Monthly Archives: March 2018

Learning from Short Stories

Poetic Republic does a Phoenix.

In November 2017, in a blog entry entitled, “Writing and Judging Short Stories”, I extolled the virtues of a short story competition run by Poetic Republic in Manchester. For those who haven’t read it, here’s a brief resumé:

The entrants acted as writers, readers, judges, and commentators. Participants could choose whether to judge 7, 14 or 21 stories over three rounds – but judging at least 7 was a condition of entry. Thus the winners were chosen solely by their fellow writers.

The idea was the brainchild of the organiser, Peter Hartey, who died during the 2015 competition, and when virtually nothing more had been heard of Poetic Republic by the end of 2016, I assumed that was the end of the matter. Not so.

 

The Woodcarver and Other Stories

Contrary to all expectations, the top 20 stories – as voted for by the 200-odd participants – have now appeared in an online anthology entitled, “The Woodcarver and Other Stories” (2018). This is wonderful news for at least four reasons:

(1) We now have access to a story with one of the best killer openings I’ve ever read: “Cherry Pi” (not “Pie”) by John Venables. (Please don’t confuse him with the child murderer of 1993.) Well done, John – brilliant! Thanks for the inspiration.

(2) The overall standard is well above the average standard of stories I have read recently – and I read a lot now, having switched my main allegiance from novels to shorter stories. You would expect an anthology to contain the horrific, the poignant, the romantic, the macabre, the exotic. This anthology is no exception, but the range of style, subject matter, location and point of view goes well beyond what even the most demanding reader could hope for.

(3) Each story is accompanied by a selection of comments made by other participants. Bear in mind that, by the end of the third round, the few surviving stories had been judged by up to 21 different people. These comments are hugely instructive and insightful – and not only to the authors involved.

(4) The foreword of the book sets out details of Peter Hartey’s “democratic peer review process”. In my view, this should act as a blueprint for many short story competitions in future. The system is infinitely superior to any competition relying on the whim of a single judge, however experienced that judge may be.

The fact that my story, “The Sponge”, made it into the top 20 is pleasing but above all humbling, especially when I read the bios of the other contributors. I am acutely aware of how we are all perennial students of our craft. After reading all the stories twice – and my favourites three times – I made a list of what, collectively, they demonstrate and what we should all be aiming at:

 

What we have to learn

How to write a killer opening

How to make the reader hate a character – and then love him/her

The art of the slow reveal

How to exploit the familiar

How to achieve effect by understatement

How to pace a story

How to maintain “voice”

How to write a story in the second person

What not to say (to make the reader think).

 

Phew. That looks like a lot of lessons: plenty to get one’s teeth into next time.

 

I hope that you will be curious enough to take a look at the anthology. My favourite stories are: “Cherry Pi”, “To the Beach at Athanos”, “The Day You Miss the Train”, “Retard”, “The Lion”, “The Coffee Kid”, and “The Woodcarver”, but I learned something from all of them.

I am already looking into other work by Lisa Fransson, J.David Simons, Tom Gatehouse, and David Ashley. A warm “Thank you” to all those fellow writers who became my fellow teachers.