Guest Post: Amanda Huggins on Killer Short Stories

In the latest of my six-month series of guest posts from authors of new books, Amanda Huggins gives some tips for fledging short story writers.

If you want to write killer short stories, then one of the most important things to do is to read killer short stories. Lots of them. It sounds obvious, yet I often meet blank looks when I ask writers who are new to short fiction to name their favourite short story writers. Short stories aren’t novels-in-miniature, any more than novels are extended short stories. They are two different skill sets, and the best way to get started is to read the masters.

A great short story needs to plunge straight in with no preamble. It should have conflict, a strong ending, a limited cast of characters, and every word should count. (If only I stuck to those rules myself!)

I have countless favourite short story writers and the collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, Helen Dunmore, A L Kennedy, Wells Tower, Stuart Evers, Miranda July, Yoko Ogawa, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Angela Readman, and A M Homes.

A recent delight was Helen Dunmore’s posthumous collection, Girl Balancing, and I particularly loved the first section of the book, ‘The Nina Stories’. These stories are almost notes for a novel-in-waiting; a sequence of vignettes centred around a girl called Nina, set in the 60s/70s. They are painstakingly intense; attention is paid to Nina’s every moment and action, and there are some lovely period details that evoke a strong sense of place. The writing turns the mundane into something beautiful, and the final story soars. Seventeen-year-old Nina is left alone on Christmas Day in a house at the seaside. She goes roller skating along the seafront with her friend, Mal, and when the mood turns, she must outwit him. I’ll leave you to find out for yourself if she succeeds.

I’d also recommend having several pieces of work out there at any given time. If you only submit one story and then wait patiently for it to be rejected/accepted, when that rejection comes it will hit hard. If you have ten or twenty pieces out at any given time then the rejections won’t feel as bad.

Never forget that the opinions of editors and judges are subjective. So be persistent! My story ‘Red’ was a runner-up in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award, but had already been rejected by a couple of magazines and failed to reach the longlist of three smaller competitions.

Sadly, despite an encouraging rise in sales of short story collections, it’s still difficult to get work published anywhere for hard cash. That’s why prizes and awards are so important to emerging short story writers, and why I still enter most of my stories into competitions first.

Lastly, really take note of feedback. It’s all too easy to reject criticism, yet in my experience the advice of a good editor is nearly always sound.

Amanda Huggins is the author of four collections of short fiction and poetry. She was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award 2018, and her prize-winning story, ‘Red’, features in her latest collection, Scratched Enamel Heart. Her poetry chapbook, The Collective Nouns for Birds won the Saboteur Award for poetry in 2020. Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.

Blog: https://troutiemcfishtales.blogspot.com/

Twitter: @troutiemcfish

Amanda Huggins
Scratched Enamel Heart is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scratched-Enamel-Heart-Amanda-Huggins/dp/191606938X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=scratched+enamel&qid=1589632869&s=books&sr=1-1


Guest Post: Ali Thurm on A Room of My Own

In the second of a six-month series of guest posts from authors of new books, Ali Thurm introduces us to her writing life:

Where I write

Six months ago I moved from a large family house where I had my own ‘writing room’ to a flat. Apart from when my daughter comes home from university, I now have a whole flat to write in. I can write wherever I want.

I need to see real people, especially working on characters, so my pc is set up in the bay window overlooking the street. I sometimes use my laptop at the back of the flat, where I can see the garden. It’s completely secluded but as I’m also passionate about gardening the temptation to go out and do something/anything in the garden can get too much. Like a restless child desperate to go out and play.

What’s on my desk

Sharp HB pencils and biros (Paper-mate Inkjoy). A visual reminder of the tools of being a writer, and a remnant from my days as a primary teacher. I love sharpening pencils – a preparing (some might say delaying) strategy – the smell takes me right back to a summer working in the Cumberland Pencil Factory in Keswick.

A Christmas cactus with Barbara Cartland shocking pink blooms once a year.

An almost spherical glass paperweight full of bubbles.

My prize possession – a Howard Hodgkin postcard Bombay Sunset with stripes of gorgeous orange, red and green signed by Julian Barnes. A reminder that all writers are human; and how good it is to connect with writers you admire and future readers who’ll enjoy your own writing.

How I write

When I’m at the first draft stage, generating new writing, I write long hand in an ordinary notebook with a biro or pencil. I write the scene I’m most interested in at the time. For me there’s something about cursive writing – the fact that letters are joined together – that makes new writing flow more easily than the staccato tap-tapping on a keyboard. This kind of writing can take place anywhere – train, café, park (pre-lockdown). At home I sit on an old 1920’s sofa with a drop-down arm so I can recline like Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Editing is all on screen – I’m on the third draft of what is actually novel number three, so at the moment I’m mostly at the pc.

When I write

A typical day starts by a walk around the garden (it’s a small London garden so that doesn’t take long!) looking at the natural world and breathing in fresh air. If I’m on a roll with my writing I might head for my desk at 8.30 but usually I work 10 – 1 then 4 – 6. The afternoon is for exercise (yoga, walking, swimming and gardening). The evening for friends/family and reading or films. But there’s also volunteering – a writing club for children and community gardening – and Twitter of course. There isn’t really a typical day!

And in this strange time

During lockdown I struggled at first to do any writing apart from a few writing exercises of 10 minutes a day and spent a lot of time out in the garden or on the phone to friends/family. For the last few weeks I’ve started editing my novel The River Brings the Sea, a dystopian story of a group of people surviving in West Cumbria after a catastrophic flood. You can see why it’s been difficult to pick up where I left off, and I’m not sure how many people will want to read it after surviving Covid 19. But it’s a hopeful narrative where kindness and community spirit win in the end.


Ali Thurm is a novelist, poet and teacher. After balancing a career in primary teaching with writing part time, she was taken on by the literary agency Emily Sweet Associates in 2016. Her debut novel, One Scheme of Happiness was published in February 2020 by Retreat West Books. You can follow Ali on Twitter @alithurm and her website is  https://alithurm.com

Ali Thurm
One Scheme of Happiness can be ordered at your local independent bookshop or from: Amazon  http://amazon.co.uk/dp/1916069320/ and 
Waterstones https://www.waterstones.com/book/one-scheme-of-happiness/ali-thurm/9781916069329

Guest Post: Laura Besley on Launching in Lockdown

Covid-19 has changed all our lives. Book launches have not been possible in the traditional way. This is the writer Laura Besley’s experience:

We thought we’d timed it to perfection; my debut flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, would launch on Saturday 21st March at the States of Independence festival in Leicester, conveniently one day before Mother’s Day in the UK. Best laid plans, however, were not to be. The festival was cancelled, along with all other scheduled events due to UK lockdown which was enforced from 23rd March. Now what?

When I first heard that the festival was cancelled I was disappointed, obviously, but it was overshadowed somewhat by the excitement of holding an actual copy of my book in my hands. In lots of ways, I’ve been lucky. Getting The Almost Mothers published has been quick in “book years”. About half of the pieces were written in 2018 during #FlashNaNo (write a piece of flash fiction every day for the month of November). I realised early on that the pieces were all relating to the theme of motherhood. In December I polished them and put them, along with some older pieces, into a collection, which I submitted to a competition and was overjoyed when it long listed.

In April 2019 I saw a call for submissions from Dahlia Books (run by editor/publisher Farhana Shaikh). I sent a DM and I got a full manuscript request. Over the moon, I sent it in. By July I was losing hope, so checked the website and read that Farhana doesn’t read new manuscripts over the summer, so decided to leave it another couple of months. In September she sent an email asking to meet and after chatting about it, she offered me a contract. We decided early on that we wanted to launch in March to tie in with the festival and Mother’s Day, which would be quite tight, but we both thought it was the right thing to do.

Fast forward to March 2020 and after a lot of hard work, my book was ready. I met Farhana to pick up my copies and sign the pre-ordered copies, my hand trembling a little as I triple-checked how to spell people’s names. (Aside: I had conveniently heard in the Honest Authors podcast that week not to sign books with the same signature as on your bank card. Good point.) I have to admit I was a little relieved at not having to do a public reading and answer questions on a panel. As with all silver linings, though, there was a big black cloud: how would we get my book to sell now?

I don’t think anyone knew in March just how hard lockdown would be (in fact, continues to be) and how hard book sales, especially those of independent booksellers and publishers, would be hit. Again, I feel very lucky. People have bought my books. To be honest, I sometimes wonder whether more people have bought my book because of lockdown. Generally people are reading more, but above that there seems to be a genuine shift to support small(er) businesses and therefore indie presses. Amongst authors, especially the ones I’m friends with on Twitter, there is a huge amount of support for which I’m extremely grateful. I’ve also made a lot of new connections recently and again that could be because of the current situation. It’s hard to say. What I can say is that when someone contacts you to tell you they’ve bought your book, or read it, or even loved it, that totally makes my day.

Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online, as well as in print and in various anthologies. Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020. She tweets @laurabesley

Laura Besley
Laura’s book is available from http://dahlia-books.kong365.com/en-gb/collections/our-books/products/the-almost-mothers

My photo prompt for Retreat West

I was delighted to be invited to put forward a photo prompt for the Retreat West Micro Fiction competition in April, and even more delighted that it inspired 139 people to enter, the largest number since the monthly competition has been running!

It was fascinating to read the shortlisted entries, and I loved both the winning entries, which you can read here.

I thought people might be interested to know where I took the photograph. It is at Borobudur in Central Java, Indonesia.

This famous Buddhist site is often referred to as a temple, but it’s actually a place for walking meditation on the stone friezes, which are on seven levels.

When I visited, back in 2013, we got there very early in the morning because by soon after 9am it is too hot to be up there. We were not alone – there were, as you can see in the photograph above, masses of school children too! Here’s what I wrote in my travel journal at the time:

Children kept asking if they could take my photograph and I kept saying ‘no thank you’. My friend said – ‘You should photograph the monument, this is your heritage, we are just human beings’. They didn’t get it, of course, how would they? To them, West is best. Wrongly of course.

The photograph I offered as the story prompt was taken with my back to the monument, looking out towards Mount Merapi. It looks peaceful in this scene, but is Indonesia’s most active volcano!

Java, from Borobudur
Mount Merapi, from Borobudur, Central Java, Indonesia

 

 

Guest post: Louise Tondeur with top tips and thoughts on writing in crazy times

When writer Louise Tondeur and I arranged to swap blog posts a couple of months ago we had no idea of the way the world was changing. 

Louise has added a preamble to the top tips she originally sent me and a caveat to one of her ‘don’ts’, to take account of the times in which we now find ourselves. I’m grateful to her for sharing this. 

 

How to write

You don’t need me to tell you that these are crazy times. Some people have more time to devote to writing right now, others have much less time or a much higher mental load and therefore less thinking space. My writing time has been cut in half, for instance, and I haven’t been able to think about it at all over the last week, but I’m extremely fortunate that my family are currently well and I do get some writing time as my wife and I can share the home-schooling. We’re all thinking about key workers at the moment and people are worried about loved ones, of course. So is now a good time to be writing at all? There are at least three answers to that. Firstly people need books, stories, poetry and screenplays more than ever right now. Secondly, writing can be a great way to express how you’re feeling about what’s going on. For example, by doing Julia Cameron’s morning pages. https://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/morning-pages/ Thirdly, if you don’t have time to write during the current crisis, be kind to yourself. You don’t need to add ‘worry about not writing’ to your metal load.

10 top tips

  1. Turn up regularly – make a commitment and schedule it. Why? Because the only real way you learn to write is by doing it. To me, ‘turning up’ includes making lists, simply noticing things, reading, morning pages, and scribbling down ideas or snatches of dialogue.
  2. Read, watch, listen – make time for it, especially in the genre you want to write in. Why? Nobody would try to design a chair without ever sitting down. It’s the same with writing. It’s possible you have more time for this at the moment, possibly not. My wife and I have been trying to watch silly funny programmes to take our mind off the crisis for half an hour or so. This is perfect for me as I would love to write for TV. I am absolutely considering this as ‘research’!
  3. Notice the world around you – use mindfulness to help you write. Why? Because that way you ‘make things new’ for your readers. I think this is one technique we can all practise while the world is going topsy-turvy. I have rediscovered Tara Brach’s meditations over the last few days, which has been incredibly helpful, but even without meditations, you could try to pause for five minutes to notice a plant outside or the things in the room around you. This is a powerful life skill anyway and when you write you can use these observations to make your work more authentic.
  4. Use all of the senses available to you – don’t always default to the visual. Why? Because you’re much more likely to go deeper – and therefore write something more touching or unusual. Again, even if you are unable to find time to write at the moment, use all of your senses when you’re observing the world around you, because that’s going to help you when you sit down to write.
  5. Get in touch with the small detail – don’t simply look at a tree, look at the veins on a leaf. Why? Because, to borrow Susan Sontag’s words, writers are ‘observers of the world’. This is probably my favourite tip of all and you don’t have to be able to go out into the world to do it.
  6. Put yourself in the way of inspiration – theatre, poetry readings, art galleries, and museums. Julia Cameron calls this technique ‘filling the well.’ You can’t do this in person at the moment of course but there are many ways to do it virtually. One good thing about this crisis is the way in which people have pooled resources so these virtual worlds are more accessible than ever. (Plus, one thing that has helped me a lot over the last few weeks is imagining the things I’ll do and the places I’ll go when the danger is over!) Why? Because there are no lightning bolts of inspiration – you’ve got to find it. Waiting around for inspiration is a big mistake.
  7. A combination of 1 – 6: be open to life. Get in the way of the universe. Say ‘yes’. Try new things. Why? See the answers to ‘why?’ under 1 – 6!
  8. Move. Dance, walk, swim, do yoga. Whatever it is, get outside your own head. Why? Because it gives the creative mind a chance to mull over whatever you’re writing and because moving gives us a new (and usually better) perspective on the world. As before, most of these things aren’t possible at the moment outside of the home but you can find dance and yoga classes (for example) on YouTube.
  9. Get to know other writers – join a writers’ group or start one, and check out your local writing centre’s website. Why? For motivation and accountability and for tacit knowledge about your local writing scene. My writing group is using Zoom to stay in touch. It’s easy to use once it’s up and running and a good way to chat to several people virtually.
  10. Try submitting something – or get hold of an opportunity from a writing magazine or online and work to the word count and deadline even if you don’t ultimately send it in. Why? Understanding the process of submission makes it a whole lot less scary and having a practice go makes it easier when you come to do it ‘for real’.

5 things NOT to do:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. We tend only to hear about successes, which warps the picture. Behind every success story you’ll find multiple ‘failures’ that were simply stepping stones.
  2. Don’t read / talk / think about writing without actually doing it. See tip number one above!
  3. Don’t give up after facing hurdles (for some people this means ‘the middle’ of whatever they are writing!). See these as opportunities to look for a solution. Believe me, this is where the fun starts.
  4. Don’t write only one draft. Real writing is redrafting – multiple times.
  5. Don’t write one thing. It’s easy to get fixated on ‘the Novel’ – I know that from experience. Have a go at writing a short story or a monologue or a poem. Give yourself a break from your main project.

I’m doing Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author coaching programme at the moment and she says that we should definitely compare ourselves to other writers – in detail not simply on social media – because then we will see how their writing lives have progressed, and understand the successes and challenges that got them to where they are. I’m adding that as a caveat to ‘don’t’ number 1, because if you do some detailed research it can be fascinating to compare yourself to other writers!

 

Louise Tondeur is a novelist and short story writer. She originally trained as a drama teacher, and currently tutors on the OU’s Creative Writing MA. She blogs at: http://www.louisetondeur.co.uk/blog and http://www.smallstepsguide.co.uk You can find her on Twitter here: @louisetondeur and on Facebook at: facebook.com/louisetondeurwriter

Author pic. Louise Tondeur
Louise Tondeur, credit Ana Bohane Photography