Posts Tagged With: short stories

It’s January 3rd

I’ve already finished two books this year. (Reading of course, not writing!) I think aiming for a third by the end of today is too much to ask…unless I find a really short one.

I’ve been meaning to work on a couple of short stories over the past few weeks. I’ve had very good intentions, but of course the silly season sometimes gets in the way, and a 2016 deadline feels like ages away when the calendar still says 2015.

All of a sudden it’s 2016, and the end of the month seems frighteningly close when all I have one half-outline and one half-draft, that I’m intending to enter into two different competitions. The half-drafted piece is due on January 31st – and thanks to our lovely postal service’s recent changes, that means it needs to be in the post by about the 25th (even with a priority label on it!)

The piece which is currently only a half-outline is due on February 1st, but thankfully only requires electronic submission, so I will have that last week of January to focus on it entirely.

What am I doing here? I have short stories to write!

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Book Review: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

Although technically a challenge I’d set for myself for 2015, I decided to bend the rules and start expanding my horizons a little early. It’s a good thing I did, because to be honest, I’ve found this collection of Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short stories rather hard to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, the stories are impeccably crafted. It’s the subject matter I object to. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, given what I learned about the author from the brief biography in the introduction to the stories.

With a life marked by tragedy and mental illness that ended in suicide at the age of only 35, is it any wonder that Akutagawa should be obsessed with themes of death and religion? Perhaps this will give you a little insight into the author. The story Green Onions begins with a confession from Akutagawa that he is writing on a deadline and has no idea what the following story is going to be about. Throughout the narrative he continues to interject his own thoughts, including this gem about himself: ‘the fellow the critics are always blaming for having too little heart and too much intellect’. I can’t help but agree with this assessment. The stories (particularly the historical pieces) are filled with scenes of torture, religious persecution, executions, murder, and graphic depictions of rotting corpses. Had I known this beforehand, I probably would have chosen a different book to read.

Interestingly, the translator has arranged the stories chronologically – not in the order they were written, but in the order of historical setting. The earlier stories are based on Japanese folk tales and historical events, while the later stories are set in the author’s present day. Here I must admit that my knowledge of Japanese history is woefully inadequate, and I was very grateful for the notes provided by the translator and publisher. Many of the stories would have made little sense to me without them.

Although I would be lying if I said I enjoyed this collection, I didn’t feel the need to stop reading it either. I found the last six stories very enlightening, as they were semi-autobiographical, and explained a lot about the kind of mind that would write the other pieces. Would I recommend them to others? Hard to say. While the stories weren’t exactly my cup of tea, they certainly have literary merit… perhaps the best I can do is to suggest that readers make up their own minds based on what I’ve described above.

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Book Review: Only the Animals

Only the Animals is a selection of 10 short stories, each told from the point of view of the soul of a dead animal. Each story appears in chronological order, beginning with a camel who died in central Australia in 1892, and ending with a parrot in Lebanon in 2006.

Many of the stories focus on animals caught up in human conflicts, like a cat accidentally left in the trenches of WW1 France by an author visiting her soldier husband, a mussel (yes, the shellfish) clinging to the hull of an American battleship in 1941 or a dolphin used by the navy to identify sea mines in the middle east in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Although I admit many of the literary references went over my head (having had neither the time or the inclination to read many of the heavyweights mentioned, including Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath) the stories were very moving, with both humorous and tragic moments. I never thought I’d cry over the death of a fictional mussel (again, the shellfish!)

Although possibly not to everyone’s taste, I certainly enjoyed Only the Animals, and would recommend it to people who are looking to read something a little different.

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The Etiquette of Competitions

Just a short post today, because I’ve been pretty snowed under lately. I have a few competition deadlines coming up in the next couple of weeks, and to be honest, I’m starting to panic.

Right now, I have well over half of a story that I’m really proud of. I was sitting on a train scribbling some nonsense or other (with pen on paper!) when this story just started flowing on to the page. Normally I’m a serious ‘plotter’ but I really enjoyed ‘pantsing’ this one. If I can end it as strongly as I started, then win or lose, I’ll be happy to submit it for my first deadline.

My problem is, there’s another competition that closes the next day. And I’ve got nothing. I’ve got a few key words I’m playing with, but they’re really more suited to a competition that closes the following week.

For those who aren’t into entering competitions, most will only accept original, unpublished works – but they are pretty open about how new they are. Some have a timeline, for example ‘only works written after X date will be accepted’. Some organisations will accept works that have previously been submitted to other competitions provided they have not been awarded a prize. Some organisations will even accept works that have been submitted to multiple, simultaneous competitions, provided the author immediately withdraws their entry if it wins a prize in another competition. Then again, some organisations insist that works must ‘not be under consideration’ for any other prizes during the period of their competition.

My preference is to submit something new to each competition I enter, mostly because if a piece isn’t good enough to win a competition when it has been specially written to fit the theme and word count, it is unlikely to win anything else. Of course this does put me under a lot more time pressure, so I’m pretty careful to only choose competitions that really interest me (for example, next month I want to enter a competition where writers are asked to write a story based on one of three Shakespeare plays).

Well…that’s what I’m up to this week – along with reading a stack of books I’ve borrowed from our newly refurbished local library and writing some more reviews…I’d better get back to work!!

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I really hope I work better under pressure!

Anyone who’s been reading this blog regularly will know that I’ve recently been focusing a lot of attention on one particular short story for a competition which closes next week. I’m now under a lot of time pressure, as I still haven’t got a complete draft, let alone a finished product to submit.

This has got me thinking. In the past I always thought of myself as the kind of writer who worked better under pressure – that I was better off leaving everything until the last minute, knocking off one finished product in a hurry and sending it off with only minimal proofreading. I’m now questioning the rationale behind that kind of thinking… While it might be fine for school assignments and blog posts, I’m starting to learn that I’ve been foolish for thinking that the same might be true of creative pieces.

Usually I don’t plan a lot before I start writing a story. A scene will come to me, and I’ll have to get it down in a hurry before I lose it. Often it will be quite sketchy at this point, with only actions, dialogue and setting really clear. Then I have to go back and work on specifics – names for the characters, plotting out how they came to this point, and where they will go from here. Sometimes it turns out that the scene I’ve written isn’t even the beginning of the story. This time it’s been different. I put a lot of planning into this story before I started it, and it just feels wrong. Instead of just letting things unfold, I assigned certain actions to certain characters, and now I’m struggling to follow their motivations. I know what they did, but not why…which of course colours the how…

So I now have about a week left to get from half-finished first draft to a polished final product, printed out and in the post to arrive before the competition deadline…I really hope I can come up with something worth the effort!!

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The Disciplined Writer

This is totally not me. Discipline is probably my greatest weakness as a writer. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying that I have perfect technique, spelling or grammar, and sometimes my ideas turn out to be a waste of time…but these are all things that would improve much quicker if I had the discipline to work on them more often.

My discipline has improved greatly in the last few weeks. Firstly, I now carry several notebooks with me everywhere I go, just in case an idea hits when I’m out and about. Never again will I have to regret losing a great idea because I didn’t write it down in time.

Secondly, I now make a concerted effort to write something every day – even if it is only scrawling a few lines in my private journal. Having a blog has also helped motivate me to write more, although some days I find that I haven’t got anything to say that I’d be prepared to show the general public!

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have chosen a list of competitions to enter this year, and I’m finding that this has also helped to motivate me, although the long deadlines of some of the competitions have left quite a lot of scope for procrastination… I have also found that focusing on short stories leaves me less motivated to work on my novel…

I suppose in some ways, in some circumstances, this places short stories in the category of distractions – another reason my discipline suffers. People are another distraction. I find it very difficult to concentrate when there are other people around. I doubt I could ever be one of those writers who sit in cafĂ©s typing away, because I’d just be too distracted by the other people. I need a certain amount of background noise to concentrate, and I can usually ignore the TV in the background, but real people in the room is just a few degrees more distracting…

A few weeks ago I mentioned NaNoWriMo, more particularly my concern that writing such vast quantities of text in such a short period could lead to inferior quality writing. I discussed my thoughts with a friend who is a two time NaNoWriMo participant after publishing that particular post, and she pointed out that the aim was just to get ideas down on paper as fast as possible, and that although editing it afterwards was hard, there was plenty of time to do so after the writing period was over.

I am aware that at least a few of my regular readers are participating in the April ‘Camp NaNoWriMo’ and I wish them all good luck!!! If I’m still struggling as much with discipline by November as I am now, I may just have to sign up too…

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