Leap Day update: learning from the best

15309206838_963abdfb70_bFeels like February’s been a long slog. It’s very much two steps forward, one step back (best case!) in this writing game, I find. But I do feel like I’ve learned a thing or two over the past few weeks – from other people – which I wanted to share with you.

I’ve been reading, a lot, and I feel like it’s having a really positive influence on my writing, if only in providing me with (yet more) to work on. Specifically, short story collections, several of which I picked up during the course of a Christmas present ‘Reading Spa’ at Mr B’s Emporium, the wonderful Bath bookshop, thanks to the lovely Jess and her encyclopaedic literary knowledge.

You might have seen my review of Danielle McLaughlin’s brilliant Dinosaurs On Other Planets. Her stories focus with laser detail on the conflicts that arise in everyday situations, with truly beautiful imagery, and have given me a lot to think about. By restricting the scope of the story to a moment, a brief glimpse in the window, she forces so much out of action. And every one of the senses is used to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary. Really inspiring.

I’ve also just read Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, a collection set in the Stinging Fly Editor (and now Sunday Times EFG Short Story Aware 2016 longlistee)’s Welsh home town of Caerphilly. These are punchy, dirty, funny, poignant stories about people in tough places, people struggling, people behaving badly. These stories grab you and don’t let you go. A lot of them have stayed with me. They’ve inspired me not to be afraid to grapple with the seedier side of life, not to be afraid of using humour alongside pathos. Thomas Morris can craft a whole character in just a few lines, and one that is truly unique – it’s a challenge to try harder with my characters: are they memorable enough? A short story may provide you with few words to play with, but I’ve seen now how much you can achieve in terms of characters that burst out of the page. I need to work on that. I also loved the structure of this collection – the way characters from earlier stories recur, some stepping forward to bigger roles, some stepping back, back stories being revealed that perhaps shed light on earlier conflicts. I might try resurrecting characters from some of my old stories, and taking them to new places.

The last collection I’ve just finished is George Saunders’s 10th of December – the latest volume from this short story legend, whose stories I’ve barely touched on before. It was a bit of a revelation, to be honest. So much to learn from. Structure – he does it all – every one feels totally unique, and stories consisting entirely of meeting notes and a diary make their way into this collection. There’s humour, again – lots of it – laced throughout these tales. I was alerted to a brilliant Tania Hershmann Writers & Artists feature this week by a fellow writer, Fiona Mitchell (whose own writing blog – Writing Mad – is very much worth a visit) – Tania was talking about the things she feels that have given her ‘permission’ to try new things over the years. I feel like George Saunders has given me ‘permission’ to be freer: to use wilder subject matter (The Semplica Girl Diaries – his story about girls from third-world countries being suspended as decoration over the gardens of the American elite – is particularly bonkers and disturbing), to experiment with bolder structures, and (like Morris) to use humour in a ‘literary’ story. One thing I took away above everything else was how generous Saunders is with his characters – he might throw the worst shit in the world at them, but they are (generally) allowed to come out the other side with dignity. A lot of the stories make you feel a positive boost at the conclusion. I’d been struggling with the ending of a particular story of mine – it’s about rather a weak, if kind, man, who tries to do something impressive with his life at last, and it fails – I realised that by giving him some dignity at the end, making him feel like he had succeeded on some level, I could give the story a lot more heart and soul. With its ending licked into shape, I sent it off somewhere today, hopefully with an improved chance of finding a home.

Have you read anything recently that’s given your writing a boost? I’d love to hear about it.

Things to aim for this month, if you need a target or two:

Some Competitions

BBC National Short Story Award (5pm Fri 11 March)

Mslexia Short Story comp (Mon 14th March, women only)

Chip Lit Fest Short Story Competition (Tues 15th March)

Stroud Short Stories (Sat 19th March, Glos/South Glos only)

Fabula Press Short Story Comp (Thurs 31st March)

Evesham Short Story Prize  (Thurs 31st March, theme: An Extra Day)

Short Fiction Prize ( Thurs 31st March)

Some Magazine Submissions

Submissions are open at:

Artificium, Ambit, Prole, Interpreter’s House (until the end of today), The Moth, Lighthouse, Aesop and Unthology, among many others.

**Also, in other news, do check out my story Labour of Love which I’m excited to say is up at For Book’s Sake as this week’s Weekend Read. Available (free) there until Friday 4th March. Hope you like it! **

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