but you can usually find a shelf-full of poems. It seems logical that short fiction would sell better than long when our tastes are for the quick bite: we text in condensed format, tweet in 140 characters, TV dramas change character and scene rapidly to retain audience attention. But there’s little evidence of eagerness for short stories. Most magazines dropped their short story features long ago and big fat Harry Potter novels are the best sellers. How few Amazon reviews there are for even the most respected short story writers in comparison with minor and short-lived genre fiction titles.

Even so, there are numerous competitions for short stories. If at least the top ten entries are publishable, that should mean hundreds of stories printed every year, but no. Perhaps it’s because there are so many sites where short stories can be read free? Typically, winning stories are available online. Leaving aside those sites where new writers are trying out their stories for online criticism and encouragement, such as Inkitt and Wattpad, free reads of past works are offered by Project Gutenberg.

The covers of short story collections are often bland and devoid of visual information. It’s unlikely they’ll catch the eye and win a serenditipous sale. Yet, such collections have likely some sort of theme. If none is suggested by the author, such as revenge or love or conflict, there is always the culture, time or place of the story settings. Isn’t it worth the designer encapsulating some relevant image to attract book browsers? 

Here’s a sample of fairly recent short stories well worth sampling. The Best American Short Stories 2023 ed Min Jin Lee (brilliant author herself); Christmas is Murder: A chilling collection Val McDermid; Old Babes in the Wood, Margaret Attwood (for which volume I enjoyed attending her promo in Bath). The Best Short Stories 2023, Ed. Lauren Goff;

And of course, I hope you would consider reading my own paired collection: Me-Time Tales and Curious Men.


WRITING STIMULI

To find but not discover.

I often visit Jersey. (If you are not from the UK, this is an island nearer France than England with its own government and personality. It is not in the UK, but a crown dependency – in fact a bailiwick.

From time to time, little observations that strike me as a mainlander also suggest themselves as possible triggers for a story. Here’s one:

Mobile phone with broken screen isolated on white.

I sat with friends for a picnic lunch and shared a photo from my mobile phone; a bridesmaid who had impressed for elegance. A left-behind phone on the bench resulted. I won’t be the first or the last to do that.

If I’d been in England, that would have been the last I saw of my mobile. I still mourn a particularly nice Samsung full of scenic photos that somehow I dropped in South Devon, and no amount of form filling that the police offer brought the faintest hint of a recovery.

But this was Jersey. It took me an evening and the next morning before I realised the phone was not in the house. In the meantime, a man passing the bench had picked it up and immediately messaged on Facebook that he’d found it, including its photo (a good identifier since I’d cracked the screen producing a particularly artistic web pattern). He added that if it was not claimed within an hour or two, he would take it to the police station. Well, Jersey is a small place, smaller than the Isle of Wight, so there is only one police station. The man will have had to drive there, the other end of the island from where the bench was. Bless his kind heart!

We contacted him to thank him, and filled in a form for the police. They phoned us to confirm they had the phone (!) and said, because it was so hot, just collect when it suited us. Can you imagine that happening in England?

I said to my host, “I wonder if that man is a cousin of yours.” Not a great joke, because if you’ve always lived in Jersey you will be related to a large number of other residents…a matter I’ll discuss in another post.

Meanwhile, the WRITING PROMPT. Suppose your lost phone was picked up, unknowingly, by the one man you would least like to contact? Due to its security code, the only thing this man could see on my phone was my step counter. You might not want your man finder to see even that… The rest is for your imagination.

Marketing for Fiction Writers

crowd so eager to buy
All so desperate to buy your books

All writers need good marketing and there are plenty of contenders on the net offering help or tools towards marketing for fiction writers.

You know the usual approach, an email with video offer: a video that begins with 20 minutes of insistent voice outlining typical author problems, another 10 minutes of the entrepeneur’s success – usually via setbacks and problems (to show you he’s been where you are and COME THROUGH) and there you are waiting and waiting for the promised help, tip or tool. Near the end of the video it comes in miniature, followed by the plug to buy the book, video, or course that really holds this apparently magic solution to marketing for fiction writers.

The thing is, if you show people gold, there’s a chance they’ll buy it. If you yap on and on about people’s need for gold, the misery of not having it, the desirability of buying it and how you own gold, silver, diamonds etc., but you never show anything, you produce frustration, envy, and – in the case of sales – probable disappointment.

Epitome of success

So I will mention two entrepeneurs who do not disappoint and are not full of bull. No, I have NO affiliations and gain nothing but this post from talking about them. I’ve tried them and benefited from them.

Firstly, Bryan Cohen. Recently, he offered a free video about writing a book description, his Best Page Forward service. Bryan’s delivery is to the point. He speaks clearly and unhesitatingly about the process. It’s obvious this is from confident practice of his technique which he then demonstrates live. Using an actual example of someone’s fiction title and synopsis, he analyses key selling points, divides into sentences, strategically ordered. This effective copy writing process is shown in full, suggestions from the video audience invited and used and by the end, produces a really good book description that any author would be thrilled to have. Yes, there are services to be bought advertised at the end but viewers will have clearly seen their worth and, importantly, if they can’t afford to buy, they have learned, or at least seen, valuable techniques. This gives confidence in buying Bryan’s other services and tools, on the basis of “This was so convincing, I bet his other stuff is good, too.”

Secondly, there’s the talented Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur. He gives away quite a lot online, such as his neat conversion from written book description to an html output so that it looks good on Amazon or elsewhere. I have his PublisherRocket: once bought, all updates (and they are frequent) are free. Rocket helps with keywords and categories and considerably slims down the process of discovering these. It’s best for US markets, but a great and quite comprehensive tool. Moreover, Dave answers emails himself, and promptly. So any hiccups in using this or his other tools are quickly ironed out.

Entrepeneurial treasures

Many groan about having to engage in marketing techniques for fiction writers. There’s a whole deluge of offered supports and solutions out there. Some may be great, a lot really are NOT. At least I can write a post about two entrepeneurs who deliver.

Turning to Art through fiction

I have a keen interest in cross-fertilization. This post is about turning to Art through fiction.

This post was sparked by turning to Art programmes on TV during lockdown. At a time of constant real-life drama, fictional crises and any human concerns were too difficult to watch. Art is a way of taking the mind to a calmer place, and it was easier to concentrate on descriptions of paintings, or artists at work.

Consider the rôle of Art in fiction. The dramatic opening of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch introduces the precious little painting that entrances its young visitor to the art gallery, so much so that he rescues it from the calamitous event. Is it all he will have left of the mother who died and who loved that painting? The hero’s journey in this wonderful novel is actually the secret journey of the painting. The plot makes the reader long to see the original Goldfinch work and thus, turn to Art through fiction.

The goldfinch, Carole Fabritius

Above is a tiny 1654 oil by Carole Fabritius. This link shows the delicate brushwork, and which of use would have seen it let alone considered it artistic qualities if not from reading the novel?

Similarly, I learned about the Scottish contribution to the development of photography from In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon. This is a fictionalised biography of David Hill, (D.O.Hill) who, with his partner, Robert Adamson, produced the earliest art form of Scottish photographs.

This novel begins with a minister, Scobie, travelling to view the famous Disruption Painting by David Hill. It showed the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission on 23rd May 1843. Four hundred ministers were represented in it, and many other men and women…only after his really arduous journey, Scobie finds his own face is missing. Imagine the psychological effects of that: being wiped from an event of such historic interest, and one of such significance to him! Rather like being omitted from your parents’ will. Without that painting, Scobie would have continued seeing himself as an essential part of that historic event. Turning to the painting itself, the hundreds of characteristic and life-like portraits, including some bystanders, make it easy to empathise with a minister who must have felt faceless and excluded. This character prompts the reader to discover the painting.

NewhavenFishwife on text by Stevenson.jpg

Alison Bacon describes beautifully how entranced Hill is by his subjects. Her description of his capturing some fishergirls in a spontaneous photograph led me to seek that out, and find how amazingly characterful and atmospheric all his work is, despite photography being in its infancy. How different from the stiff poses of most Victorian photographs!

I knew nothing of these Scottish pioneers, but fiction brought me to admire their achievements in the art form of photography.

Lastly, Jennifer Cody Epstein’s novel The Painter from Shangai introduced me to the incredible work of Pan Yuliang who turned to Art after being sold into prostitution. She later married a rich official who supported her talent and she became the first Chinese female artist to paint in Western style, having studied in Paris and later, Italy. The novel’s fictionalised history is fascinating in itself, but Yuliang is not an artist I knew or believe is particularly well known in the U.K. Again, the novel drew me to the Art, Yuliang’s atmospheric style of portraiture.

Portrait by Pan Yuliang.jpg

Art through fiction – this is a topic I am likely to return to.

FORTHCOMING NOVEL

A psychological novel in two 88k volumes

BEWARE WHAT YOU WISH FOR!

Coming very shortly, first to Amazon, November 28th, then to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and paperback in Spring 2020.

Themes: Identity, family, illusion, dark secrets, misrepresentation, ethical dilemmas, disillusion, personal growth and the craziness of human beings

At 28, Terry fantasises a life more exciting than his marriage or job provide, but then he meets someone amazing on his daily commute and his life is changed forever. He rushes home to tell his wife, Gudrun, but events prevent him. But what is she hiding, and why? Both have developed some awkward secrets. When Terry opens his Pandora’s Box it traps him into increasingly bizarre situations. Bizarre can be funny, but also tragic, and this novel offers both, as well as a great deal of mystery.

Will Terry ever discover what he really needs to know? Is Gudrun a heroine, a victim or a packet of trouble?

Writing at the speed of light

carbonaceous chrondite
meteorite

 

SPEED OF LIGHT was the theme for September’s Story Friday evening, held at the cave-like theatre at Burdell’s Yard – in conjunction with A Word in Your Ear

Story Fridays are held every second month in Bath, UK. Six or seven writer-performers read freshly-minted stories inspired by a theme, this time Speed of Light. The packed audience heard stories intriguing, exciting, sad, straight and downright hilarious.

I was very happy that another of my short stories was one of these: The Find.  It was not written at the speed of light, however. If you write about meteorites you have to find out about them. This certainly took time, especially as I have no geology in my background. This tale was about the finder who became a – wait for it – meteoriticist, (takes practise to say!) It’s the story of how a young man turns tragedy into obsession and how that obsession separated him from “a peopled life”.

It was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox. You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed my tale.

Mine was only one of the stories read, the packed audience enjoying a wide range of content that evening from talented writers using sci-fi, romance, humour  to interpret SPEED OF LIGHT in their own ways.

(Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, are the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway.)

I didn’t ask the other authors how long they took to write their stories, but this is relevant because there’s currently a great deal of interest in writing a great many books in a short time to ensure (attempt) a very good income (Anderle). That has sparked a great writers’ debate around quality versus quantity and, in effect, whether everyone can write at the speed of light, or what may seem like it to those who need a couple of years or more to complete one novel.

Writing a huge number of books in a short space of time? Well, it’s been done, it’s being done. Usually there are characters who appear in different adventures/situations in each book, with the genre being closely defined – e.g. urban fantasy. There may be a close similarity of structure, characterization and plot within the books in the series. It fits with a life-style that demands instantaneous gratification.

This writing is at the opposite end of the scale to writing Flash Fiction which may be read in a flash but can take many attempts to whittle away the word count. This means heavy investment in word choice and serious consideration of meaning.

Short stories – that is stories of 1,000 words upwards – are different in many ways and different to write. There’s more to discuss as shown on sites such as Shortstops, Tania Herschmann’s website. How long does it take to write a satisfying story, beginning, middle, end? Something credible, because it has been properly researched. Something memorable? It’s worth asking different short story authors for the answer, which in itself depends on how the germ of the idea came to the author’s mind. More of this in another blog post.

 

 

 

Planner or pantser

Do you know how you will plan your novel? 

There are two kinds of writers: those who plan, and those who write on the seat of their pants. I would love to write the synopsis, theme, backgrounds of each character, main events of each chapter, before I ever begin but that just won’t work for me. When I start a novel I only have a germ: a snatch of dialogue, an incident, a theme. I don’t even know what kind of characters will pop up, which will prove to be major and even where the setting of dramatic scenes will be.

Despite the discipline of degrees and diplomas and a Ph.D. I’m not just a dyed-in-the-wool, but an irrevocably skin-stained, bone-irradiated, ingrained irredeemable pantser.

Working on the small germ,  something happens to the character speaking or experiencing the incident. That turns into a chapter. At the end of one chapter, I know what has to happen in the next but not further. By about the fourth chapter something emerges that enriches or expands the plot, becomes a sub-plot or develops one of the characters.

The novel outline falls into place when I know the ending. Usually that’s before I get halfway. Then it’s a matter of laying out the remaining ground, including character backgrounds, needed for reaching that end.

All my fiction has one thing in common (as well as their manner of creation) — they are character-led. I can’t write any other way.

No great plan but interesting things gradually emerging. 

Here’s an example of my writing process. A Relative Invasion is a trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII.  

It all began with one tiny thread. An elderly man chatting to me mentioned that he had been the last child to be ‘chosen’ by the villagers where his school had been evacuated. The children had been walked around the village in a crocodile. This man had been a tall seven-year-old, (‘He’ll cost a bit to feed and clothe’) and was only taken in reluctantly.

I thought, children must have been so resilient at that time. And so Billy was born, a sturdy well-meaning boy. But he was only aged five in 1937, and so I found myself writing historical fiction (with all the research that entails). The key figure at that time was, of course, Hitler, and his rise to power came as result of German resentment , humiliation and envy after the end of WWI.

Somehow, a cousin for Billy surfaced, one who would experience these negative emotions and turn them into psychological bullying to make Billy’s life a misery. However, this Kenneth would have undoubted talents and would need to be charismatic for the adults to be blind to the bullying. I made him artistic and physically frail.

Now I had a theme for my novel whereby the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) would be mirrored in micro by this family, and particularly the two cousins in their developing rivalry.

Billy needed a secret symbol of power to support him.  I hit upon a Cossack sabre, that then needed a background story of its own. This led me into Russian/ Germanic conflict at the start of WWI. And the sabre icon would need to filter through to a conclusion.

I am not recommending this approach to writing, just saying that novels can emerge bit by bit as the narrative continues, and in this case, it was a trilogy that emerged.

Are you are writer? Consider which kind you are.

Starting to write a novel

 

Leonid_Pasternak_001

 

Are you starting to write a novel? Yes, it’s hard. Really, it’s best just to press on with it rather than tell people about it. There will be time for that when you’re finished.

Here are 10 points to consider. You can waste so much time in the early stages of starting a novel when you should be just getting that important first draft down. Before listing these, one thing that will help you above all others, is to buy Scrivener. At around £45.00 it’s the best purchase I’ve ever made and if I’d had it years ago, I would have had a longer life and lived more of it! It organizes all your writing and avoids all those hours searching for previous drafts, short notes you’d made on a character or setting and so on. It will considerably help your structure. You can even trial it free.

Let’s say you’re well past the ‘thinking about writing a novel.’ You have the germ of the plot and have written enough to imagine the finished work in your hand. Download the trial of Scrivener and start building your chapters, or scenes within the chapters. (iTunes has how-to videos).

Now consider these ten points.

1. Write your target quota each day before entering any social media site. Social media diverts you, it is time-consuming and will seriously cut in to your allotted writing time.  Scrivener provides a progress signpost, showing how well you are meeting your target.

2.  Write from your instinct before reading any writing advice on style. This is to ensure it is your voice that emerges on the page. Texts on the craft of writing are best read before or between writing novels. The analytical task is best kept separate from the creative one of starting to write a novel.

3.  Similarly, only seek feedback when you have planned and written a substantial section. It is your novel from your imagination and experience. Others’ views and suggestions when you are writing the first draft will confuse that first push to get the story down.

4.  Only seek feedback from other writers. Readers’ views are wonderful, but only when your novel is published or ready to publish.

5.  Stop and decide where the plot is going one third of the way through. You might write the end at this point.

6.  Lie in bed and hear your characters’ voices clearly. Feel their conflicts and listen in to their conversations.

7.   When you are ready to read your first draft, print it out. Highlight the sections you’re unhappy with in blue. Scrivener allows for you to mark your chapters or scenes with colours according to how near they are to ‘finished.’

8.   Beyond halfway, read the first and last lines of every chapter. This is a way of seeing a ‘want to read on’ for your future readers.

9.   Your own voice and writing style will be uppermost in your mind.  Read a highly rated novel – with a very different plot from yours – while you take a break. High quality writing is privilege to read. Each such work has some impact on your own developing skill.

10.   Care about your characters and write their future… and above all, get on with your writing NOW

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