Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Shot in the Arm for the Short Story? Or a Shot in the Dark? By Elizabeth Kay

          The first thing most writers ever tackle is the short story. Either because it’s something they do at school, or because it’s less daunting than a book. It’s the preferred form in creative writing classes, as a number of them can be read out during the course of a two-hour lesson. It’s also one of the staple exercises of the creative writing degree, as once again it can be marked without too much tutor time being used up.
          The print markets aren’t as widespread as they used to be, and competitions may be the only outlet for the more literary story as they don’t specify subject matter. But there’s a distinct possibility of an electronic rebirth. Dr. Who isn’t the only one who comes back in new disguise.  Short fiction on the Kindle may be the discerning commuter’s alternative to the computer game.

            The first fiction I ever had published was in the Evening News, which existed in London from 1881 to 1980 and was aimed at a wider general public than a traditional paper, such as The Times. The fiction editor bought a short story of 1100 words every day, and gave the first breaks to many writers as the only criterion was that they shouldn’t be blasphemous or libellous. The response to a submission was always the following day – old-fashioned editing and snail mail knocked e-submitting into a cocked hat.
            Since then I’ve done quite well in competitions, and had the occasional story published in a print anthology. Publishers don’t want entire short story collections from new authors, though, and are pretty reluctant to take them from mid-list authors too. But self-published short stories are a new departure, and just the thing to read on your Kindle on a daily commute.  Susan Price has got together a collection of stories called Overheard in a Graveyard Other-Stories and one of my students, finding no other outlet, has published a very funny book of them called Dispatches from the Land of Squalor which, I think, can be summed up in this paraphrased Tom Lehrer line: his muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.


I’ve been writing short stories for Magnet Magazine, a glossy free lifestyle magazine which is also available online. The magazine reader used was a revelation – it’s almost like the real thing! You can access all the stories I’ve written for free, as the back issues are available and the indexing is easy to use. The discipline of coming up with something new on a regular basis, within 900 words, is something I haven’t coped with before, but I much prefer deadlines to open-ended situations. I always try to have several stories in hand, so that I don’t get caught out by flu or computer meltdown or burst pipes.
            Flash fiction has been with us for a while now, too. These are very short stories that aim to fulfil all the criteria of pieces of a conventional length. In other words, the ending needs to both come as a surprise, and at the same time elicit the “Oh, of course,” response. The word limit can be anything from as brief as possible to 500 words or even more. Probably the most famous of all is Hemingway’s For sale. Baby shoes, never worn, which poses an amazing number of possibilities in the briefest of statements. 250 is  a common word limit, and there’s a good page about it on the Bridport site - see here. And this year, Bob Newman, also a student of mine, (Old Possum's Book of Practical Pigs)
was shortlisted for his story and mentioned by the judge - who described it as a "contemporary Zen koan".

Here’s one of mine:

The Tour Rep
          Personally, I like Valhalla best. All those muscular blond warriors quaffing and feasting. Heaven must be a right let-down by comparison unless you’re musical, or interested in nephology.
            I was re-writing the brochure for The Happy Hunting Grounds when Slugbelly prodded me with his pitchfork. “What?” I snapped. I’d just got to the section where the party gets to disembowel a bison.
“You’re meant to be guiding the Hades trip,” said Slugbelly. “Or had you forgotten?”
            This time, the punters were arsonists. They were really looking forward to their holiday, because it would be another million years or so until the next one. Management’s view is that you can’t truly appreciate Hell without having a break because it’s so much worse when you return.
The package went as planned until we encountered a second party at the crossroads where Ixion rolls past screaming, strapped to his wheel of fire.
“Can’t we help him?” asked a young man from the other group.
            I was staggered. I mean, it was almost as though he cared.
            “Nope,” replied the other rep. “It’s your first time in Hades, isn’t it?”
I’d never seen her before. She had feathery white wings and a golden tiara.
“It’s a good destination,” she continued. “The Damned spend their holiday watching others suffer and being glad it’s not them. The Saved – like you – watch others suffer, and suffer agonies with them. The afterlife’s a lot fairer than you may have thought.”
Fair? Honestly. Some people will believe anything.

Sometimes a short story will lead to an entire book. The characters I created for one short story didn’t want to be consigned to the outer darkness after I’d finished with them, and they plagued me until I wrote a whole book about them - Beware of Men with Moustaches

And, of course, it works the other way round too. The setting of The Divide was rather addictive, so I wrote a two-part short story for Aquila Magazine dealing with a bit of back-story, and it was like visiting a well-loved holiday destination from long ago.


            In short (!) there’s still room for a quick read, and maybe the Kindle will revive an old and once-popular art form.

7 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

I started out with short stories as well. Bu the funny thing is that now I'm writing novels I seem to have lost the short story writing skill.

Elizabeth Kay said...

I think writing books instead becomes addictive, as you don't have to keep devising new plots and new settings. And when you sit down to write it's like meeting up with a group of old friends - or enemies!

Bill Kirton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Kirton said...

I could never understand people saying, not so long ago, that the short story form was dead. As you suggest, Elizabeth, it fits perfectly into today's sometimes rushed lifestyles. My most recent publication, Alternative Dimension, is in fact a series of short stories which were so closely linked thematically that, by creating a connecting narrative, I could make them work as a novella. I also like a flash fiction written by my brother. It was called LOST and, in its entirety, it ran:
"That ring you lost, was it a wedding ring?"
"Not really."

Elizabeth Kay said...

That made me laugh, Bill!

Lee said...

Bill, lovely! Tell your brother to keep writing them - and maybe tweeting them too.

madwippitt said...

Loved the short short Elizabeth! I need to go look up your others now!

And short stories are such a great way to start learning how to write ...