Staying warm at minus 13 degrees in a house with what can best be described as eccentric, one radiator running off a Rayburn and an open fire downstairs and two oil heaters upstairs, presents a challenge. I can emphatically recommend electric blankets and thermal underwear. The beauty of the soft white landscape and the stillness was inspiring; a short story has emerged. Short stories are something that I turn to either when a novel has hit a sticky patch or I am in between novels, as I am now. Now that I have made a successful entry into e-reader publication with Gene Genie, I have decided to follow up with the publication of three or four short stories.
The great thing about short fiction is that as one’s craft improves over the years and it is quite simple to go back and re-write or re-edit a piece of writing that is generally under three thousand words. I re-visit my short stories periodically, sometimes because they would make a suitable entry for a competition but the length needs extending or, more typically, shortening. With the passage of time I notice the errors of judgement about character or pace and point of view. There appears to me to be an inclination to the first person narrative in almost all competition winners these days. I have to say that I find the lack of variation in point of view repetitive. I can see that the first person narrative allows your reader to identify with central character, but when I read a selection of winners and runners up and all of them are first person narratives I crave an altered perspective. I think that omniscient third or close third can work just as well in a short story. Perhaps it is fashion, all areas of life are subject to fashion; even surgery. There was a time when every child had their tonsils whipped out and every other child appeared to need grommets inserted in order to hear. Sometimes there are fashions in themes too; those who enter competitions would do well to remember this.
Last week, after a snow delay, the first session of my creative writing course ‘Fictional Narratives’ began at the Sainsbury Centre World Art Collection. We had a wonderful tour and talk by one of the guides and through him we found that embedded in this diverse and personal World Art collection is myriad themes. When I went to London last May on my personal cultural Olympiad, visiting art galleries and museums, I returned inspired. So if you are finding that your ideas for short stories are becoming a little pedestrian I recommend two things. Firstly, put yourself in a new environment and you will notice that you take in so much more; you don’t need to go far, a different part of your city, countryside or coast; it is often the unfamiliar which sparks the creative imagination and intensifies observation. Secondly, visit a collection or a building that is out of the ordinary, either because it is not to your taste or because it is remarkable, bizarre, or of architectural merit. Having cautioned against repetitive themes collections of short fiction often do have a central theme running through them, I am thinking here of ‘Something Like Happy’ by John Burnside whose writing often features ghosts or the half-seen and is sensitive to atmosphere and weather, or Padrika Tarrant’s ‘Broken Things’ where psychosis is a theme that runs through the collection. Tove Jansson’s collection ‘Art in Nature’ speaks for itself and there is Julian Barnes, ‘The Lemon Table’ which deals with ageing. My short story collection will be called ‘Life Drawing’ so you will find that art and life are the themes contained there. So a theme running through a collection is common, just be aware when entering writing competitions, especially those where a title or theme is suggested, many authors will have used an idea similar to your own. As we emerge from the darkness and sharp cold of winter, take the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and push away the pedestrian in favour of the experimental, or as the say here in Norfolk ‘do different.’