While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Young Man Writes About Writing

I have, amongst other things (understatement), been working on a longer shorter story which I intended to submit to the BBC National Short Story Award. I had read the fine print, which stated that writers need to have been previously published. Turns out, I needed to read read the fine print, because entrants must be published in the U.K.

Drat. There goes my shot at £15,000.

On one level, I can see why the competition has this clause. It’s the biggest short story prize in the U.K., established with the express purpose of helping raise the status of the short story. (I’m not sure I entirely agree with some of the people behind the scheme’s arguments about the health and importance of short stories, but I think anyone who puts up money for writers has their wallet in the right place.) By rigging the draw so that only published authors can win, it means they will have someone with a track record to spruik, rather than doing the Pop Idol thing and launching someone to the top of the list without the experience behind them to keep them there.

But then there’s the purist in me who says it should be a competition for the best short story, not the best short story by a writer of XYZ description. If a story is great, it deserves £15,000 and the wide exposure a competition like the BBCNSSA would bring, even if the author doesn’t.


I know it seems difficult in today’s age of author events at literature festivals, full page author photos on back covers and celebrities-turned-paperback-writers to conceive of books without their authors. Even harder when you consider this proposition for other media. Praising a movie without considering the actors behind the characters or the director behind the camera. Talking about a song without talking about the performer. (I plan to write about cover versions in the near future, so take note).

I believe all literature prizes should be judged on the work and the work alone. This shouldn’t be a problem. As the novelist Jim Crace said, “If a novel's any good, it will be more interesting than its author.” Based on his wikipedia page looks like he’s lived by that maxim. Anyway, I agree with what the man said. It may be naïve and suboptimal, but if I was giving away £15,000 I’d want to give it to the best story possible, meaning no criteria at all. No word limits, no entry fee, online or paper submissions accepted, published or unpublished, UK citizen, transient, terrorist or alien authors: come one, come all.

But instead every competition has to have an angle, and every book needs a photogenic author.

Meh. That’s life I guess.

When I realised I could no longer submit my 6,000 word story I was a bit bummed, because there aren’t many journals or competitions which accept pieces of this length. I really want something in the Edinburgh Review or Chapman before I leave Scotland, but they both have word limits around the 2,500 mark. D’oh.

BUT... I’m glad to be in the situation of having a longer story which, had I not misread the rules of the competition, I may not have completed. The sudden revocation of my BBC eligibility also presented the opportunity to stop and consider what factors had influenced the beast my story became.

Like most stories, it began life as an idea. The first night I spent in Zanzibar, there was a strange ticking noise which I couldn’t place. I thought this could be a good metaphor for something, but didn’t know what, filed it away in a notebook and continued travelling.

Then, in about November, I was looking at all the stories I’ve ever written to see if I had enough to cobble together a short story collection. In collating the stories, I wrote a little summary sentence along side each, like so:

A young boy tries to figure out if his grandfather really stutters in another language

A young university tutor becomes obsessed with one of his female students

A young man tries to reconcile memories of his father and his own looming fatherhood

The misadventures of an ambitious but limited man who becomes mayor of a fishing town

A courier loses his licence and his job and must rely on his grandfather for transport and conversation

A day in the life of a single sex (male) high school

A young man returns to home for the holidays and plunges into depression

…& so on…

It wasn’t all “young man” fiction, but there was certainly a distinct lack of female characters. So, when it came time to turn the mystery sound in Zanzibar idea into a story, I thought, Why not make the main character female?

Was this a cynical decision? I don’t think so. Perhaps if I’d said: Having a female lead will give me a great chance of winning the BBC comp, but I didn’t know about the competition at this time.

When I did discover the competition, mid-November, it may, however, have encouraged me to write the female in Zanzibar story over, say, a young man who builds a shrine in his department’s men’s room story. And the 8,000 word limit definitely gave me the freedom and imprimatur (Word I Couldn’t Define Until I Looked it Up #2) to make it a long short story.

To go into any further detail about this story which you won’t see until it finds a home is a bit mean. I will say that I don’t think my decisions were any better or worse intended than those I make when writing fiction with no specific competition or publication in mind. The great thing about fiction is, if you’re doing it right, it’s all you in the end, regardless of word limits, themes, format or trends. Even the best need boundaries to work within or goals to work towards.

Speaking of which, I just cracked the magical 3,000 for today. Boom Tho!

Footnote to self: define, then sing the praises of the word 'spruik' one day.

1 comment:

Helen said...

Reading your descriptions of your ss's I realise I heard the 'stuttering' one on National Radio recently. I liked it.