Tag Archives: short stories

Imagine that!

No, I can’t imagine, either

One of the best things about being a writer is having free reign with imagination. Writers can create whole worlds – plus all the creatures that live in them.  And they can make up characters and force them do whatever they like. What power!

There’s that fridge magnet/bumper sticker that says something like: ‘I’m a writer. Yes, of course you’re going to be in my book. You come to a grizzly end on page 27’.

I feel a bit that way at the moment as I’m writing a longer-than-usual short story based on something that’s been going on in my life lately. But the clue is in the word ‘story’. What I’m writing may be inspired by reality, by living people and actual events, but I’m putting such a twist on it, the characters will be unrecognisable to themselves (otherwise I get sued, of course). It’s called fiction and I love it! I’m having a great time changing the reality to suit myself. It might even have a happier ending than the real thing, I haven’t decided.

And sod all those writing gurus who say, ‘write  about what you know’. I’m all for writing what I’d like to know.

Chess (the feline one) imagining he has a chance here

Of course, it is unlikely I’ll ever *murder my husband, take a toy boy lover, eat raw steak, drive the wrong way down the motorway doing 100 mph, use cocaine, climb Mount Etna, learn to fly a helicopter, join an on-line dating agency, or learn to play the piano, but any of my characters can. I can make them do whatever I want (so there), and I hope that by now, after all these years of practice, I can make their lives convincing to the reader.

And aren’t we lucky to have the research tool that is the Internet at our fingertips? If we don’t know how something works, someone will have put a You Tube video on line to explain. Research for writers is a doddle these days (so long as you trust your source).

My own life has been quite interesting so far, so I’ve a deep well of personal experience to dip into. I have insider information about all kinds of activities, including keeping alpacas and bees; polytunnel growing and selling organic veg in farmers’ markets; camping and outdoor survival; Austin Sevens and ships in bottles; treasure hunting and archaeology; hot air ballooning and light aircraft. And that was just last week (!).

I’m still trying to figure what names suit my fictional characters best and although I think I’ve decided, I’m going to have to proof-read very carefully when I’ve finished, after I discovered in an early first draft I’d used the name of the real person (oops!).

Killing off characters, making them scruffy, ugly or fat, giving them tattoos and bad breath, making them jump off a cliff. How cathartic is that for a writer with imagination and issues!

*In case you’re wondering, only one of these things is a vague possibility for me, but I’m not saying which.

And if you’re nice to me, I won’t let you get killed off until page 500.

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Once Upon A Time

For the weekend that’s in it – a Bank Holiday here in Ireland – here are some short stories for you to enjoy.

I’ve been reading short stories since I was a teenager when I came across EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, which I think might have been on the O level English Literature curriculum, alongside ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ by DH Lawrence.

I haven’t stopped reading stories since, and these days I have a go at writing them, too. I’ve had ten published so far – but I’m keen to learn more about what makes them work, which is why I’m booked into a Short Fiction Workshop with writer Danielle McLaughlin at Listowel Writers’ Week (June 3rd and 4th 2017).

Here’s one of Danielle’s stories, first published in The New Yorker in September 2104, ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’.

And a link to a blog post I wrote last year when I met that very author in a Cork bookshop.  She was minding her own business looking at books with her children and I was there buying her short story collection.

News was out earlier this year that Tom Hanks has turned his hand to writing and has a collection of short stories due for publication in the autumn. Here’s one he had published in The New Yorker  in October 2014: ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’

Meanwhile, if you haven’t read EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, do give it a go – but bear in mind that it was first published in 1909; the style is a bit wordy (at 12,000+ words it is really a novella), but the message about how humankind is on a path to self-destruction is chilling, and very pertinent to modern times.

There are plenty of other examples of good story writing available to view for free via the internet.  The New Yorker publishes some crackers, the Irish Times has the Hennessy New Irish Writing story once a month, and the Moth, The Stinging Fly, Crannóg and Banshee magazines all publish short stories and flash fiction.

Then there are the competitions – there are dozens, nay probably hundreds, out there.  Some I enter, some I don’t.  I take the view that someone has to win, so why not me? That modus operandi has worked a couple of times (thankfully) but isn’t foolproof. Reading the winning entries can be a revelation.

I haven’t won the Costa Short Story Competition, but Kit de Vaal did in 2014 with ‘The Old Man and the Suit’.

And Billy O’Callaghan’s story ‘The Boatman’ was runner-up in the Costa Competition last year.

Just because I think it’s a great read, here’s ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan from The New Yorker, February 2010 .

Raymond Carver wrote classic short stories; here’s one first published in 1989: ‘Little Things’.

And finally, here’s a link to one of my own short stories – one I’m still quite proud of, ‘Flying Lessons’.

And yes, I know, pride is a sin. Ah well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Noise of Celebratory Glasses (and something of mine for you to read)

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Some of my anthology haul from the last 12 months or so*

Well, actually this is all about link, link rather than clink, clink, but I couldn’t resist.

If you’ve ever heard of me, you’ll know I write (mostly) poetry, flash fiction and short stories. So I thought I’d pull a few of my recent best bits together in one place.  Took me long enough – how could I expect anyone else to bother? So I wouldn’t blame you for never having sight of these pieces before…

So here are the links to a few samples of my writing (and you’re not allowed to comment that it’s all a bit so-so. So there.) So:

  • The one that started it all, my nomination for the Hennessy Literary Awards, a short story published in the Irish Independent: ‘Flying Lessons’
  • Third placed poem in Strokestown Poetry Festival’s Roscommon Poets’ Prize 2015: ‘Yellowbrick Road’, alongside (if you scroll down far enough on the same page) shortlisted poem ‘Softly, Softly’: Strokestown 2015

*Apologies for the awful photo quality; I’ve asked Santa for another camera. Not sure if he reads this blog. Watch this space…

Stockings, and the Filling Thereof…

cat-tales-anthologyIf you know someone who likes cats and short stories (always a good combo in my opinion) this anthology might be a good Christmas stocking filler. A paperback with illustrations and 21 stories (including one of mine, ‘Waifs and Strays’), the proceeds go to two charities – Cats Protection and the Against Malaria Foundation. ‘Cat Tales; An Anthology of Short Stories’ is available at Amazon:  Cat Tales

Or there’s ‘The 2016 Exeter Story Prize Collection: 21 New Stories’ which also includes a short, short story of mine, ‘Fitting In’ (which has nothing to do with cats!). These are stories and flash fiction from this year’s CreativeWritingMatters competitions, available on Amazon: 2016 Exeter Story Prize Collection

BTW – I’m not in it for the money on this occasion; I receive nothing from the sale of these books (I even had to PAY (gasp!) for my own copies). It’s all about me trying to raise my writing profile. Although I did get paid £50 for coming second in the Exeter Flash Fiction Competition with ‘Fitting In’  🙂

 

 

Working Titles and The Sound of Time Passing

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Just because…

Why has no-one ever before told me about the joys of audio books?

Faced with the prospect of a boring, solo four-and-a-half-hour car journey last week, I asked around about the best way to pass the time.  Obscure local radio stations and over-used MP3 playlists notwithstanding, the consensus seemed to suggest listening to stories.

So I ventured into a dusty corner of my local library and discovered a small but significant collection of audio books.

I chose ‘The Hills of Kilimanjaro’, a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories. (Him again. I’m re-living my teenage years somehow).  Good enough, as they say around here.

But I also picked up a box of ten CDs (which represented nearly 12 hours of listening) ‘When Will There Be Good News?’ by Kate Atkinson, read by Steven Crossley (who was really good with all the accents and the male and female voices). The time then passed easily enough as I drove from one side of Ireland to the other, and then down some (Rosslare Port is a long way from where I live).

But I hadn’t expected to be at the end of my journey and so gripped by the story that I would have to transfer the CDs to my laptop and sit listening well into the small hours because I wanted to know what happened. And a laptop and earphones are way more awkward to fall asleep with than a good old paperback.

I like Kate Atkinson’s style – literary crime fiction stuffed with strong characters given to sarcastic exchanges, albeit in absurdly twisting stories of unlikely coincidences and happenstance. I’d not read this one before, not least because of the title.  It sounds like some religious self-help tome – or perhaps some frothy rom-com. Not that there’s anything wrong with either things, they were just not what I wanted to read at the time.

Which goes to show that titles can be incredibly important. To me anyway.

Before I even read the blurb on the back cover, the title has to appeal.  But then, that’s only if I’m trawling the bookshop looking for something interesting, without any particular guidance. Although I often end up reading recommended novels  that wouldn’t have otherwise caught my attention. Like ‘Burial Rights’ by Hannah Kent (I loved it), ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara (I hated it), and ‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss (I’m still reading it).  All were Book Club suggestions that wouldn’t have otherwise caught my attention because of iffy titles.

I did go through a phase of trying to avoid any books with ‘girl’ on the cover (which was quite difficult at one time recently), although I stumbled across ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ by Kate Hamer and enjoyed it. Gillian Flynn’s excellent ‘Gone Girl’ has a lot to answer for (and that was one clever title in my humble opinion).

Then there have been Rachel Joyce’s books ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ and ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy,’ which weren’t in the usual style of titles (I loved them both, too).

And I read (and mostly enjoyed) ‘The World Hums in B Flat,’ by Mari Strachan which I picked up just because of the intriguing title.

Kate Atkinson’s other works all have clever titles, among them: ’A God in Ruins’, ‘Life after Life’, and ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ (what’s there not to like about using Emily Dickinson in a book title?).  So I’m probably missing something from why she chose the title: ‘When Will There Be Good News?’

No matter – I enjoyed the audio version very much.

Trouble is, I have my long journey in reverse tomorrow and only Hemingway’s stories for company. And as everyone knows, there’s rarely any Good News in those tales.

Exactly The Right Number Of Words

ernest hemingway (2)I had a good deal on petrol this week. My car runs on unleaded and I was given a voucher offering me 5c off every litre. So I filled up with 46 litres and totally confused the girl at the till.

For some reason her cash register wasn’t set up to deduct 5c a litre automatically, so she had to figure it out manually.

‘That’s €2.30 off the total,” says I, trying to be helpful. She consulted her well-thumbed ready-reckoner (remember them?). But clearly, she didn’t believe it (or me). Two colleagues and a calculator were consulted before she conceded, by which time a bit of a queue had built up behind me.

Back in the day, before phones had calculators and bleeping tills had everything automated, sales assistants had to use their brains to work out percentages or change.

Now I wouldn’t be the sharpest knife in the maths drawer (I was totally baffled by calculus and trigonometry), but I find some elements of mathematics very useful. I’ll even work out percentages and totals in my head, just so I have a rough idea of what to expect when I get to the checkout (that way I know if I’m being ripped off or not), and I know how to count back change accurately. (I’m sometimes wrong, but that’s not the point here).

At the petrol station, I’d worked out a 10c reduction would be €4.60 and then halved it. Simples!

But don’t get me started on the rounding up and down thing we have going on here in Ireland as we head for the abolishment of one cent coins.

Which brings me on to word counts.

There’s a little icon on the corner of my computer screen which tells me how many words I’ve written. Handy, although it takes the fun out of guessing. It should make the task of writing to a word limit easier. But I’m not sure it does.

Flash fiction competitions seem to be a moveable feast. Some of them want 250 words, others 300 or 350. Then there’s the 400 or 500 word stories. And I’ve even seen 1,000 words described as ‘flash’.

Ernest Hemingway (the man with the typewriter pictured above) famously cornered the six-word story market with: ‘For sale. Baby shoes, never worn.’  He’s a writer I’ve admired for years, although I wouldn’t have liked the man himself (all that huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’). But what a writer!

I’ve had a good few goes at the six-word story challenge myself, but my efforts tend to sound like gutter press news headlines: ‘Reduced petrol price flummoxes dumb blonde’. Yes? Nah!

Anyway, I’ve the premise for a brand new short story (nothing to do with the price of petrol) and I think I can tell it in exactly the right number of words. I’m just having trouble figuring out exactly how many that is…

 

Sex is good but have you ever been shortlisted in a writing competition?

squirrelI have been spending a lot of time recently wondering why on earth I write. Of course, it’s rejections that bring on that ‘what’s it all for?’ mood.

I seem to have had a good few negatives explode in my in-box recently, like badly placed mines ready to tear off my writing limbs. They are somehow counterbalanced by an unequal number of positives of course, which is what keeps me going.

I carry on because, as I’ve said before, ‘Sex is good but have you ever been shortlisted in a writing competition?’ (I need to get a fridge magnet made). That thrill of knowing my story or poem stood out as proficient and entertaining, that someone besides family and friends thought my work was good – well that’s what it’s all about.

Ultimately of course I write for myself, for my own amusement and to escape into a world where I have total control, where I can be anyone, anything I want to be. It’s almost a compulsion, my need to write (I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to hold a pen). But it still matters to me that other people enjoy my writing too.

Yet writing is like many aspects of the human experience – one size does NOT fit all. Music, painting, sculpture, dance, garden design, fashion, politics, food, drink – life would be very dull if we all liked the same things.

True, some things are generally well liked and popular – think Elvis and the Beatles, think JK Rowling and Stephen King, think Monet and Picasso, think Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith, think Coco Chanel and Stella McCartney, think chocolate and colcanon.

OK, such a list could go on for ever, but you get the idea? And culture in all its guises is subjective, so I shouldn’t get hung up about someone not liking my writing. My work should appeal to someone, but not necessarily everyone. Should I mind? Probably not, but I do…

So in order to prove to myself and other people that I CAN write, I put myself through the competition mangle time and time again. Last year I’d planned to get to one hundred submissions (which included competition entries, bursary applications, magazine contributions et al). I ran out of steam after no 74, although by then I’d garnered a few wins, with some published stories to add to my portfolio. Plus, the coffers were not unduly strained (I more than broke even, although I’m not booking the round-the-world cruise just yet).

I hit the ground running in January 2016 and promised myself again to try for a century. We’re not quite half way through the year and I’ve just fired my 51st submission off, ever hopeful of a ‘congratulations’ reply.

Meanwhile, one thing that has perked me up no end was looking through my records and discovering that some of my successes had been failures in a previous incarnation. Each one got dusted off and rewritten, then sent out again, including one story that was rejected by a very good writer (the lovely one I met in a bookshop in Cork last week!), which went on to get published in an anthology with a highly commended tag.  Which just goes to show…

And the picture? Er, squirrels?  Yes, well first off, I really miss them here in Ireland. They don’t live anywhere near me (nor do hedgehogs or rabbits, although we do have foxes, hares, badgers and polecats). This one lives in Swansea (Dylan Thomas country – see, there is a writing connection here). And this fella likes stale Cheerios, although some of his fellow tree rats don’t…

QED, eh?