Ring Truth

A few weeks ago my parents replaced their stair carpet. When they lifted up the old threadbare one they found a child’s silver ring underneath which they identified as belonging to my sister. “How did you know it was Barbara’s?” I asked. “Were her initials on it?”

“Trust me,” my dad said. “We both remembered it being Barbara’s.”

I had been hoping it was my ring, not so that I could claim it back from my sister but because if it did belong to her then there was only one explanation for how it had slipped underneath the stair carpet: I must have poked it under there myself. Indeed my dad confirmed this: “You know, it wasn’t just under the carpet but wedged right underneath the rubber underlay as well.”

I do remember now crouching on the stairs, curling my fingers under the frayed edge of the carpet, tucking the ring out of sight. I was only six or seven at the time and I had lost my own gold ring and been punished for it. It’s hard to say if I wanted my sister to suffer the same loss as I had or if I wanted her to be punished too. I suspect it was the latter. My gold ring did eventually turn up: a girl in my class had it. We had been playing weddings and we needed a ring for the ceremony. She had kept it after the game and it was under her bed for weeks before her mum found it and made her give it back to me. By that time I had probably forgotten about Barbara’s ring. I don’t think I intended it to stay hidden under the stair carpet for twenty years.

I feel so desperately sad at the idea that my sister was missing her ring all that time. I remember how devastating it is to be a child and to lose something precious. I feel guilty too, and it’s no consolation knowing that she has been reunited with her ring at last because what good is it to her now? She could wear it as a toe ring I suppose.

I guess it’s the writer in me but my first reaction to any strong emotion like that is to want to put it into a story. I recently read Sally Zigmond’s post on turning real life situations into short stories. It made me realise that I’m going to have to consider very carefully how much truth goes into my short story and how much fiction. I have a tendency when I write short stories to leave the ending open. That seems more honest to me than tying everything up neatly, because in real life there are no neat conclusions. However, as Zigmond points out, real life is not fiction. When people read short stories they have certain expectations that need to be satisfied, among them a beginning, a middle and an end. The real life ending of my ring story is not very satisfying so I need to create a new, fictional one. Writer Nicola Morgan says on her blog that you don’t need a neat ending, but you do need the reader to feel that at least some good degree of resolution and partial closure has been reached.  So how do I do this?

I was watching an episode of Frasier the other night, the one where Frasier and Niles take up the floor boards of their childhood home searching for a memory box they hid there as children. They do find the memory box, but also a human skull. Before calling the police, they decide to try to solve what they believe to be a murder case themselves. The starting point of that story is the same as mine: something hidden in childhood being found decades later. It might well have been based on an experience of the screenwriter. However, from that starting point the story moves in surprising directions, encompassing a police investigation, some hilarious theories and inevitably, a catastrophic misunderstanding. There is a definite sense of resolution at the end of the episode and I am reasonably sure that this latter part of the story is entirely fictional. Something for me to think about when it comes to writing my short story based on the reappearance of my sister’s ring.

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A L Kennedy, What Becomes – Edinburgh City Reads

Due to what I can only hope is some kind of administrative error, I worked two days last week and now owe the company £24. This negative salary has only compounded an already worrying financial situation and I have resolved to work harder at writing and to try to make some money from it.

After a couple of productive hours in the library bashing away at an article and a few less productive hours back at the flat, I braved the sleet and went to see A L Kennedy at the third Edinburgh City Reads event.

Who knew A L Kennedy was a comedian? It’s no secret. She even takes her stand-up comedy show on tour. And yet I was completely unprepared for the hilarity of her reading of Story of My Life, one of the short stories in her new collection, What Becomes. It was proper, laugh-out-loud funny. At one point I had to press my face into my hands to stop my wine from shooting out of my mouth. (Oh yes, another great thing about Edinburgh City Reads: not only do you get to be in an audience with an author for free – similar events at the Edinburgh Book Festival would cost you £10 –  but you also get a free glass of wine. I always feel slightly naughty sitting amongst all the ancient books in the reference library with a drink in my hand and have to take sips when I think no one is looking.)

After the reading there were the usual audience questions. I’m about two thirds of the way through my shorthand course so I thought it would be good practice to take notes in Teeline. It turns out I still can’t write as fast in shorthand as I can in longhand so I didn’t manage to get everything down. Here’s a summary:

A L Kennedy is a fan of Shakespeare and would have loved to have met him. She thinks romance should be like it was in his day, when people wrote poems and letters to their sweethearts and love was this enormous thing akin to being hit over the back of the head with a frying pan

She enjoys doing readings and likes to present new stories to see if they work. “I’m an auditory person. I hear [the story] in my head when I write. [At readings] I’m hearing if the music is the correct music.” She doesn’t like travelling to readings so much because it takes time away from her writing. She writes in hotels and on trains to try to get some of this writing time back. The only short story she got in the New Yorker was written on a train.

She doesn’t plan her novels, although she spends about three years researching each book. “I’m researching as I go. I kind of start [writing] when it feels right and see how it goes. I get to a hundred pages and do a rewrite…but it tends not to be a catastrophic rewrite or an abandonment.”

She says that she does not “literally experience the emotions of the characters” she writes but she tries to “follow characters about” so that she can describe how they think and feel.

She always worries that her writing is rubbish. “I don’t like anything that I do that much. It’s always some kind of failure, otherwise I wouldn’t write the next thing. If I thought that I’d nailed it it would be disastrous.”

Despite the author’s own misgivings about her writing, I thought the story we’d heard from What Becomes was excellent and I was very tempted to buy a copy of the book on the spot. Then I remembered that I’m working this weekend so that’s potentially another twenty-four quid down the pan. Thank goodness we have libraries!

Writing Horror – Adele Hartley

Way back when I was still in the clutches of my short story competition addiction, I wrote a horror story. It was a twist in the tale affair about a man who spends a night in a haunted house as part of a television game show. He is convinced that the spooky noises and manifestations are special effects and manages to keep his cool – until the director phones him and says they will have to reschedule the filming because there has been a power cut. It was entertaining to write but it didn’t make me want to get up and put all the lights on, which, according to Adele Hartley, is one of the criteria of a good horror story.

Hartley drew on her experience as the editor of several horror story anthologies to give the Edinburgh Writers’ Club some tips on how to write good horror:

Know the genre well. “The audience has been reading and watching horror since they were children. They know all the conventions and have certain expectations.”

There are six types of horror story:

  • Possessed – a house, a car or a toaster
  • Vengeful spirit
  • Zombie
  • Vampire
  • Phobias – snakes, spiders
  • Evil children

If possible, steer clear of the types that are particularly oversubscribed. “If the world gets any more zombie in it, it might just implode.” Avoid jumping on any bandwagons, like the current trend for vampire fiction, because you will just be “contributing quantity, not quality.” Come up with a fresh approach to one of these story types. “I’m not looking for new ideas, I’m just looking for a new perspective or voice to tell it.”

Don’t try to second guess what the reader will find frightening. “Write about something that really does bother you. Horror is subjective but if it is personal and frightening for you there is a good chance someone else will find it frightening.”

Write from your own experience. “There’s all manner of vulnerability in ordinary situations.” For example, walking alone at night and thinking that you are being followed or being on the last train home in a carriage with a stranger. A good horror story could be inspired by a time when you have experienced “panic, loss of control, or the knowledge that you made a bad decision and there’s no way to take it back.”

Blood and guts are not requirements of good horror. “I would rather see a horror story induce fear by discomfort than horror by revulsion. I want horror that unsettles people and makes them feel slightly disturbed and not know why.” A good way to do this is to set up the atmosphere well but be sparse with details of the action. You don’t need to describe every blow of the axe.

Try crippling the senses of your main character to heighten the fear. An evil creature that you can’t see is much more frightening than one that you can.

Don’t overwrite the ending. “With horror it is so much better to leave something unsaid and unshown. If you spoon feed people you take away all the horror. Most people have a worst case scenario trigger in their head anyway.” Hartley cites the 1963 film The Haunting as an example of the perfect structure of a horror story because “everything is set up but not really paid off.”

Character is crucial. “For me plot is kind of secondary to character. If you have someone that you really care about, it’s terrible when something bad happens to them.”

Ready for publication? To find out if your horror story is frightening, “get someone else to read it by torchlight.” Look at ralan.com for a market – “it is a fabulous website.” If you are sending your story to a journal with a short submission window, “send your work at the end.” Hartley confesses that in the past she has looked more favourably on submissions that arrived close to the deadline because they tended to come from writers who had read the guidelines and written a story specifically for the anthology. The quality was better than that of stories that came at the beginning of the submission window from writers who simply sent in stories they already had that had been rejected elsewhere.

Inspired? Get Writing

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT declares the neon blue sign emblazoned across the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. My sister says that on a bad day, seeing that message makes her feel warm inside. Having read Fleur Adcock’s persuasive argument in Mslexia on why “all right” is two words and not one, the sign just makes me feel irritated.

Last week while visiting the gallery, a teeny newspaper clipping pinned to the noticeboard caught my eye. The National Galleries of Scotland are running a competition for short stories or poems inspired by one of the works in their collection. Entries can be up to 1000 words and the deadline is 22nd January 2010. Don’t worry if you are unable to get to Edinburgh to view the collections; many of the works are displayed online.

My favourite works in the Gallery of Modern Art were the Cindy Sherman photographs and the Liechtenstein painting. Funny though, that the work that sticks most strongly in my mind is that bloody annoying neon blue sign.

BBC Opening Lines

The BBC is taking submissions of short stories to be broadcast on the Afternoon Reading Slot on Radio 4. Guidelines are here, deadline is 30th November. I only just found out about it so I won’t have time to write anything new but I’m blowing the dust off some old short stories to see if any of them might meet the criteria.

Treats for Writers

I think it was Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way who recommended buying treats for your “inner writer”. Somebody said that anyway, and it’s a bit of advice that I’ve taken fully on board. Some writers like to buy themselves fancy fountain pens and pink ink, for others it’s cute little magnets to stick inspirational quotes to the fridge. My inner writer gets notebooks. Lots and lots of them. More than she can possibly use.

Look at them. Aren’t they beautiful? I love to scribble all over their pristine white pages with blue Beautiful Notebooksbiro. Hmmmm. Lovely.

But although I can spend hours at a time writing in them, I hardly ever read them. Until today, when I was looking for a description I wrote down in Andalucia last year that I thought I could work into a short story.

What an eye opener! I can’t ever lose those books because if anybody found them, it would be like giving them a portal into my brain. They’re not diaries. I don’t write, Dear Diary, I feel so down today, blah blah blah, but every thought that flits through my head, instead of going safely into storage in the deep recesses of my memory, slips down my arm, through the pen and onto the page. It’s the path of least resistance.

My notes read like a stream-of-consciousness (Yes! I knew one day I would be able to tag “stream of consciousness”) narrative: maybe some vague element in the wedding scene of the aunt wondering if she was right after all? Don’t forget to sweep the balcony – pistachio nut shells. Wedding dress, foaming skirt, wading through sea, foam, waist deep. Why is there a frog on my pistachio nuts?

Yes, why was there a frog on my pistachio nuts? I’ve got no idea. I don’t even remember that happening but it must have done, because I’ve written it in my notebook. I’ve also got notes for flashback scenes but I don’t know what story they are flashing back from and there’s an idea that I had recently that I thought was brand new but which I now see I was mulling over as far back as October last year. It makes me wonder what happens to all the random thoughts that people have that don’t get trapped between the acrylic covers of a notebook. Where do they all go? Are they floating through the air waiting for someone else to tune in and receive them? Or do they coil up into little bundles in dark pockets of the brain, never to stir again?

I would love to sit and ponder this for a while, but I have to get on with some writing. Reading those notebooks has got my synapses sparking all over the place, illuminating long forgotten ideas that I want to go back to and work on straight away before I lose them again.

Heads Up

After a couple of years of entering writing competitions and becoming disillusioned with the whole set up, the only writing competition I am now prepared to pay to enter is The Bridport Prize.  It is open to everyone over 16 and is for poems of up to 42 lines and short stories of up to 5000 words. The entry fee is £6 per poem and £7 per short story and the first prize is £5000. The top 26 stories and poems will be published in an anthology. I have the anthologies from 2006 and 2007 and as well as enjoying reading the winning pieces, I have found the judges’ reports illuminating. Here are a few tips on writing for the Bridport, which I have assembled after reading what previous short story and poetry judges have to say:

Short Story Competition

1. Make it funny. “Humour was in short supply and so was beauty, human or divine.” Jane Gardam, 2006

“Sorely missing from the entries was humour.” Tracy Chevalier, 2007

2. Avoid writing about death, bad parents and religious faith if you can help it. Instead choose an uplifting theme for your story. “There was a grim uniformity about the worlds (the writers) described. I felt that if I were a Martian I would not want to continue with any space-probe that might take me anywhere near planet earth; a place of malaise, disillusion, infidelity, malice, cowardice, madness, cruelty, marital discord, damaged children with ghastly parents, drugs, booze, child-abuse, war, massacre, suicide and scant religious faith or hope for the future.” Jane Gardam

“It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting to find out what subjects people choose to write about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: ageing and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith.” Tracy Chevalier

3. Nail the characters. Make them memorable and real. “It is character that is at the heart of everything…I decided to give my judicial self a rest, live my life and see which of the characters would continue in my mind.” Jane Gardam

“(short story writing) does have a purpose beyond entertainment, and that is to explore what it means to be human. I was very impressed by the many examples of good writing and the confidence and economy with which entrants established character, voice and scene.” Tracy Chevalier

4. Don’t rush the ending, spend time on getting it right. “Too many times I thrilled to a story, only to be bitterly disappointed on reading the last page. The reader demands the impossible (from an ending): to be both surprised and satisfied. Too often entrants didn’t give me either option.” Tracy Chevalier

Poetry Competition

1. Writing beautifully is not enough. ” There’s a lot of dead poetry about. Some of it is beautifully made. I’ve dismissed poetry that is beautifully made and nothing else.” Lavinia Greenlaw, 2006

“Lots of poems here sound like poems, and often very beautifully – but…they have no great imaginative or dramatic proposition that makes me excited about the prospect of reading them again. I want a poem with an interesting argument or point to make, or a compelling story to tell.” Don Paterson, 2007

2. Make it surprising and imaginative. “The things I was looking for as I made my way through the entries were… surprise, precision, imagination and risk.” Lavinia Greenlaw

“Too many (of the poems) afforded me no surprise – which is the reader’s only test that the writer has themselves been surprised or excited or moved in the actual making of the poem. The poems I have in the final pile all have a sense of having built their own little imaginative planet.” Don Paterson

3. Pay attention to technical details.  “I was looking for…a proper attentiveness to and use of cadence, lineation, enjambement, metrics etc.” Lavinia Greenlaw

“There are three things that I really wish poems would not withhold or muddle or fail to signpost, through incompetence or misjudgement: these are literal context…, dramatis personae…, and chronological sequence.” Don Paterson

So now there is no excuse for not writing a bloody good entry for the Bridport. The closing date is 30th June so that gives you a little more than a month to get your piece ready. What are you waiting for? Get cracking!