The best place to start this blog lark is with a quick explanation of its title - why 'Scallops'?  
It came to me in a dream:  short stories are like scallops!  Similes and metaphors don't usually come to me in my sleep, I wish they did,  but on this occasion  I had watched rather too much of Hell's Kitchen before bedtime.  At some point, the wannabe chefs had competed to free perfect scallops from the gelatinous mass inside the shells. Craggy-faced Gordon was not pleased if any scallops had been spoiled in the process which, of course, most were.

A short story should also be small and perfectly formed:  it is the result of the skillful cutting down of a large, slippery concept in to a small, firm morsel of art.  As a writer still learning her craft, I know how easy it is to mutilate a good short story.  But I am hoping I'll get better with practice and - fingers crossed - that'll happen before my face turns too craggy...

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The curse of King Lear

I studied English Lit at the University of Sheffield.  I was probably the most highly strung student on my course, I'm sure of it.  Exams were my biggest source of anxiety but the coursework terrified me too.  

An essay assignment would be issued and the very next day I would begin wandering through the library stacks in a trance (this was in the days when URLs were as lengthy as Paradise Lost) hunting for pearls of wisdom I could scatter among my otherwise bland analysis of whatever masterpiece we were studying.  I wrote up my research long hand (too poor to photocopy) and when that was done, I'd begin drafting, then endlessly redrafting - also all in long hand (the computers were booked up for weeks).  I always finished my essay early but I would tinker and tinker until the words looked foreign to me, right up until the deadline.

Imagine my horror, then, one day I was standing in line to submit my essay on King Lear when a friend pointed out I had spelled his name wrong...and how had I spelled it?  With a goddamn 'h'!  King Bloody Leah...I had just an hour to return to the computer suite, wait in line for a terminal, correct my manuscript, wait in another line for the print out, race back to the submission point.  The self-loathing was - and still is - beyond description.

That incident has scarred me for life.  I have nightmares about submitting essays to this day and I graduated 12 whole years ago.   Now every time I write something, I get an attack of OCD.  Everything from birthday cards to official correspondence and, now I'm a writer, all my submissions to competitions.   I would rather not submit any of my work that spend another day like today, checking and rechecking everything I might have misspelled.  When I am in this state, nothing looks right - even my name on the manuscript.  Lornah.  That's right, isn't it?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Balloons On The Wind

At last.  I have a story submission plan for February to April.  My mind was hopelessly boggled by the sheer number of journals and magazines for short stories out there.  And then it hit me:  I don't subscribe to any of them.  Here I am, knocking 'em out and itching to be published, but what am I really doing to support the short?

To assuage my guilt I immediately subscribed to Zoetrope's AllStory: a quarterly mag of shorts published by Coppola's company based here in San Francisco.  I am also on the elist for Narrative.  But I just can't afford to buy all the publications I might want to submit stories to.    
But the best way to contribute is by entering the competitions and paying the fees, which - I assume - is a major income stream for periodicals.

Trying to choose the 'right' competition is, however, pointless.  As far as I can tell, it would be as effective - and certainly quicker - to close your eyes and point randomly at the long list of options.  
But, I am nothing if not methodical so I've drawn up my own crass selection criteria:
  • How much does it cost to enter?  If it's more than $20 there's no chance...unless the fee is value for money.  For example, if you submit to The Pinch Journal you get a year's subscription thrown in.  Or, in the case of BritWriters, you can submit as many pieces as you like for one fee.
  • Is the competition okay with your story being submitted elsewhere at the same time?  I have 5 stories I want to get out in the short term and I want to give them maximum exposure. 
  • Does the magazine/journal/competition look professional?  They say don't judge a book by its cover but there are lots of websites promoting competitions that look like they were created by an elderly student at a community college and, sorry to say, they just don't look credible. 
  • Is there a cash prize?  I know.  It's mercenary of me but - honestly - I just want to break even. On competitions alone, I'll be spending over $100 in the next 3 months and that's a projected total of at least $400 for the year.  The BritWriter competition's top prize is £10,000.............excuse me, I've dribbled on my keyboard.
  • Is there a theme to the competition that one of my stories fits?  This year, the RipTide International Short Story Comp is looking for 'cross-over' fiction that appeals to 12+ as well as adults.  This could be a great opportunity for my allegorical folktale The Empty Tree, which might struggle in a contest for purely adult material.
So.  There are 8 competitions between February 26th and April 30th, starting with BritWriters.  Now all I need to do is take a deep breath, stop my obsessive tweaking and send the stories off.  I do have a psychological problem with this.  It feels a bit like writing a note, tying it to the string of a balloon, then letting it go.   Once it's out of my hands, it starts to look so small and insignificant and I wonder if it will make it as far as the thousands of others like it.  And if it reaches anyone, will they be sufficiently moved by my words to return my note with some kind words or their own?  Or will my note just be discarded and my balloon burst?  Well, who knows, so here goes...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

End Game

While researching potential publishers of my stuff, I came across this from Comma Press:  "Short stories are all about their endings.  A short story IS an ending."  

This was not a pleasant revelation after having redrafted the ending to my story Boxed In for the sixth time...

I've always had a problem with endings.  And not only my own.  I am disappointed, at least 50% of the time, in the way films, novels and short stories are concluded.  A bad ending can make you feel manipulated, patronised, cheated or even angry (which is nearly always the case in book to screen adaptations) and a bad ending can undo all the joy you felt for 90% of the viewing or reading experience.  

But endings are so bloody hard.  

My own opinion is that the short story ending is to be satisfying but unfinished - an etiquette similar to the consumption of a posh meal.  A story will be effective and impressionable if it leaves the reader salivating for a little more.  But getting the right balance between starvation and over indulgence is tricky, at least for me.

As for Comma Press, on reflection, I disagree with the second part of its statement.  A short story could also be a beginning or a middle too, but only if you see a short story as being a scene lifted from a longer story.   I don't (and I don't think Comma does either - I've merely interpreted their statement out of context as a means to an end, so to speak).  The short story, at its most powerful, is an entity in its own right that should be allowed to float free of an inferred linear narrative.  If more people could enjoy shorts this way, perhaps they would be less niche.

The first part of Comma's statement, however, I agree with.  Now excuse me while I get on with draft seven...

Monday, 1 February 2010

My first public reading

In January last year, the fabulous Becca Mordan - Director of London based Scary Little Girls Productions -featured my short story, Skin Deep, in a programme of new writing.   The wonderful thing about it was that it was read by an actress, whose interpretation gave it a whole new dimension for me.  I was able to sit back and enjoy the audience's response, while listening closely for blips in the rhythm and vocabulary that only appear when someone else reads your work.

But last week, read my own work in public for the very first time.  And it was terrifying...but equally exhilarating.  The event was called "Burn Your New Year's Resolutions" - its theme being sexual misadventure - and it was organised by Speckled Egg Studios.  It took place on two nights at Good Vibrations in Berkeley and San Francisco.   I'm not sure if I was more intimated by the size of the audience or the size of the dildos on display...Anyway, I read Emily Bronte Would Think This is Weird, a story told in 1st person by a 14 year-old girl who's in an odd relationship with a dead author and a bad relationship with a Heathcliff-esque boyfriend.

Foolishly, I invited my fella and some close friends to the first night.  I say foolishly because it added to my nerves but I knew I needed the practice.  In the end it was fine because I was able to hide behind my young narrator wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt that said; "Being this cute is exhausting".  I'm not sure how I would feel about reading a 3rd person story - I imagine it'd be harder to distance myself as the author from the content, and I would need a t-shirt that said; "Being this self-conscious is exhausting"...