Writing that Short Story – Learning and Letting Go
|The winner of the 2016 Nivalis Short Story Competition with ‘The Bread Man”, Richard Buxton is a well published author of short form fiction, having earlier won the Exeter Story Prize and the Bedford International Writing Competition. A resident of Sussex, England, Richard is a graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at Chichester University. He studied in the United States during his twenties, and the influence that the country has had on his writing is evident from the recurrent theme of the US Civil War in his stories. Apart from a growing collection of short tales related to the War, he revisits the subject in his debut novel Whirligig, which is set predominantly in Tennessee.
Richard is a member of the West Sussex Writers and of The Historical Novel Society. You can learn more about Richard’s writing at www.richardbuxton.net.
In the following article, Richard talks about his experience with, and shares some advice on, the art of the short story.
I woke in our dark cabin to metal noises beyond the ship: dock noises. We must have arrived in Southampton. I patted around for my phone and found it was 4am and also, blissfully, that we were on a 3G network. We’d been on a week-long family cruise up the Norwegian coast. The daily cost of a ship-board internet connection was just another way to extract money from the captive passengers so I’d had a week free of web and email. It had been lovely, but now I felt like an alcoholic breaking out of the Betty Ford Clinic and lining up my first cold beer, or in this case, Gmail session. The first thing to catch my eye was a congratulatory note from a writerly friend for winning the Nivalis Short Story Award. I had no idea I’d won. It was torture. I wanted to dance around the tiny cabin but couldn’t wake my wife next to me or my daughter in the bunk above. I lay there with my eyes wide open, inwardly celebrating.
How had I got to this point? How do you conceive and write a story good enough to win an international competition like Nivalis? In fact, how do you find a competition for your story? I could say it started a year before when I’d written ‘The Bread Man’, but in reality it began a long time before that.
Trying to write a brief article on the art of short story writing is like trying to summarise the works of Shakespeare. There’s just too much to say. What’s obvious is that your approach will very much depend on your writing experience, but whatever standard you are at, my thinking is that your writing should be a mix of consciously applying the craft and freewheeling.
It would be great to think that we could all just write and write and thereby become expert. The reality is we learn from others and the single best starting point is to acquire a solid text on short story writing. For me this was Janet Burroway’s ‘Writing Fiction : A Guide to Narrative Craft’. It’s not cheap, so try it out at the library. Not everyone needs something so comprehensive, but find one that you can get along with. There are plenty to choose from.
Write about what fascinates you, not necessarily something you think is popular or mainstream. Why write about somebody else’s pre-occupation? Your story will have greater depth and emotion if your interest and knowledge are used as the foundation. For this reason I tend to shy away from themed competitions unless I can see a simple way to bend a theme to my own ends. Themes as wide as ‘Time’ or ‘Love’ are easily worked with. We’ll come back to choosing a competition later.
To begin with you may not have a strong idea what your pre-occupation is; it might just emerge from the writing. I experimented with a few subjects before I began to gravitate around the America Civil War, and it was only once I’d written a number of those that I realised (in fact my older daughter noticed) that there was a deep existential thread to the writing. You have to travel a certain distance, listen to others’ thoughts on your writing. You might then observe that your subconscious writer has quietly had his or her say.
There are many starting points for a story. Duh! What I mean is that there are several ways to get moving. You may have met someone and thought how great a character they would make; you might have a twisty plot idea. Both have happened to me, but my usual starting point is place, going somewhere with a particular past or atmosphere, spending some time there alone to truly observe and begin to imagine. Pick out places that are likely to fit with your interest. For me it might be a Civil War battlefield, an old trestle bridge or a steamboat. Depending on your own genre it might be a seedy nightclub, a racetrack, a cruiser cabin in the small hours of the morning. I won the Bedford Competition with a story born of someone knocking on our motel door past midnight. You just need to be alive to the possibilities.
There is also a dryer, more technical way to begin a story, something more self-conscious. You will have a favourite writer. Even better, you may have a favourite short story writer. It’s healthy to look closely at a writing style you admire and try to emulate it. This was actually my starting point for ‘The Bread Man’ which won the Nivalis Award.
The short story writer I particularly admire is Tim Gautreaux from Louisiana. I lapped up his collection ‘Waiting For the Evening News’ and in so doing observed two things in particular. Firstly, he often chose protagonists who would naturally have a view into other people’s often desperate (and therefore interesting) lives. There was a man who fixed water pumps on small dustbowl farms, a house fumigator, a priest. It put the story at an advantage straight away. Secondly I admired the efficient way he used a close third person narrative to tell the reader about setting and character at the same time. In the below extract from ‘The Piano Tuner’ we are in Claude’s point of view.
‘…the yard hadn’t been cut in a month and the spears of grass were turning to seed. The porch was sagging into a long frown, and the twelve steps that led to it bounced like a trampoline as he went up.’
We are being introduced to three things at one, most obviously the place itself. But in a more subtle way we learn about Claude’s character. He is disapproving of the neglect. It’s an early sign that he has a tight hold on life. Even more subtle is we are being set up for the character we haven’t even met yet: Michelle. She has let the place get run down which, it transpires, applies to her as well.
My starting point for ‘The Bread Man’ was to try and apply this technique. I had very little idea of the plot. I had a setting that was a hawker’s camp following a Civil War army and I considered what sort of character would be well positioned to observe the daily life of the camp. I picked a baker who got up before everyone else and sold fresh bread to the other traders and to the soldiers. Then I worked very hard on the opening scene to try and reflect the baker’s character through his observation, in particular his observation of the whore wagons.
‘He’d picked this spot so she would be in view. And there she was, hardly more than a silhouette with the sunrise still a batch of bread rolls away. She came barefoot down the wooden steps with that same natural balance he’d noticed before.’
Looking at it now, it doesn’t get close to Gautreaux, but I was stretching myself and applying myself consciously in a way I hadn’t before. Just the idea that I should try and reflect a character through his own observations made me a slightly better writer.
My experience of completing the story was surprising. I only had a rudimentary idea of where the plot might go as I had been concentrating so much on the style. Eventually the story began to take over, I let go of conscious effort and just wrote, speeding up and almost following my own narrative. At an emotional turning point I found myself typing through tears. Silas, our baker, has a trauma in his past. The story, it turned out, was about the fear of losing those closest to us, a fear most of us have pegged in us somewhere, including me. My unconscious mind had been busy on that while I was building character and setting. The trick is to work with both modes. It’s fine to spend a morning getting a paragraph just right, but it’s also fine to write three-thousand words, have a blub and tidy it all up afterwards.
Whatever level you are at, always try to apply some aspect of learning or craft into a story. It won’t lessen your creativity and might even free it up.
Choosing a competition for your story is a small art in itself. I like to have my story done and then go out looking for a fit. That way I feel more in charge: no deadline, no particular topic or judge to write for. But some people like to have a theme to help prompt an idea or a closing date to motivate them to finish a story. I like to be as free as possible; just me and the story. The downside is that it can be a little soul destroying if you can’t then find a competition where you feel your story might do well.
If you really are just starting out, try to find a local competition. There may be a writing club you can join where they hold small scale competitions monthly or quarterly. It’s a good place to cut your teeth and meet people to workshop with. Beyond that you might find competitions set up for your town or county. Some awards, the Bedford does this, offer a prize for the best local writer alongside the main prize.
The longer your story, the fewer competitions there are that you can enter. If your story is in the 1,000 – 3,000 range, you will have plenty of choice. Start going up from there and beyond 5,000 and there’ll be less to choose from and they’ll cost marginally more to enter.
There are many, many web sites that will list competitions. The most useful are by closing date and word count so you can quickly see if a given competition is an option for your story. Then it’s down to clicking through onto the specific site and, for me, seeing if you get a comfortable feeling about the organisers. This is harder to define. Personally, any site with large red font saying ‘Win Cash Prizes’ and at the same time throwing twenty thumbnail ads at me is a turn off. I want to feel an organization is genuinely there to support writers. You may have friends that have entered a competition before. I entered the Exeter Story Prize on a friend’s recommendation because she knew the people who ran it were all about writing.
It’s good if the competition publishes longlists, highly commended and shortlists. That way you have a better chance of measuring and enjoying your success even if you don’t make the top spots. If a competition only announces a single winner it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in their process. Is the turnaround time sensible? It’s a lot of work to judge a competition, but if the closing date is in April and the award is in December, it’s a long time to wait.
If there is a winners’ anthology published get the latest copy and measure the standard. This mattered to me a great deal when entering ‘The Bread Man’ into the Nivalis Award. I could see Fabula Press turned out a well-produced, smart looking anthology twice a year. That was the ambition, to be in the next one. It’s on my shelf as I write this, alongside the other publications I’ve been lucky enough to get into. I get a buzz from that. Publication on-line is fine too, but there’s nothing quite like seeing your story in print.
You may find a personal reason for entering a particular competition. I entered the Bedford Writing Competition because both my parents went to school there and I thought it would be a thrill if I could do well in memory of them.
Take a quick look at the judging. They don’t have to be a perfect fit but if the final judge is, say, a thriller writer, and you have written a romance piece, then maybe find somewhere else.
If at the end of all this you have positive vibes, then for goodness sake don’t rush to the PayPal button. Edit your story as many times as you can bear to, read it out loud; get Word to read it out loud; get a writerly friend or two to proofread it. Then make sure you are exactly in line with the submission guidelines, wish yourself good luck and press the button.
My last piece of advice is to accept that your story may not do well first time out. I’ve had one or two stories that have, but most have needed several competitions to find a home with a fresh lick of paint (edit) in between. You’ll be amazed at how much you will want to change a piece when you look at it four months later. Accept that it really is very subjective out there. All you can do is make the story as well-written and well-presented as you can before you throw it hopefully into the competition wishing well.
You have no control over the competition outcome, but you do have control over your craft. If you keep to the mind-set that you are prepared to continually learn from other writers, and at the same time trust in your subconscious storyteller, then your chances of success can only improve.