Category Archives: general

Sensational shorts

cropped-img_4420.jpgDo you ever wonder what makes a standout short story? I don’t mean a decent, solid, pleasing story, I mean one that grips you by the collar, rattles your bones, pops your eyeballs out. Or one that seems innocent, even placid, but lingers and trails and sticks its fingers in your brain long after you stop reading. That kind of story.

I’m no writing expert. I don’t have formal qualifications in writing. My only claim is that I both read and write a lot of short fiction. So this is just my personal opinion. (Before I go on, I’d just like to clarify that I’m not addressing any basic story-writing concepts here, I’m presuming anyone reading is familiar with short story basics of a story arc, characters, plot, point of view, etc.)

There are so many options for reading short fiction. Stories are on Twitter and Facebook links, on blogs, on online literary mags. We can read print anthologies, story collections and lit magsSo if we’re going to give our time to a story, we’d like it to sparkle in a way that is new and intriguing. How does the writer do this?

I think every truly great story has something that sets it apart, a certain pizazz. That pizazz can be created in many different ways, but it makes the reader sit up, take a breath, or lean closer, thinking Oooh, this is different. 

An exceptional story may contain:

An original setting. Instead of placing the main characters in your country, send them to Finland. Laos. Crete. Do your research, or use past experience if you’ve been lucky enough to live or travel overseas. If that sounds too tricky, consider a twist on familiar locations. A nudist beach. An alpaca farm. A city where all the traffic lights are flashing orange.

A strange turn of events. You may really want to write about a man sitting at his dying father’s bedside, and although that’s been done many times, it can still work beautifully if there’s another element, another storyline that adds depth and heightens the sorrow. Maybe while he’s sitting there, his father’s phone keeps ringing with crank calls from a scammer and maybe the son somehow ends up talking to the scammer at length, though not about his father. Something weird that adds to the story.

Humour. I don’t use this much myself, just the odd wry comment, because it doesn’t come naturally to me. But some writers do this so well, and funny stories are like precious gems. So often short stories are sombre or grim, and they don’t have to be this way. Laughing on and off through a piece of short fiction is so refreshing! For me, the best funny short stories are the ones that still have ‘heart’ – a message or meaning to go with the humour. I’m not a fan of stories that are odd or silly, just for the sake of it. I still need to be emotionally invested in some way. Julie Koh does this so well – her collection Portable Curiosities is a fabulous, innovative, very funny book.

A strong voice. Some stories hit you in the chest because right from the beginning the voice sweeps you away. The story is told with a confidence that has the reader spellbound. I think a distinctive or unusual voice is tough to pull off, especially for a beginner writer. No one seems to be able to define what it is, or how to achieve it, precisely. (I’m still working to find a clear voice in my short fiction, and I think only practice and reading more excellent writing will help.)

Passion. Sometimes it’s tempting to mimic other writers. I’ve fallen prey to that myself, thinking I need to write more political stories, or funnier stories, or a story about something more offbeat. When I’ve tried, fought against my own writing self, my stories have been awful. I say don’t try to write a story about a man who wears a tea cosy for a hat, unless you’re really excited and keen to write that story. Unless you have a whole backstory in your mind about that man and why he wears that hat, and you literally can’t wait to get it all down, forget it. Fantastic stories are written when we are drawn to write them, even feel compelled to write them. We’re curious or upset or horrified or scared, but for whatever reason, we must write that story. Often these stories turn out to be our best, and it’s hard to figure out why on a sentence level. We just know we poured out our hearts and minds.

 

These are the elements I find can take a story to the next level, but I’m sure there are many more. What are your tips?

 

 

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A crazy good Monday

Richell-Longlist-2018-Blog-HeaderMonday morning I was dialling my ‘other mother’ Lynsey, who lives on Vancouver Island, to wish her a happy 80th birthday. As the phone rang, my eyes flicked to my computer screen, and I saw an email from Will Dawson, executive director of the Emerging Writers Festival, letting me know I’d been shortlisted in the 2018 Richell Prize. My heart almost stopped. I’d been stunned to get longlisted last month, let alone making it any further.

I talked to Lynsey for about an hour, then got off the phone and stared for awhile at the emails and tweets and messages coming in. My eyes filled with tears. I started replying. After awhile, I messaged my husband and my best friend. I called my dad. I called my mum.

When I collected my kids from school they were excited, but that night, my son was disgusted to discover I hadn’t posted on social media. I tried to explain that several other writers had posted on my behalf, that I’d received heaps of congratulations and I didn’t want people to feel they had to do it all over again. He was still unimpressed. “Nope. You should have posted. That’s what you do.” Then I worried that the judges or Richell prize organisers and supporters would think I wasn’t grateful for the shortlisting, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I am so thrilled, and so thankful.

So here I am today, posting about my Monday, which was the very best Monday of my life.

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going wild

IMG_3414I went away for a few days with my family, and the cabin we stayed in had no mobile phone reception, no internet connection, no tv channels. We were on the edge of a national park, so during the day we walked the tracks and in the evening we ate simple dinners, read and watched movies on the couch (I did appreciate the DVD player and TV screen!). I had mobile reception on top of two rocky climbs in the middle of nowhere, and found myself answering texts from work, much to my family’s disgust. But apart from that, we were disconnected. We talked and joked and hung out together. Annoyed each other and ate potato chips. My son made a fire in the pot-belly stove. None of us were glued to our phones. We didn’t wander away to separate areas of the house, to separate computers and devices.

I realise that families are made up of individuals, all pursuing different goals. We all have different interests. It’s natural that we’ll spend time apart. And using technology is a part of life these days. But I loved having those three days without the intrusion of connectivity (well, apart from my work texts!), all together.

It was so relaxing, I wonder if a ‘fake’ disconnect would be almost as good? For when the news gets too grim, when every email is junk, when the Facebook feed is never-ending and the phone keeps ringing … just for one Sunday at home. Switched off from the internet with the answering machine taking all calls, going for long walks, taking baths, eating food cooked slowly whilst sipping wine or soda water. Maybe that would work, too, when getting physically away is impossible.

In the meantime, I’m determined to be intentional in how I spend my time, and how connected I am. Because as much as I love social media and interacting with people, sometimes I let myself get swamped by it, and I can spend hours flicking, reading, clicking. These past few days in the wilderness have reminded me I have choices, if only I pay attention. If only I pay attention.

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Writing amongst the trees

IMG_3297I can hardly believe my two weeks at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre are almost over. I’ve had such a good time here, and not in exactly the way I expected.

I thought I’d write three or more stories during my residency. But I arrived with a story yet to be finished, and worked on that for a couple of days. Then I panicked for a couple of days, because I felt this intense pressure to choose a Good Idea for my next story and nothing seemed close to adequate (normally I would take the vaguest of concepts and just wing it). Eventually I calmed down and told myself to just play. So I tried something I’ve never tried – writing a story in second person. It was truly bad at first, so I worked on it, and now it’s approaching fair. After that I began a new story which I’m having fun writing. And here I am on the Friday of the last week.

So with two full writing days to go, I’ve edited one story, written a full story in second person, and am perhaps halfway through a new tragi-comedy sort of piece. I wouldn’t call that an enormous output yet. I say yet because I have no doubt that my experiences here will lead to more stories, perhaps as many again as I have written so far. I have walked at sunset, shopped in an Indian grocery store, met many creative people, attended writing groups and had dinner with a lovely writer friend I hadn’t yet been able to meet in person. I’ve had meals and discussions and lots of laughter with the other two Fellows here. I’ve read every night before bed. I’ve had time to become immersed in writing.

It became a bit of a catchcry between myself and my next-door neighbour Fellow Mark J Keenan (who is going through the re-drafting process with his novel) – It’s not about the word count, it’s about the whole writing experience. Thinking, planning, dreaming, talking and writing amongst the trees.

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