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Posts from the ‘Voice’ Category

What to do when you know it’s not working

So about a month ago I got some very welcome news that I’ve been shortlisted for the Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller competition with my psychological thriller Rip Her To Shreds.

I’d been working away on another novel called ‘A Pale Imitation’ – the story of an affair (well, more than one over the different timelines) and its repercussions told in increments of seven years. It jumped around all over the place from depression-era New York to 1980s suburbia. I had three narrators, one of whom was a real life person, one of whom was a child, and had got myself into a complete mess with it. I worried at night about what the descendants of this person might make of it (although none of it was derogatory). I couldn’t make the timeline work. I spent hours looking at the most obscure archive footage of Central Park in 1920 to see what animals they had in the zoo. But I couldn’t get the story right.

I was getting some encouragement. The opening chapter was shortlisted for Best Opening Chapter at York Festival of Writing, an agent said they wanted to see it when it was finished, and then my pitch was favourited by an agent at Curtis Brown on their monthly Pitch CB and I submitted the first three chapters accordingly and the synopsis. They said they liked it but it didn’t go in the direction they were expecting and so rejected it. I could not see what else I could do with it – it had got into an intractable knot. I knew deep down it had some good elements but overall it had no clear direction – no real impetus to keep a reader reading.

But I couldn’t get this one voice out of my head.

Back at the end of May, I saw the deadline was almost up for the Richard and Judy competition but it was against the rules to submit anything you had previously sent to an agent. So I started writing – using this one clear (slightly disturbing!) voice. A whole different story, a whole new setting, whole new characters (although the theatre background still features). It was extremely hard, queasy-making, to junk those previous 60,000 ish words – all that research, all those hours. But this one came quickly – I could see the story stretching out before me. I got in a day before the deadline and a month later was told I had been shortlisted.

Not all that previous work has gone to waste – I see bits of it creeping in. Maybe I will suddenly get a blinding flash of inspiration as to how A Pale Imitation should tie together later. I know a lot about Chagall now anyway.

Now I have a fixed deadline of early December to completely finish the 80,000 manuscript of Rip Her To Shreds and then we’ll see.

Have you ever completely started again on a project? A novel or something else? Junked a lot of words? What do you do when you know something’s not working?

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Favourite Short Story Authors

It’s National Short Story Week here in the UK and I’ve been thinking about who my favourite short story authors are. I limited myself to five -the first two sprang out at me uncontested – but then it was hard to whittle it down.  This is who I came up with:

1. Lorrie Moore

I adore everything Lorrie Moore writes. On the face of it, the themes she deals with are pretty bleak – loss, broken marriages, infidelity, mortality and dealing with ageing parents – but she turns the melancholia into something beautiful and poignant. She is also very funny with a wry, ascerbic wit. I can’t believe she wrote her first collection of stories Self Help at just 27 – it seems so worldly wise.

Try: If I was recommending a place to start, I’d say buy The Collected Stories which has a selection taken from Self Help, Birds of America, Like Life and Anagrams.

2. Ali Smith

Ali Smith is the most mercurial of writers and excels in the short story form. I’ve seen her speak twice in person and the last time she read from a story called The Beholder about a person (it was left vague as to the gender but I will refer to ‘she’ for ease) steeped in grief whose father has died and caused a family rift, and she goes to the doctors having noticed a lump in her chest. You think you know where the story is going and then Smith completely blindsides you – the expected tumour is in fact a little patch of hardened bark which begins to grow shoots and then buds and blossoms into a rose bush. Soon she needs a trellis and garden stakes just to get around. This is what Smith does – starts with a rather believable situation and then soars off into almost magical realism, using allegory and myth and wordplay. The audience was in alternate hysterics and tears. 

 Smith was asked in the Q&A about which she prefers – the novel or the short story. They are very different disciplines – it’s like asking an actor do they prefer theatre or film.  Like Picasso, she is able to play about with structure and form because she understands the rules  and is then able to break them.

Try : First Person and Other Stories

3. Janice Galloway

I love Janice Galloway’s ‘voice.’  It is unflinching. Again, she deals with every day life – a trip to the dentist (it will put you off going for life), the butchers or the hairdressers. She has a way of writing without speechmarks and often using CAPS which I know annoys some people but if you concentrate, it is worth it. Scottish born, she pinpoints characters with absolute accuracy using the briefest of descriptions.

Try: Collected Stories

4. Helen Simpson

For observational powers, Helen Simpson can’t be beaten. She is sometimes dubbed ‘domestic fiction’ as if that was somehow derogatory but I’ve never understood that implied criticism. The second story in Hey Yeah Right Get a Life called Cafe Society absolutely nails the scene between two women out for lunch – one with a baby – and how that has changed absolutely everything. Author Maggie O’Farrell is quoted in the frontispiece to the book,” ‘There are short story writers who render the genre mere snipped-up sections of prose, the poor relation of the novel; and then there are those, like Simpson, who elevate it to an art from all of its own, who make you see its point.’

Try: Constitutional

5. Jon McGregor

This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You

The only man in my top Five.

These are haunting, unsettling disjointed stories, very hard to decipher in places and sometimes only a couple of hundred words long, a paragraph – or in one case, only one sentence – long.  They are like exquisitely crafted masterpieces and haunted me for ages – particularly this one, Wave and Fall, which was printed in The Guardian supplement.

There are many many more collections I like – notably Amy Hempel’s The Dog of the Marriage, Robin Black’s If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, Polly Samson’s Perfect Lives, Tessa Hadley’s Sunstroke and lastly – everything by Alice Munro.

I am ashamed to admit, despite having chosen the American Literature module at University I haven’t read any Raymond Carver or Hemingway (his short stories that is) and I’ve probably greatly missed out if you have any recommendations.

Who are your favourite short story authors?