Granta | Sheila Heti and Tao Lin discuss writing

A conversation about their experiences writing books under contract and dealing with editors, agents etc. Tao Lin’s story “Sasquatch” was short-listed for the Willesden Herald prize in our first year (2005/6).

Read the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition winner

The winner of this year’s RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition is The Rain Falls Differently Over There by Niall McArdle, a meditation on loss, reconnection and the power of memory.

“There’s lots needs sorting out now, said Siobhán back in the peace of the house. The last of the funeral crowd had left. …”

Link: Read the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition winner

2017 – New Short Stories 10

Contents

frontcover1
New Short Stories 10

  • “Dark Song” by Roberta Dewa
  • “Art Zoo” by Paul J. Martin
  • “Swimming Lessons” by Douglas Hill
  • “Rictus” by Tanvir Bush
  • “Isa’s Pitch” by Maureen Cullen
  • “The Quarry” by Katherine Davey
  • “The Day John Lennon Died” by Raphael Falco
  • “A History of Fire” by Gerard McKeown
  • “Trespass” by Roland Miles
  • “The Fish that was not my Pa” by Meganrose Weddle

“Here are stories of abandonment, exhibitionism, spontaneous combustion, hysteria, people power, reincarnation, cuisine, race relations, orchidaceous tomfoolery and much more. They will take you to hot beaches and deserted nighttime streets, to disputed urban spaces, to an overheated and under-resourced emergency ward, behind the scenes at a fancy restaurant, and to the chill vicinity of deserted lakes and pools. Three are set in America, two in Africa, one each in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, London and darkest Sussex.”

With an introduction by 2017 judge, Lane Ashfeldt

backcover1
New Short Stories 10 back cover

Available from:

isbn: 978-0-9995277-2-6

Contributors

Dr Tanvir Bush is a novelist and film-maker/photographer. Born in London, she lived and worked in Lusaka, Zambia, setting up the Willie Mwale Film Foundation, working with minority communities, street kids and people affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Her feature documentary ‘Choka!- Get Lost!’. was nominated for the Pare Lorenz Award for social activism in film in 2001. She returned to UK to study and write and her first novel Witch Girl was published by Modjaji Books, Cape Town in 2015. She is the designer and facilitator of the Corsham Creative Writing Laboratory initiative and an Associate Lecturer at Bath Spa University in Creative Writing. She is based in Wiltshire with her guide dog and research assistant, Grace.

Maureen Cullen lives in Argyll & Bute. She has been writing poetry and short fiction since 2011 after early retirement from her social work career. In 2016, she was published, along with three other poets, in Primers 1, a collaboration between Nine Arches Press and the Poetry School. She won The Labello Prize for short fiction in 2014, and has stories published in Gem Street, Scribble, Prole, the Hysteria Anthology, the Evesham Anthology, Leicester Writes Anthology, Stories for Homes Volume 2, and online at Ink Tears. Her stories have been longlisted and shortlisted at various competitions.

Raphael Falco is a Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where he held the 2012-2013 Lipitz Professorship of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In addition to publishing widely on the early modern period, he writes fiction, plays, and poetry. He lives in New York City.

Katherine Davey was born in Cape Town, South Africa and moved to the UK twice, once temporarily as a teenager and then again to do a post-grad, which she abandoned to work in publishing. She has been writing since she was a child and belongs to the long-established and professionally wonderful writing group called (for reasons she has never understood) Free Lunch, based in Hackney. She lives in Walthamstow, London, and is currently revising a novel for which she is seeking representation.

Roberta Dewa has always written fiction, and in her twenties published three historical novels with Robert Hale. While studying for various degrees she wrote and published poetry and short fiction, including a poetry sequence on the explorer Shackleton and a short story collection, Holding Stones (Pewter Rose Press, 2009). In 2013 she published a memoir, The Memory of Bridges, and a contemporary novel followed: The Esplanade (Weathervane Press, 2014). Since retiring last year from teaching at the University of Nottingham, she has been writing poetry and short stories again, some of it inspired by (but attempting no comparison with) the sublime lyrics of Scott Walker.

Douglas Hill lives in the northeast of Scotland and worked in the regional press as a journalist and editor for many years. Before that he worked as a freelance reporter in Glasgow and wrote features for a number of magazines in the UK and abroad. Born in Scotland, he has also lived and worked in South Africa, Brazil, New Zealand, Spain, and for several years in London. Since devoting more time to writing fiction, he’s been short-listed for a number of competitions, won 2nd place in the Exeter Writer’s competition, and had short stories published in Writer’s Forum.

Paul J. Martin moved to London from Northern California to earn an MA in Novel Writing from City University freeing himself from a high-flying career in the art world to pursue his passion for writing. Residing for many years in American suburbia he is fascinated to know why people live where they do. His work tends towards Suburban Noir, where he delves behind conformist facades and investigates strange tales and complications that lurk behind the mailbox. His first novel ‘When I’m Calling You’ is complete, his second follows close behind and he has a growing catalogue of short fiction from both sides of the Atlantic

Gerard McKeown is an Irish writer living in London. His work has been featured in 3:AM, The Moth, and Litro, among others. In 2017 he was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. He is currently seeking representation for his novel ‘Licking The Bowl’.

Roland Miles has worked as an English and Drama teacher and as a dealer in secondhand books. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Sussex. He is the author of Chaucer the Actor: The Canterbury Tales as Performance Art. Two completed young adult novels and a play sit unpublished in a box beneath his bed. A number of his short stories and flash fictions have been placed in competitions. He is currently close to finishing a collection of short stories about life in schools, of whichTrespass is one. He lives by the castle in the Sussex town of Lewes, in a house built in the fifteenth century, once occupied by a bucket maker.

Meganrose Weddle has a BA in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and is studying for her MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. Her poetry has been published in creative journal Notes and she was shortlisted for the Liars’ League Women & Girls event, for her short story ‘No Strings Attached’. She lives and works in London and hopes, one day, that she can call herself a ‘full-time writer’.

Story of the Month, September 2018

The Willesden Herald New Short Stories Story of the Month

September 2018: The Almost-Widow by Carina Buckley

“If I had known, then, that a dull night’s companionable reading would prove on reflection to be a moment of perfect bliss, it’s hard to say what I would have done. Is the horror past or present? All I know is that right now, today, I am greedy for those days, and all the ones I had are not enough. It was their timelessness that made them worth having.”

Carina Buckley

Carina Buckley grew up in Margate, Kent, and now lives in Salisbury. She works in higher education and has recently completed her first novel, THE TRANSPARENCY OF WATER. She is working on a collection of short stories as well as a full-length play, SINCE I LAST SAW MY SISTER. She has had two short plays performed at the Salisbury Fringe festival.

2016 – New Short Stories 9

Contents

  • “The Volcano” by Anna Lewis
  • “The Cliffs of Bandiagara” by Catherine McNamara
  • “Supersum” by Barbara Robinson
  • “Twisted” by Tracy Fells
  • “The Mayes County Christmas Gun Festival” by David Lewis
  • “Undercurrents” by Gina Challen
  • “Love and Hair” by Olga Zilberbourg
  • “Last Call at the Rialto” by Daniel Waugh
  • “Looking for Nathalie” by Susan Haigh
  • “All that Remains” by Rob Hawke

Unspeakable secrets, disappeared husbands, bisexual love triangles, revolutionary conspiracies and African odysseys: from Sixties Paris to San Francisco, Arundel to Latin America, poets, murderers, musicians, schoolkids and festive firearms fanciers stalk these pages, waiting to greet you.

With an introduction by 2016 judge, Katy Darby

Available from:

isbn: 978-0-9852133-7-4

Contributors

Gina Challen is originally from London. She moved to West Sussex in 1979. In 2012, she left her job as an insurance broker to complete a masters degree in creative writing. This she fondly refers to as her mid-life crisis. Although originally a city girl, the farmsteads and woods of the downlands hold her heart, they are the inspiration for her writing, the landscape to which she knows she belongs. Previously, her stories have been anthologised in The Bristol Short Story Prize Volume 8 2015, the Cinnamon Press Short Story Award collections 2012 & 2013, and the Willesden Herald New Short Stories 8, 2014 and Rattle Tales 2, 2012. Two of her stories were shortlisted for the prestigious Bridport Prize in 2014. You can also find her stories and critical essays online with Ink Tears and Storgy magazines and Thresholds Short Story Forum. She is currently working on a short story collection. www.ginachallen.co.uk

Tracy Fells lives close to the South Downs in glorious West Sussex. She has won awards for both fiction and drama. Her short stories have appeared in Firewords Quarterly, The Yellow Room and Writer’s Forum, online at Litro New York, Short Story Sunday and in anthologies such as Fugue, Rattle Tales and A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed. Competition success includes short-listings for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Brighton Prize, Fish Short Story and Flash Fiction Prizes. Tracy completed her MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University in 2016 and is currently seeking representation for a crime mystery novel and her short story collection. She shares a blog with The Literary Pig (tracyfells.blogspot.co.uk) and tweets as @theliterarypig.

Susan Haigh returned to northeast Fife in 2013, having spent eight years living in a cave house in the Loire Valley. She had previously worked on a series of short stories, supported by a Scottish Book Trust mentoring scheme, and continued to write stories and a novel in a caravan under a vine by a river (not as glamorous as it sounds!). Her work has won several awards in Britain and the USA and has been published in Mslexia, Cadenza Magazine, Sunpenny Anthology, New Writing Dundee 8, Beginning Anthology, the Scottish Arts Club Short Story Awards website, the Women of Dundee and Books anthology and a number of American journals and anthologies.  In 2016 she appeared on a short list of six for a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award and published poems in Scottish literary journals, Northwords Now, Gutter Magazine and the StAnza Map of Scotland in Poems. She was also a finalist in the 2016 Scottish Arts Club Short Story Competition. She reviews and interviews for a number of journals, including Dundee University Review of the Arts. She teaches German at Dundee University.

Rob Hawke lives and works in Camberwell, London. His short fiction has featured in Momaya Short Story Review and Shooter Literary Magazine, and he holds an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from University of Sussex. He is currently working on his first full length novel, a political drama set in South West England. To support his writing Rob works part time at a psychology institute.

Anna Lewis’s stories have appeared in journals including New Welsh Review and The Interpreter’s House. Her stories and poems have won several awards, and she was short-listed for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2013. She is the author of two poetry collections: Other Harbours (Parthian, 2012) and The Blue Cell (Rack Press, 2015). She lives in Cardiff.

David Lewis grew up in Oklahoma, did an MA at UCL in London and now lives in Paris. His short stories and essays have appeared in J’aime mon quartier, je ramasse, Chelsea Station, Liars’ League, The 2013 Fish Anthology, Indestructible and Talking Points Memo. He irregularly posts essays and translations on Medium, as @dwlewis.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She was an embassy secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, translator, English teacher and shoe model. Her short story collection Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Her work has been Pushcart-nominated and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. Catherine lives in Italy.

Barbara Robinson was born in Manchester where she still lives, writes and works. She writes short stories and is currently working on her first novel, Elbow Street.

 

Daniel Waugh was born in London and has lived in France and Yorkshire. He lives in Wimbledon with his wife, three-year-old daughter and black cat. ‘Last Call at the Rialto’ is his first short story.

 

Olga Zilberbourg grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia and moved to the United States at the age of seventeen. Her English-language fiction is forthcoming from World Literature Today, Feminist Studies, and California Prose Directory; stories have appeared in J Journal, Epiphany, Narrative Magazine, Printers Row, Hobart, Santa Monica Review, among others. She serves as a co-facilitator of the weekly San Francisco Writers Workshop.

The Sense of a Short Story

I feel a bit of a misery for having written a list of blunders found in short stories. Such lists are not unusual and often repeat what others have said before. However it is much harder to talk about the qualities that enthral and delight, that transport us to unknown places and stir the emotions. What is that literary flavour beyond sweet and sour, the umami that makes me want to keep on reading?

1. A sense of perfection

There is a difference between evidence of raw talent and a finished product. Without practice and the unrestrained commitment that Pavarotti put in, for example, he would still have been Luciano, the guy with a great voice but unknown to the world. It is the combination of great ability, dedication and unqualified commitment that results in that feeling like being in a jet plane when it goes for take-off, when his voice at full power takes flight, and carries us with him.

IMG-20121008-1548A lot of people sing in the shower, a lot of people write stories. Not everyone has the voice, for a start, but equally not everyone gives all. Sentences are not well worked; narrative is somewhat choked off, restrained.

What is wonderful is when a gift for writing is combined with technical perfection and a free flowing narrative. When it succeeds, there is nothing laboured, all is like a swan sailing across a pond, seemingly without effort. It’s not because Pavarotti could hit a high note. Actually, many of us could hit that note. It’s the way he hits it. Clearly we don’t want half measures, we don’t want errors. But the sense of a short story is not about what we don’t want. It’s about what we desire, what life itself seldom offers, a sense of perfection.

2. A sense of adventure

This is not about secret agents, bandits, pirates, cowboys, though they are also part of it, it’s something to do with a journey, danger, hazard, perhaps conflict.

It happens that space travellers, cowboys, romantic maidens, elves and so on go on journeys, encounter hazards and conflict, but seldom will they succeed in taking us with them. No, the sense of adventure is to do with a feeling that real people are in a real location, that we are with them, somewhere we might know, which is interesting, or somewhere we don’t know, which can be even more interesting, and it’s uncertain what is about to happen.

If there is a nagging thought that this is routine, that we know all this, then we fall into the “I have a life of my own” trap. As the woman says in The Ice Storm, when her lover starts to talk about his work, “I have a husband.” What I seek is the feeling of landscape, of views across townscapes, of skies and the travel against weight, not weightless, where the progress interacts with a new environment. There must be people to meet, to find out about, an adventurer alone is a hard case. He or she had better be thinking about others or else we enter the dead zone of solipsism.

3. A sense of inspiration

You could call this a sense of interest, a sense of importance, a sense of significance, a sense of relevance. It’s the feeling that we’re onto something. Whatever you call it, it relies on a theme of sufficient weight. We’re busy people. We have our own lives. Unless a story is of vital interest, why spend the time to read it? It must draw us in from the first paragraph.

However, we are resistant to being told what to think. We won’t stand for it. The miracle of fiction is how it enables us to share another’s vision, see things through another’s eyes for a spell, to enter a partly hallucinatory or dreamlike state. I suggest that this can occur when the writer has been inspired.

So what is it? Sometimes inspiration, like procreation, entails the fusion of two elements. You may think of these as spark and fuel. The spark is very small but active and the fuel is large and full of potential but static. The fuel is your theme, perhaps something that’s been bugging you for some time. The spark is your angle, something trivial that you realise can be combined with your theme to bring it to life. That is your inspiration.

Hitchcock coined the term “the McGuffin” for something trivial that he used to build his suspenseful films around. For example, in North By Northwest and The Thirty-Nine Steps people chase around after something but we really don’t care about the actual object of their pursuit. How many can even remember what it was?

Writing directly to a main theme runs the risk of becoming aphoristic, portentous, pompous, didactic, perhaps polemical. The trick is to write a story seemingly about the trivial one of your two elements, against a background of the main concern. This allows you to deal with what’s bugging you, without seeming to talk about it at all. Without a theme, no matter how brilliant your writing, you will lose the reader. “All spark” is a bore.

Misdirection is as useful in fiction as in conjuring. Come to think of it, fiction is a form of conjuring.

4. A sense of humour

The only place this occurs is in serious writing. Anything that tries to be funny is anathema. If you take any of the well-known comic writers, or writers whose work encompasses humour, you will find that it is all presented in a seemingly serious manner. The stories of Waugh, Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe, George Saunders, J. P. Donleavy, Saki, James Thurber, Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris are presented with a straight face. Even Jerome K. Jerome and George or was it the other Grossmith brother. The story is king.

All humour is incidental. In spite of ourselves, in spite of the author himself or herself, we find we are concerned with the theme, delighted by the inspiration, enthralled by the adventure and then to leaven the mixture, there is something funny. It may be when the author relents from the story momentarily, for example when Mohsin Hamid has a one-word sentence, “Yum” following on from a description of the cause of dysentery. It’s something to bring you in further with the author and to remind you before you lose touch, lose heart, that this is shared experience, we are on a shared expedition of discovery. We are not alone.

While the author is conveying the story, we know only that it is an account, but with the addition of humour and later perhaps pathos, we know that we are in fact reading together, reading alongside the author and other readers. There is something more exquisite in a shared experience, (and it doesn’t take much imagination to find a suitable metaphor for that), the joy is redoubled. We might not know what the author thought about certain things, but we’re pretty sure we’re on the same wavelength and that others will be too, when the sense of humour shines through.

5. A sense of suspense

We return to Hitchcock and recall that he said his biggest mistake was to have the bomb go off in Blackmail. As long as the bomb hasn’t gone off there is suspense. Yes, we want to know what happens next but only if something is at stake. If nothing is at stake, I couldn’t care less what happens next. Salesmen have a mnemonic: ABC – Always Be Closing. The worst result in sales theory is a continuation. With fiction, it’s the opposite: ABC – Always Be Continuing, and the worst result is closure. The urge to settle for an ending and declare the story closed is like a siren calling the writer, the captain of the story, onto fatal reefs.

6. A sense of wonder

This is what we’re left with after reading a great short story. It leaves us thinking, literally wondering. There is a completeness to a short story but it is not the completeness of satiation, of finality, it’s the completeness of entry or exit, a door that opens to wonder. The beginning is a door to a secret garden and the end is the same door. We can re-enter. Somebody (?) described the sonnet as a machine for thinking. Maybe we could describe the short story as a machine for wondering.

Conclusion

These categories are arbitrary. I might add more later, I might change their contents. I could as easily invoke the theatrical maxim, “Make them laugh, make them cry and scare the hell out of them”. I only wanted to describe what it is that I like in a short story. Having typed this far, I find I’m none the wiser. I still couldn’t tell you why the stories in The Magic Barrel are so sublime, or Dubliners. I don’t know what it is Denis Johnson does, or Annie Proulx, or Chekhov, or William Trevor, etc. The list is long. I am in awe of them and all great short story writers. I don’t give a damn about the novel. There, I’ve said it. (Actually, it’s not true, I love reading novels.) As near as I can describe, what I desire is a sense of perfection and a sense of adventure. The rest of the headings and comments are tentative.

Stephen Moran

Originally published in my blog and here in the Willesden Herald (2012)

Common Faults in Short Stories Submitted (updated)

I’m republishing this piece I wrote in 2008 from The Willesden Herald blog. A previous version appeared in one of the Writers’ Handbooks from Scarletta Press. After this I will post the complementary piece with “positives” – The Sense of a Short Story. There is a list of resources for short story writers below the article. (Steve)

Some people have expressed interest in knowing why entries in the Willesden Herald short story competition are eliminated or advanced, so I offer the following notes on why all but the last few are eliminated.

Writers need to realise that writing is like music: there is no getting away with bum notes. Think of the judging process as a series of auditions – X-Factor, American Idol, Young Musician of the Year, if you like. Now think of the hopeless cases. Out of tune: Next! Inept: Next! Hopelessly feeble: Next. Ego tripper: Next. An open competition is by definition a talent contest, and the entries can be imagined in the same way. But what are the bum notes, gaffes, misconceptions, delusions, ineptitudes in writing that are analogous to the failings of talent show entrants? Here are a few, not rearranged, but simply as they come to mind.

1. Failure to observe the rules. Let’s get this most boring reason for rejection of entries out of the way. In this year’s Willesden competition, the rule most breached was the one that specifies no author’s name on the manuscript. Not double-spaced or single-sided also featured, as well as missing or incomplete entry forms. Last, in both senses, were entries received after the closing date. Something approaching one in ten was eliminated for not complying with the rules. It is likely that some people took incomplete information from third party sites, so I recommend that you get the official rules and entry form from the competition website. Then follow the rules exactly, not approximately. Any entry that is not in compliance with the rules will be binned, unread.

2. Overcrowded with characters. Seán Ó Faoláin said a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet. Like a jet the novel takes a long time to get off the ground, carries a lot of people and takes them a long way from where it started. On the other hand, the short story takes off vertically, rises directly to a great height, usually carries only one or two people, and lands not very far from where it took off. So when you mention three, four, five and sometimes even more names in the first two pages, it is inevitable that readers will be turned off (unless you have created a virtuosic masterpiece that defies all critique, such as Theresa’s Wedding by William Trevor). Your story is likely to suffer from the following problem as well.

3. Undifferentiated characters. A name is not a character. Pinky said this, Perky said that, Blinky said something similar and Pisky said the same, as the old wartime song might have gone. Each character should be a complete person, with their own C.V. if you like, their own history, temperament, habits, weaknesses, plans, objectives etc, though these need not and should not be explicitly listed as such.

4. Solipsism. One miserable person being miserable. This was the most common and depressing failing. Unrelenting monotony of one single, invariably miserable and oppressive viewpoint. No sign of concern or even mention of any other character, nothing other than one person’s dreary moaning. If you are not interested in other characters, at least make it funny.

5. Well-enough written but I just don’t like it. This is the uncongenial protagonist or narrator, arrogant, cruel-minded, usually petty, often attempting gross-out effects, and usually going round in ever-diminishing circles before vanishing in a puff of studied triviality. It leaves a bad taste and invariably evokes the response that it’s well enough written, but I just don’t like it. There is no gun to the reader’s head. People do not read to be grossed out, or to join in somebody else’s squalor or misery. There has to be an element of transcendence, transmutation of the base material into the gold of fiction.

6. Throwaway endings. The story has been going along fairly well, showing signs of life and suddenly the writer must have thought, “Oh I can’t be bothered, I’m just going to put a twist here and finish it.” It’s literally almost impossible to believe sometimes why anybody would ever think of sending in something that is clearly truncated and given up on – what a waste of postage etc.

7. Over-elaborated endings. All has been going well, we’re hoping this might be a contender, we come to an excellent sign-off line, then woe, woe, thrice or four or five times woe for every extra sentence or paragraph that follows after that, telling us what should be left for us to decide for ourselves. So frustrating to hit one of these after reading all the way.

8. Throat-clearing openings. A build-up to the fact that we are about to hear a story, what it’s not about, what it is about, the fact that it starts here, the fact that it starts with something, the fact that it’s of a particular kind, the fact that you’re going to tell it. Cut, cut, cut. Then we come to the line where it really starts, but by then it’s too late: for something to get on a short list, it has to be virtually flawless and you’ve just started with a whopping great flaw.

9. Boring. “Middle of page 3 and I am totally bored.” “Well enough written but what is the point?” “I’m losing the will to live.” Again, the reader does not have a gun to his or her head. We have lives of our own. We don’t need to substitute somebody else’s dreary domestic arrangements in our minds for our own. To us, yours are far less interesting – and ours were not that interesting to start with. Who cares if somebody listened to a news story on the radio, went shopping, bought a packet of corn flakes? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

10. Banal. Commonplace, dull, the sort of thing you hear every day. This is really a continuation of “boring”. A lot of stories about elderly people living in squalor. A particularly English phenomenon. A lot of stories about dying relatives. Okay, but they better be good. It’s important to write about these things, but when you do you need to realise that there will be ten other people writing about the same thing, so you’d better make it very good. Life can be banal, but we turn to fiction to find – again –transcendence. This is more or less the same point that dead henry made in his “statement to the peasants”, which was so ill-received.

11. Mush. Mom and Pop and kiddie all having breakfast mush and school mush and boy and girl friend mush, car and scenery mush and all starting and ending up in a nostalgic sunset mush. I’ve given you English kitchen squalor, now I give you American kitchen mush. Both equally nauseating. I might as well add princess and frog fairytales in here.

12. Failed experiment. It’s fine and admirable to try an experimental format, but it’s not an excuse for slightness, skimpiness, overwriting, repetitiveness, underwriting, forced or boring content, or as often as not for semi-disguised or decorated solipsism, or any of the other failings listed here.

13. Unconvincing. Clunky or melodramatic. I just don’t buy it. This is fake, phoney baloney, unbelievable but presented as supposedly realistic. Often forced and plot-driven. Corny ending likely. Let’s add in here “routine police procedurals”, where hard-bitten Captain Craggy trades inscrutable comments on cases with eager tyro etc.

14. Weak premise. The triviality of some themes submitted is hard to believe. When you get a story that is 30 pages all about a minor ailment that has no apparent effects or significance, what are you to make of it? The writer is talking to himself, like one of those poor souls you can see on the high street any day. A sort of sub-category here is the “clever-sounding” element, that is like a lump of gristle in the apple pie of the story. Some people have a compulsion to mention things they have some specialist expertise about or simply know the names of, in a certain way that makes me think, “Go away.”

15. Not a short story. We don’t tell you what a short story is, you’re supposed to know. If you don’t know, tough. You need to go away and find out. I can tell you it’s not something over 220 pages long, as one entrant must have thought. Neither is it an essay. I presume people send in essays, thinking “Well it’s a long shot.” No it’s not a long shot, it’s a dud. Regardless of length a short story is not a mini-novel – a real tyro failing. The simplest advice is to read as many good short stories as you can and yours should be at home in their company – if you aspire to that. And if you don’t then why do you bother writing?

16. Full of errors. Slapdash spelling and grammatical errors are like bum notes in a musical audition. Even if you are a shining genius (as you all think you are) it is unlikely you will get away even with one. More than one and you’re stone dead. A lot of people who do not speak English seem to think they can find success in a short story competition with texts that contain errors in every sentence. Very rarely, there may be a story that is otherwise compelling but frustratingly riddled with errors.

17. Transparent attempt to pander to the judges. Every year we’ve had one or two (usually impossible) journeys in London, invariably ending up in Kilburn or Willesden. Try to see it from my point of view, imagine I open a guide book and try and write something about your city, where I’ve never lived – imagine the phoniness of the result. I would suggest you do not attempt to write to order for a competition. You can if you insist, but I can spot it a mile off and it is really off-putting. It just suggests that you have no real hinterland of your own.

18. Poor dialogue. Exposition of the story in dialogue is a common failing. “We must be very careful, as it is raining now and visibility is low.” “Yes, and it is cold. Ooh, look at the traffic there,” said Pinky. “Yes, there is a lot of it, isn’t there,” said Perky. “Look out! Elegant variation dead ahead”, muttered Pinky and exclaimed Perky simultaneously. Maybe you’ve heard somewhere that there has to be dialogue. What they didn’t add was, “not at any price.” If there is dialogue, it should be something that people really might say. Do not make your characters into ventriloquists dummies to tell your story through. There can be long passages without dialogue or there can be lots or a little dialogue. What there must not be is phoney dialogue. Another thing, if your characters are well enough defined, you should find that hardly any attribution is needed.

19. Unevenness. This includes unevenness of tone, pace, style and theme: parts of the story that are not in keeping with the rest, which should have been edited out or replaced. A story that starts out in one tone, maybe as a serious and really compelling story, then halfway through turns into a facetious spoof. A digression from the main theme that makes the reader think, “What is that doing here?”. I think there was one entry we received that seemed to be three short shorts stuck together. More slapdashery. Remember: it’s like music – you can’t “get away” with anything. With most competitions it should be safe to assume you are writing for/playing your music for people who can say in all modesty that they are not tone deaf.

20. Summation. “All in the past” syndrome. This is a problem sometimes characterised as “undepicted action” or “telling instead of showing.” Most writers seem to have a grasp of the need to get attention at the beginning, but an astonishing number by the middle of page two have started to tell us all about some ancient family history. All sense of immediacy and story is lost and instead we’re having summaries of complex events that happened, one sentence each, like a dry and tedious history book.

21. Underwriting and overwriting. Too sketchy or too long-winded. I get the impression that the long-winded are probably more pleased with themselves, but they’re no more popular with readers than the skimpers – rather the reverse. Cut out as much as you can, without cutting into the quick, and you’ll find that your text will improve. Isaac Babel said that our writing becomes stronger, not when we can add no more but when we can take nothing more away. The skimpy efforts are just rushed, undercooked, choose your own metaphor. I’m sure we know when we have underwritten (I include myself), so why do we waste postage sending underwritten pieces out?

22. Unicorns and elves, chick lit, police procedurals and bodice rippers. These should only be submitted to specialist competitions for their specific genres. The Willesden is for so-called literary stories. It’s not a pleasing term, so I would rather say non-generic stories. (I think Joyce once said that the word “literature” was used as a term of abuse.) Readers will not get beyond the first line of – and they are invariably labelled thus – the Prologue: “Nervelda gazed on the mistfields of Thuriber. Her green eyes glinted in the slanting sun, as the tribes of Godnomore straggled over the barren land.” Lord and Lady Farquahar and their servants will journey in vain to quaint villages full of worthy and unworthy peasants. I think I’ve already mentioned Inspector Craggy (promoted in the sequel) and his eager sidekicks. As for chick lit: in reading as well as in life, we may be partial to a bit of office romance, but about ten or twenty of them later and they begin to pall.

23. Faux jollity. Particularly faux jollity centred around pubs, and particularly around pubs in Ireland. Industrially extruded quantities of guff about distant histories in small town life. Standing jokes that should have been left where they toppled. Weird spastic prose as if the task of writing the story had been given by a writer with a good idea to the former class dunce, now barman. I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.

24. Ankles in Asia. I’ve changed my mind on this one. As a matter of fact, I’m not at all sure that Ankles in Asia, though it now sounds worryingly like a rare disease, is not in fact a virtue. Let a thousand professors dream of butterfly kisses with a thousand feisty young neighbour girls.

25. Clumsiness. Proliferation of unnecessary commas. Awkward mis-edited clauses, unintentional rhymes, pedestrian, dull prose, infantile expressions, over formality (“Mr Smith had a reputation as bit of a disciplinarian. Miss Elma Furblong often thought that, while thinking about what to get to ease the hunger pangs in her tummy.”) Stuffiness generally. Let’s save a few more categories and add here out-of-date literary sensibilities and pretensions, the aphoristic, portentous, pompous, didactic and polemical. If I think of any more I’ll most likely add them into this catch-all category.

25. Clichéd. I’m thinking mostly of clichéd expressions. If I said I’m thinking “by and large” of clichéd expressions, that would be an example in itself. It’s usually little clumps of words that always seem to go together, but also whole concepts that go unquestioned. Cities are always bustling, sunsets always golden, looks always stern etc. The Irish poet Jean O’Brien said (in a workshop I attended) “Beware of the bits that seem to write themselves.” In avoiding clichés it is the underlying assumptions that have to be dispelled. A “translated cliché” would still be a cliché.

26. Unspeakable. “Actors call some lines pills to swallow, for they cannot be made to sound genuine” is an example of this syndrome. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the use of the word “for” instead of “because” archaic and laboured. I tend to think that if I wouldn’t use the word in speech then I shouldn’t in writing. I wouldn’t say “I think it’s very cold today for the pond is frozen” so why write it? Anything that would sound laboured if read out has to go. You probably recognise the dismal effect when somebody says something and “it sounds like they’re reading it out”. If I write: “The solution to this problem is to read everything aloud first” that in itself contains an example of the problem. If I read out that sentence, it sounds like I’m reading it out. Maybe it’s acceptable in an after-dinner speech, but it’s death to a story. It breaks the spell. (How might it be improved, the injunction to read aloud? How could it be phrased better? It just doesn’t sound right, maybe this way would work: “A good way to find parts that sound clunky is to read things aloud when you’re editing.”)

27. Pastiche. There can be cases where the whole story is a cliché, if you see what I mean, which is usually to say that it is derivative in the extreme. It might be deliberately writing to a formula, or it might be lacking a genuine “voice”. I’m very impressed by people who can emulate other writers to a tee, which can be brilliant, but I find it difficult enough just “to write like myself”. Here’s a little story: When I was a kid I used to sing myself to sleep at night. We used to go see films in the Casino cinema in Finglas (Dublin), and occasionally there would be a musical. I remember on one of those nights when I began to sing in bed, trying to sound like the singer one of those musicals. After a I asked my Grandad, who slept on the other side of the room, if he liked my new voice. I always remember his answer and I thought about it a lot. He said, “I prefer your own voice.”

In summary, when there are hundreds of entries to a short story competition, only a story that is near as dammit technically flawless has a chance of reaching the short list. As you know, there are still more qualities beyond technical perfection that are required. In a world class orchestra every musician is technically perfect, leaving them free to work on interpretation and expressivity. With stories I suppose it’s subtle resonances and other quasi-poetic elements in the layering of words, a sense of adventure, newness etc – another list to think about for another day.

I’ve just added another three categories of fault, a couple of days after posting the first draft of this, and a list of books* stopping short of literary theory, philosophy of language and suchlike. In the Willesden short story competition we’re not asking for high philosophy – Dead Henry might be, I can’t really say, though he has been compared with Baudrillard – but we are looking for something technically perfect, original, vivid and compelling in serious or humorous non-generic stories. Exactly how or why these come into existence may always remain a mystery but they do.

Stephen Moran

P.S. I only wrote the list of points above to be helpful and to open my own thoughts and prejudices to constructive criticism. I think, and always think every year, that all the writers who entered showed talent and potential, and that among the stories were many “near misses”.

* Some books about writing

Short Circuit – A Guide to the Art of the Short Story (articles by various writers)

The First Five Pages (Noah Lukeman, Prentice Hall)

On Writing (Stephen King, New English Library)

Dreaming by the Book – Elaine Scarry (deep, philosophical but readable)

Writer’s Workshop – by Stephen Koch

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott, Anchor Books)

About the short story

The Lonely Voice (Frank O’Connor, Melville House)

A few interesting links

Belief and Technique for Modern Prose (Jack Kerouac)

A Short History of the Short Story (William Boyd)

Principles of a Story (Raymond Carver)

Paris Review Interviews on Writing (nearly every writer you could possibly want)

An earlier version of this article appeared in
The New Writer’s Handbook II, (Scarletta Press)
A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career
preface by Ted Kooser, edited by Philip Martin

* Illustration: An exercise in classification of rejected items for one year (2011?)