Tag Archives: short fiction

Truth in fiction

There’s been plenty of talk lately about truth in fiction. Most recently in an article by Alexis Nowicki, in which she describes the experience of having very specific details and events from her life woven into a short story that went viral – ‘Cat Person’, by Kristen Roupenian. Roupenian has since apologised, and admits she could at least have changed the identifying details.

When I read books as a kid, and even as a young adult, I naively believed that all fiction was purely imagined, dreamed up by the writer. I was amazed at how authors could make something invented seem so true.

I was probably in my late thirties (and still a reader only) before I began to realise that writers often stole snippets or great swathes or even almost entire narratives from their own lives, or from lives around them. I discovered that one of my favourite novels around that time, The Spare Room, was actually written from a real-life experience, in which Helen Garner helped nurse a terminally ill friend until the friend passed away.

I can understand the attraction of using actual people or events in fiction. It’s a way of grounding the piece in reality, and can function as a jumping-off point. My first story written as an adult was in a workshop run by the fabulous Edwina Shaw. She urged us all to think of something important that had once happened (to us or someone close to us) then write that story. Next, she suggested, add something that didn’t ever happen.

Even then, though, I must have naturally steered away from my using my own life in fiction. Instead I wrote the story of a suicide attempt in my family’s history. I didn’t know many of the details, so even in writing this ‘real’ event, there was a great deal of fiction. I embellished on the event, as Edwina instructed. This approach definitely helped spark creativity, as well as helping me understand how horrific it must have been for everyone involved.

Now, as my short story collection nears being sent to print, I’ve been thinking about the elements of truth in my fiction – wondering what I’ve revealed of myself, or others.

There are very few straightforward truths in the narratives. I’ve never been thrown from a snowmobile. I’ve never been a teenage boy obsessed with playing guitar. I’ve never cheated on my husband. But there are realities in the smaller details, and in emotions. I have heard the sound of a goods train at night, for the past twenty-one years. Like the young girl, Lana, in Christmas Party, I was often taken to teachers’ parties as a kid in Canada, where even at the age of seven or eight, I was aware of the undercurrents of heavy flirting between adults. And like Nadine in Boxing Day, I was once in a relationship that came to feel increasingly wrong.

Despite my protestations of ‘it’s practically all fiction’, I’m sure there’s more of myself on the page than I think. Some of my attitudes or emotions or political views will have crept into stories, inevitably. It’s occurred to me that my female characters are probably better-behaved, overall, than the male characters, showing my female bias. And I’m definitely obsessed with parent-child relationships.

But I can honestly say that none of my characters are people I know. They are all completely themselves, doing good, bad and commonplace things. Their views are frequently different to mine. Their actions do not belong to me, or to anyone in my life. Part of what delights me most about writing fiction is how the characters build themselves, come to life, say and do things as if of their own accord. To me, they’re entirely new people.

Of course there are truths in fiction. But equally, from fiction comes truth.

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Blasting out of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’re probably only just now catching your breath (and for those living in countries badly affected by COVID-19, I send you much empathy, and hope you’re keeping well).

You’ve likely been working all year at your other job (yes, very few of us can survive on the scant amount of money writing provides). So, hopefully you have at least a few days off, and some time to put your feet up. But before you do, you might want to consider these submission possibilities.

The Stinging Fly is accepting fiction and pitches for non-fiction pieces until January 8, 2021. This prestigious Irish literary journal publishes fiction from around the world. No cost to submit.

Asimov’s Magazine is an acclaimed American sci-fi magazine with a fast response time of around 5 weeks, accepting international submissions. Submissions free.

Overland is accepting non-fiction and poetry submissions from Australian writers at the moment, and also is running the Kuracca Prize which ‘encourages excellent and original works of Australian literature’. Aussie writers can enter poetry (up to 88 lines), fiction, essay, creative non-fiction and memoir (up to 300 words), cartoon or graphic stories and digital or audio storytelling. Entry to the prize costs $20 AUD ($12 for subscribers) and is free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers.

The Moth Poetry Prize closes December 31, and is open to submissions from around the world. Entry isn’t cheap but prizes are substantial.

You can also submit poetry and fiction to The Moth Magazine for free, any time from September to April.

For those of you who write short short fiction (maximum 1000 words), you may want to try the American Short(er) Fiction Contest which ends on Feb 2nd, 2021.

There’s also the Retreat West Flash Competition on the theme of ‘bridges’ due by December 30, for even shorter pieces (maximum 500 words). Cost is 8 pounds.

If you have a story of up to 2500 words relating to food and/or drink in some way, you might like to try the Mogford Prize, winner receiving 10,000 pounds. Entries due by Jan 13, 2021.

The Fiction Desk in the U.K. currently has 3 callouts due by Jan 31 – general short stories, ghost stories and stories about music. International submissions welcome. Word count 1000-20,000 words (preferred range 2000-7000 words). Fee for submission 4 pounds.

I hope at least one of these options provides a possible home for your work. Wishing you a wonderful break & a Merry Christmas (for those who celebrate), and a healthy and happy 2021!

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Christmas for nerds

Some of you may know I belong to a writing group called the Dead Darlings Society. We started as fellow writers wanting to improve, but over time we’ve become friends, too. They are all very good eggs.

Last night was our Christmas party, and there were the usual nibbles, champagne and platters. We talked about our writing setbacks and successes throughout the year. Then came my favourite part of the evening (because I am a huge writing nerd). We all took turns reading Christmas-themed ‘homework’ pieces, as set a couple of weeks ago by Dan the high school English teacher. Each story was pulled from a hat, so we didn’t know who wrote what, and after each reading we tried to guess the author. This year it was really difficult. Every story was enthralling, whether moving, suspenseful or hilarious. I was so proud of the creativity of my fellow writers.

The brief this year was to write a story with the first sentence containing 1 word, the second containing 2 words, etc, up to a 25 word sentence. It’s a lot of fun. If you’re feeling creatively stifled, you could give it a go. (Feel free to leave your story in the comments!)

Here’s mine, which no one guessed I’d written — partly because I pulled it from the hat myself, and deliberately ‘stumbled’ over a few words as I read, but also because it’s fairly light-hearted. No one expects that from me, evidently 😉

🎄 The Visit 🎄

Doorbell. He startles. Someone’s knocking downstairs.
Donald finishes his whisky. Lumbers to his feet, sways. Why hasn’t someone answered the door? Where’s Harrison, or Robbie or dopey Alan?
‘Hello?’ he calls from the living room, ‘Hello?’
He can’t believe this, can’t understand where everyone is. Melania’s probably sulking upstairs, but his bodyguards should be nearby. Apparently not tonight; maybe they’re scoffing Christmas cake in the kitchen downstairs. Or drinking whisky in the Mar-a-Lago gardens, laughing at him, doubled over.
The doorbell rings, and the knocking starts again and he calls, ‘Okay, okay!’ As he walks across the carpet and down the staircase, he sees no one. Suddenly the carols through the new Bose speakers sound a little creepy, and he shivers.
Donald approaches the front doors, slippers scuffing on the marble tiles, his forehead cold with sweat. He reaches a hand out, then retracts it, instead leaning to peer through the peephole, breathing fast.
On the other side is a man about his age in a crazy red suit, carrying a sack.
‘What do you want?’ Donald shouts, pulling back from the peephole as Jingle Bells pipes through the vast foyer.
There is a short silence, and he freezes, then a voice bellows from beyond the door, ‘Have you been good?’.
‘I’ve been good,’ Donald shouts, ‘I’ve made everything much, much better and if anyone says different they’re wrong, it’s fake news.’ He opens the door and Santa stands in the doorway and his face is sad and disappointed; he shakes his head.
‘Donald, Donald, Donald,’ Santa says as the Christmas music flows around them and something worms in Donald’s heart and he’s close to tears.
‘You’ve been very naughty, Donald,’ Santa says, ‘And now everyone is gone, because you treated them badly, and no one likes a Christmas arsehole.’
Santa upends his sack, and books fly out, titles like ‘Conquering Narcissism’ and ‘Make Yourself Great Again’, and Donald whispers, ‘Santa… you’re my only friend.’

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Filed under the joy of writing, Uncategorized

standing on the outside

Lately, people keep asking what my book of short stories is about. It’s a question I struggle with, because each story is different, and each piece is an exploration of a separate issue.

But there are commonalities. Like most writers, I have my obsessions.

The collection is called If You’re Happy, and happiness is certainly a theme. How people imagine happiness, the ways they achieve it, and how they are hindered in reaching that goal.

I’m also fascinated by wild weather and natural disasters, so there are stories involving a melting glacier, an earthquake, a tornado, a violent storm, a tsunami, a blizzard and a sinkhole. I’ve just written a new story with an erupting volcano.

But most of all, my stories revolve around loneliness or isolation. The characters are people who don’t completely fit in, or feel like outsiders in some way. It’s a subject close to my heart, because I’ve often felt on the outer, especially as a child.

I was a gawky kid who read a lot of books, had weird hand-me-down clothes and a bowl haircut (see picture, aged ten or eleven). I was overly earnest. I had no siblings until I was eight and a half, so I spent years playing on my own, and had no idea how to ‘fight back’ if picked on in the playground. We moved to Australia when I was nine, and I was mocked for my Canadian accent, my tendency to cry easily, and my very white skin in the land of tans. I felt odd and lonely much of the time. It wasn’t until high school, when I met other kids more similar to me, that I found good friends and realised I wasn’t so hard to like, after all.

I really hope readers enjoy If You’re Happy, and find stories that resonate. I especially hope that anyone who feels lonely, or who feels they sometimes don’t belong, can take comfort in knowing this emotion is universal. We all feel awkward, or on the outer at times. We feel alone even when surrounded by others. We chase happiness, it slips from our grasp and then we grab it again. And in the end, we’re all just trying to find our way in this wild and turbulent world.

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Oh writers, what have we done?

If you’ve been feeling, like I have, that you’ve failed to achieve all you hoped to this year, it’s worth looking back, just for a moment. Adding up all you’ve written, all you’ve applied for, all the work you’ve done towards achieving your goals. Maybe you’ve placed or been shortlisted in a competition, or had work published. Maybe you’ve written something that makes your heart race, something you know is good. Our milestones are so easily forgotten, as we constantly shift the goalposts.

Just now, I tallied up what I’ve written this year. Before looking, I would have guessed 3 or 4 stories. It feels like I’ve struggled to write, with more paid work, my kids needing time, a health issue, and life’s up and downs. I’ve been frustrated lately, thinking how little I’ve progressed.

And yet … I’ve actually completed 8 stories in the past 11 months. I’ve applied for writing fellowships. I’ve sent work to several journals, and entered a number of competitions. I’ve received lots of form rejections, a few lovely personal rejections, a highly commended in the Newcastle Short Story Award. I recently had work accepted for an anthology I’m really excited about. I finished a full manuscript. And I did 3 readings—2 for Amanda O’Callaghan’s book launches of This Taste for Silence (an absolute must-read), and one for Anna Krien’s Brisbane launch of Act of Grace (another wonderful book). None of this is astounding, but it’s decent. I’ve done plenty in 2019.

You’ve probably done way more than you realise, too, if you check. It’s so easy to forget our accomplishments and stew on disappointments.

And if you’re still unhappy with your ‘progress’, remember we’re all living with different demands. Some work longer hours, some have very small children, or lots of children! Some of us are carers. Some of us struggle with mental health issues, chronic illness or disability. We’re all doing our best, given our circumstance. And for that, we deserve to feel proud as 2019 comes to a close.

Congratulations to you — for everything you’ve written, for all you’ve endured, and for anything that has brought you joy.

 

 

 

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Filed under personal, the writing life, writing angst

sending words into the world

If writers want to be published, we have to submit work. And yet sending out work is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. I’ve been submitting work for six years (writing for longer), and I still find it hard to do. Sometimes I’m tempted to avoid it. After all (I tell myself )—statistically, rejection is the most likely result.

I recently submitted something I’ve spent a lot of time on, and sending it triggered all the usual crazy, mixed feelings. I thought I’d try to order my thoughts, in case this helps another writer.

Reflections on submitting:

  1. It must be done. If we want to share our writing with others, there’s no escaping this. Yet submitting can be terrifying. We have to steel ourselves and send our work anyway. (We may not want to send our very first efforts. But if a writer has been creating work for more than a year, and wants to be published, it’s probably time to start submitting!)
  2. Timing is everything. Too early and our work is clumsy, full of holes, rough around the edges. Too late and we may fall behind, not make deadlines, or put off submitting forever. How to tell if it’s too early or too late? No one seems to know! We make our best guess and then send.
  3. It’s normal to feel strange emotions after sending. I often feel uneasy. Sometimes I feel hopeful (tempered with common sense—this submission may not be successful, but the next one may be). You may feel a whole range of other emotions. (To avoid feeling overwhelming regret, my advice is to avoid looking at your submitted piece or manuscript after sending. Whenever I do this, I find something I hate!)
  4. Multiple submissions make sense (if allowed). Some journals hang on to work for months, even years. I once had a story with a US literary journal for 14 months, and I’ve heard tales of much longer waits. If the journal or competition allows simultaneous submissions, it’s worth improving the odds by submitting to at least one other market (in my opinion).
  5. Destinations are important. Except in the case of a freaky genius, it’s probably best to send the first submitted poem to a smaller magazine, rather than the Paris Review. There’s no point sending a sci-fi/Western story to a snooty literary magazine that doesn’t publish genre fiction. And it may be unwise to send a literary novel manuscript to an agent who specialises in fantasy and YA. Choosing where we send our words improves the chance of being chosen.

I’m sure there are other aspects to submitting I haven’t considered. After all, I write short fiction only.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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news and weather

 

I haven’t posted for awhile. It’s not that I haven’t written posts. In fact I’ve written two in the last few weeks, but when I finished each of them, I realised that I couldn’t press publish.  Though I wrote each piece with care, I knew the people I’d referred to might recognise themselves, if they somehow stumbled here. They might feel misrepresented, or resent being discussed.

So I’ve said nothing at all. The safer option.

What can I say?

I can say that I am so grateful for my writing group and my other writing buddies, both in real life and online. They share their knowledge, make me laugh and are writing cheerleaders. Often they keep me going when I’d otherwise lose faith. They are phenomenal. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those people, so thank you.

I can say that I’ve finally reached the goal word count for my short story manuscript. (Now the editing begins!)

And I can say that here in Brisbane it is fine and cold and glorious. Perfect writing weather.

Wishing you all a very happy writing week!

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Filed under general, personal, the writing life

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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small and vital details

A story I was writing left me cold. I couldn’t figure out why. The plot was decent, the characters seemed plausible, the setting intriguing. But the whole thing was flat and lifeless.

I tried the usual things — asking myself questions about the characters so I could know them better. Getting rid of redundant phrases and adjectives. Powering up the verbs.

The story was still not right.

So I started adding details.

Instead of the character complaining that her husband ‘wanted the same foods every day’, the wife despaired that her husband wanted ‘steak or fried chicken day after day’.

Instead of the woman buying the cat ‘expensive toys’, I wrote she bought the cat ‘mouse toys and a plush bed he ignored, preferring to sleep in the armchair’.

Instead of a boy fearing ‘bugs and spiderwebs’ in a cellar, he feared ‘spiderwebs and bugs as long as his boy fingers’.

And suddenly the story was real. I believed it. I could see the plush cat bed that Elvis the cat ignored, I could picture the husband chewing through his steak (or fried chicken) night after night, and I could see those long, black bugs, scuttling away.

I realised how details can make a story true. As readers, we buy into a story, (or a poem, a screenplay, a play) if these ‘facts’ give it the ring of truth. They are small and vital details.

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roaring to the finish

lioness

It’s not the end. Not yet it isn’t. 2017 still has thirty-three days to go, not counting what’s left of today. So if you’re a writer and you’re winding down, telling yourself not to bother because, well, it’s almost the end of the year, I’m here to tell you it’s not over until December 31st! Which is not for thirty-three days!

Whether you’re a novelist or a short story writer, an essayist, a poet or a flash fiction specialist, there’s nothing like the allure of cash prizes. So let me tempt you to keep writing with a few competitions closing this month or the next:

Fish Publishing Short Story Prize – ends November 30, maximum 5000 words, cost 20 pounds

Ink Tears Short Story Contest – ends November 30, 1000-3500 words, cost 7.5 pounds

Baltimore Review Winter Contest– ends November 30, maximum 5000 words, theme of food, cost $10 US

Hamlin Garland Award – ends December 10, maximum 7000 words, cost $20 US

Hal Porter Short Story Competition – ends December 15, maximum 2500 words, cost $10

The Moth Poetry Prize – ends December 31, cost 12 pounds

The River Styx MicroFiction Contest – ends Dec 31, cost $10 US for up to 3 entries, max 500 words

Boulevard Short Fiction Contest – ends December 31, maximum 8000 words, cost $16 US

If you’re strapped for cash or would rather submit to a journal, you could try:

The prestigious UK-based Granta literary magazine, which costs nothing for poetry submissions, or 3 pounds to submit fiction or non-fiction (but hurry as submissions close by January 4th).

The highly-regarded Australian literary journal Meanjin – still accepting submissions of poetry and essays.

The always hip lit mag Overland – accepting submissions of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and asks for pitches for other types of writing (see website).

If you write sci-fi, fantasy, horror or spec fic, Andromeda Spaceways – currently open for submissions, as is Clarkesworld, for the very best sci-fi and fantasy.

Southerly – open for themed submissions (see website for details).

And if you’d like to win $10,000 for no entry fee, you could try this:
The Hope Prize – short stories 2000-5000 words exploring theme of hope and resilience in the face of poverty of disadvantage, ends Jan 31 (see website for full details).

Happy writing!

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