In which we share advice and ideas about writing, from tips on technique and practical aspects, to the experiences of other writers. (As always, take all offered writing advice with a pinch of salt. It’s often more important to understand why a writing convention exists than it is to actually follow it.)
Wednesday, 1st November 2017. Comments are closed.
The 2018 edition of the Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition is now open for entries. This year there’s a first prize of £500, along with second and third prizes. Entry costs £8, and the closing date is Wednesday, 31st January 2018. (The competition closes at midnight UK time, so don’t get caught out if you’re sending an entry from overseas.)
Winners from the last two years appear in our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories III. It’s well worth picking up a copy if you want to see the stories that have been successful in the past – or if you just want a good spooky read to get you through the winter nights…
A while ago the website Love Books Love Travel (then known as Buena Vista Book Club) made a film about James Benmore, in which he wanders around London, talking about his relationship with the city and its role in his novels about the continuing adventurs of Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger.
The film is well done, and has been split into easily digestible chunks of about six minutes each. Here’s part one:
For the other two parts of the film, and to find our more about Love Books Love Travel, visit their website here.
You can also read James’s guest posts for us about the writing of Dodger: Part 1 & Part 2. And finally, James’s excellent short story ‘Jaggers & Crown’ appeared in our anthology All These Little Worlds.
Here’s Richard Smyth with some thoughts on writing in the first person. Richard’s new novel, Wild Ink, is out now.
‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.’
– TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’
Yeah – who is the third? Who is that, bookending dialogue with he-saids and she-saids, commentating on proceedings with a curiously proper and well-spoken detachment, mind-reading without explanation, casually omniscient, incomprehensibly well-informed, inhumanly objective? Who are these Third People, and what are they doing in our novels?I do most of my writing in the first person. My first novel, Wild Ink, is narrated by its main protagonist, the horridly decrepit but reliably wry Albert Chaliapin. My stories for The Fiction Desk, ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ and ‘Chalklands’, adopted first-person perspectives, too. I’d seldom ever really stopped to wonder why – why have I so often preferred to step into my characters’ shoes, instead of maintaining a decent distance, an appropriate remove?
The way in which language is used on a word-by-word sentence-level basis – style, to use a rather loaded word for it – is very important to me. Writing your stories from inside a character’s head gives you almost unlimited stylistic freedom. Turns of phrase and figures of speech can be used that, coming from the pen of an unidentified third-person narrator, would invite unhelpful questions about who on earth is telling this story, and why they talk the way they do. Complex, original language creates, just by existing, a speaker, a person, a character; do this with a nameless third-person narrator and you will be thought to be playing postmodern games with the reader.
It’s a little unfair, of course. There’s seldom any secret about who is telling the story: their name is right there on the title page. Any quirks of language, flights of invention or unexpected editorialising come, of course, from them.
But modern literature shies away from the self-identifying storyteller. And ‘shy’ is the word: it feels unseemly, importunate, to step into the story one is telling with a bold Dickensian ‘I’; for the modern author, it seems to invite the rebuke ‘Who on earth do you think you are?’ – meant either literally, in the assumption that the author is creating an ‘author’ character, that the narrator is not Richard Smyth but ‘Richard Smyth’, or figuratively and indignantly, to suggest that the author has overstepped the mark. Sure, some writers – Anthony Burgess, James Joyce – get away with it, pushing stylistic limits in third-person narration without ever explaining how or why. But, well, we aren’t all Burgess or Joyce.
Distinctions between first and third persons are not necessarily clear-cut. There are many instances of authors breaking the bonds imposed by third-person conventions by narrating through a secondary character – to each Jay Gatsby his Nick Carraway, to each Ahab his Ishmael. This gives the work an additional layer, another dimension; we are invited to view one character through the filter of another, a double refraction of reality. The catch here is that the narrator – while they may digress, switch between narratives, shift focus from character to character and indulge in other such authorial perks – may not be omniscient.
That may or may not be a problem. Only a true know-all can narrate War And Peace. In other novels, it’s necessary for the narrator to be in the dark (like John Self in Money, for instance).
Personally, I want to be where the fireworks are. I want to know first-hand what Gatsby’s going through. I want to read Ahab’s inner monologue! I want to get as close to the action as I possibly can, which often means taking one’s seat in between the character’s ears – even though what one sees in there might not be particularly pleasant. Good first-person narration brings you face to face with an honest and flawed humanity (if it’s honest, it’s inevitably flawed). For me, that’s really what fiction is for.
— Richard Smyth
Thursday, 16th May 2013. There are 3 Comments.
James Benmore’s first novel, Dodger, features the return of the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist. Last month, he wrote for us about the appeal of the Dodger and why he chose to bring him back. This month, he talks about creating the voice of Dodger, and how the character might have come to write a book in the first place.Whenever Charles Dickens wrote in the first-person, he tended to employ a particular type of narrator. These are often virtuous, seemingly middle-class voices who begin their own stories with an account of an impoverished upbringing blighted by some atrocious adult. This can be a cruel step-father perhaps, or a bullying older sister, and this dark parent-figure makes their very childhood, and often the first few chapters of the book, a bit of a misery.
Such hard luck stories — or what Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye bluntly described as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” — invariably mark the start of a rags-to-riches plot. The narrator describes how, through hearty Victorian resilience, honest labour and a few well-timed coincidences, they manage to escape from this unfortunate start in life and enter into a higher, more genteel social spectrum form which they are now writing their own history.
Often the narrator will be a stand-in for Dickens himself, like the semi-autobiographical Copperfield who shares many of his author’s life experiences as well as his reversed initials, or Pip from Great Expectations whose descriptions of his own youthful snobbery and self-centeredness can sometimes be read as though Dickens is taking himself to task.
Occasionally Dickens may adopt the voice of someone very different from himself, such as the modest, female perspective of Esther Summerson in Bleak House. But all his major narrators have something in common: they are all, at their hearts, morally pure. They possess flaws certainly but it is impossible to conceive of Dickens handing the bulk of any novel over to a scheming, unrepentant rotter to narrate. He may give a rough criminal like Magwitch a few pages of contained narration nested within Great Expectations but even Magwitch doesn’t seem so bad by that point in the story.
No, if we want to read a novel narrated by a classic Dickensian villain then we just have to write it ourselves.
This is the main idea behind my novel Dodger. I tried to write the book that I wanted to read: one in which Jack Dawkins, a very different type of character from the Dickens canon, is allowed to put pen to paper and tell the story of his own life with as much freedom as David, Pip or Esther would. I was interested in what such a book would sound like, in what dialect would be employed and what different moral perspective Dawkins could bring to the familiar Victorian surroundings.
I did not want Dodger to spend much time relating his own account of the events of Oliver Twist and this was largely because as a character he is present at too few of its key scenes. Instead I wanted him to tell us about what happened to him next, after he was transported to Australia, and to describe his discovery at what fate befell Fagin and company upon his return six years later. Unlike those other narrators I did not imagine that Dawkins would be inclined to present his early childhood as a sob story. In fact, I suspected that he would look back upon his old life with Fagin and his large gang of boy pickpockets as having been a very happy time, a perversely idyllic childhood, and one that was rudely interrupted by the cruelty of the law.
The principal challenge in writing any first-person novel lies in getting the voice right, and casting Dawkins in such a role presented immediate difficulties. How literate would someone from his background even be? Dickens shows that the criminal contingent of Oliver Twist are all avid readers of The Newgate Calendar, a cheap periodical that detailed the arrests and executions of various villains throughout the capital, so we can safely assume that Dawkins possesses a decent enough level of literacy to build upon. He then spends six years in an Australian penal colony where, I like to imagine, he would have been given access to a large enough library that could have inspired a love of words and storytelling within him. Dawkins is a thief in all things and he is someone who, when he encounters the possessions of rich men, itches to take them for his own. This compulsion would extend itself to reading — or so I reasoned — to the books, stories and words of wealthy society as much as to their valuables.
This of course does not mean that he would speak in the same pure-bred English that Pip masters after his years of education away from the forge. Nor do I truly think that Dodger would want to speak like that. Instead the voice that I developed when I began writing the first chapter is a mixture of the sort of literary language that I feel he would have met in fashionable novels, the archaic slang of Victorian London and a persistent bad grammar that he would wear as a badge of his class.
Dawkins the narrator is perfectly capable of mimicking the language of the middle-class when writing their dialogue so it follows that his own use of cockney could be a deliberate choice he is making. I have always known that the Artful Dodger is someone who covets the comforts, possessions and privileges of the high-born Englishman, but that doesn’t mean that he wants to be one himself. He does not aspire to be accepted into their world in the same way that David Copperfield or Pip do. Dodger just wants to steal what rich people have and keep it for himself, and I needed him to speak in a voice that communicates that difference.
Another aspect of writing this first-person novel that concerned me was the question of why exactly the Artful Dodger would be scribbling all this down in the first place. Throughout my book and its upcoming sequel he admits to all sorts of pickpocketing, burgling and other shameful behaviour and there is hardly any of the usual contrition in his narrative voice that you might associate with a reformed sinner like Moll Flanders. Dodger isn’t sorry for his crimes at all, in fact he’s boasting about them.
I often imagined when writing the book that Dawkins the narrator wasn’t much older than the Dawkins in the story, as if he’s composing his autobiography just a few short years later in his mid-twenties and not wanting to apologise for any of it. I never have Dawkins explain in the novel why he would be writing a book that could incriminate himself so disastrously because I want the reader to wonder about that themselves. But one thing is certain; this is not a work he can ever publish within his own lifetime.
But why should that stop him? Sometimes people write just for the joy of it or because they have a story in them that needs to come out. And just because Dawkins is barred from enjoying any real literary success while alive does not mean he isn’t subject to that same storytelling impulse that we find in those other Dickens creations like David Copperfield or Pip. Perhaps Dawkins, despite occupying a very different moral space from those other characters, has as much as in common with his creator as they do.
— James Benmore
Read James’s first post about writing Dodger here.
Dodger is out now, published by Heron Books and available in hardback from all good bookshops, as well as the usual range of ebook formats. (Read the first chapter on Amazon.) James Benmore is already working on a sequel.
You can also read James’s award-winning story ‘Jaggers & Crown’ in our anthology All These Little Worlds.
Monday, 15th April 2013. There are 4 Comments.
I’ve always envied Dickens’ earliest readers. The ones that discovered him back in the early 1830s when he was still writing journalism and sketches under the pseudonym of Boz. The ones who read The Pickwick Papers in a time when it was first being published in shilling instalments — not because it was written by some grand old man of literature but because it was fresh and funny and someone fashionable had recommended it to them.
Those hip metropolitans who would have been dropping the name of Charles Dickens — the sparkling young author who you simply must read — all over town and quoting his choicest bits to each other while their less literate friends listened on glumly because they weren’t getting any of the references to Sam Weller, Joe the Fat Boy or Dingley Dell. I’m talking about the long-time fans, the ones who were there at the the start and liked him even before he went all mainstream with The Old Curiosity Shop a few years later. Because, lets face it, if you didn’t know who Charles Dickens was back in 1836 then you probably weren’t someone worth talking to. You were, not to point too fine a point upon it, a bit tragic.
For these early readers — the first Dickensians we’ll call them — then the summer of love must have taken place between the February of 1837 through to the November of that same year. This was the magic period when Dickens, still only 25, was serialising his first two novels simultaneously as the final instalments of Pickwick overlapped with the opening chapters of Oliver Twist. These two novels could not be more starkly contrasted, the first being all lightness and comic fizz while the second is an angry, murderous melodrama, and they must have struck the first Dickensians as a stunning one-two punch.
One of the great pleasures of reading early Dickens is the wonderful show-offery on display: it’s as though the new author is even impressing himself with how talented and wide-ranging a storyteller he can be, and by what brilliant things he can make words do. Neither is a perfect book — Pickwick keeps spinning off down random narrative byways and Dickens is clearly making the plot of Twist up as he goes — but there is a joyous free-wheeling energy to both and this is something that fades a little in his subsequent work. Literary scholars may correctly identify later novels such as Bleak House and Great Expectations as more technically accomplished, important and mature but, as any first Dickensian will tell you, there is just something cool about the early stuff.
Which brings me to Jack Dawkins, or the Artful Dodger as the criminal community insist on calling him. For me, Dawkins is the very epitome of everything that is great about early Dickens. He makes his first appearance in chapter eight of Oliver Twist, right in the middle of that golden period, and in just a few short pages he steals the whole scene out from under Oliver’s virtuous nose. He is the very voice and swagger of a young urban London with his cockney slang and streetwise savvy and he is not someone I can imagine the author creating later in his career. Dickens went on to present his readership with an array of criminal grotesques and middle-class bounders but the Dodger represents something not commonly found elsewhere in the Dickens canon: attractive lower-class rebellion.
We aren’t invited to be disgusted by Dawkins in quite the same way that we are with Fagin and Noah Claypole; in fact there are aspects of his character that we even find ourselves drawn to. After all, what reader hasn’t fantasised about how they would fare if Dawkins was to take them out on a pickpocketing spree as he does with Oliver. About how artful we would prove ourselves to be, and whether or not Dodger would like us.
Dickens seems to have been inspired to create the character back when he was working as a court reporter. He had already written a non-fiction scene which can be found in the ‘Criminal Courts’ chapter of Sketches by Boz in which a lad of thirteen is shown being tried at the Old Bailey and proceeds to creates chaos in court with his accusations of police corruption, unlikely alibis and calls for imaginary witnesses. This clearly inspired Dodger’s final scene in Oliver Twist, when he is himself sentenced for stealing a silver snuff box from an unnamed gentleman.
Like his real-life model from ‘Criminal Courts’, Dawkins doesn’t sniffle in the stand and beg to be spared: he’s far too mischievous and unrepentant a character for that. Instead he performs for the benefit of the spectators and grins in the faces of the officers who drag him away for transportation. And it is this irrepressible comic spirit which makes Dawkins such a light relief in an otherwise dark novel. He isn’t punished for his criminality as severely as Fagin, Bill or Nancy are. Neither does he undergo an unconvincing change of heart like his friend Charley Bates does when he suddenly informs on Bill Sikes in the final act. Dodger is just allowed to be Dodger and — by mid-Victorian standards — he pretty much gets away with it.
Except of course he doesn’t, and all because of that sticky snuff box. After his sentence Dodger is removed from the action of Oliver Twist just before things turn really nasty for the criminal contingent. Perhaps this is because Dickens wanted to spare the child from the bloody end he had in store for the rest of them, or maybe it was because he didn’t want Dawkins upstaging Twist any further. Either way, I think most of Dickens’ readers — be they first Dickensians or those of us who have read the book 170 years later — must have felt disappointed that Dawkins is never mentioned again.
There’s a real sense that there was more fun to be had with the boy thief if only Dickens had wanted to have it, and I’ve often wished that the Artful Dodger could have been like Falstaff: a disgraceful yet lovable recurring character. I like to imagine him crossing over from the pages of Oliver Twist and into those of the author’s other novels, especially The Pickwick Papers during that time when they were both still running. Imagine what a surprise it would have been for those first Dickensians if he had suddenly appeared picking Mr Pickwick’s pocket in an installment of that book and then was next seen back in Oliver Twist being tried for that very crime, before continuing to show up at some point in every other Dickens novel that followed. It would have blown their Victorian minds.
And it was this thought that inspired me to write my first novel Dodger, in which Dawkins narrates what happened to him next in his own crooked, unapologetic voice and even interacts with people from other Dickens works. I wanted him to be our guide around the fascinating city to which he returns six years after his transportation, the world we are still calling Dickensian London. I don’t know if literary scholars will like my book; in fact I very much doubt it. But then I don’t think I really wrote it for them. I like to think that I wrote the book for the real fans, the ones who were there at the start. I like to think that I wrote the book for the first Dickensians.
— James Benmore
Dodger is out now, published by Heron Books and available in hardback from all good bookshops, as well as the usual range of ebook formats. (Read the first chapter on Amazon.) James Benmore is already working on a sequel. The novels are written in the first person, and in another post on our blog, James talks about reconstructing the voice of Dodger himself.
You can also read James’s award-winning story ‘Jaggers & Crown’ in our anthology All These Little Worlds.
Something I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that most writers have trouble getting their manuscript formatting right.
I suspect this is partly due to the Internet. A few years ago, the standard way (in the UK) to plan your submissions was to get hold of a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which had handy sections on manuscript preparation. They were right next to the lists of magazines and book publishers, and hard to miss for writers getting ready to send out work.
These days, a lot of people submit just by Googling variations on ‘short story submissions’, or just by contacting their favourite publications direct, and so maybe miss out on that useful information. But even in the digital age, getting manuscript formatting right is very important. It doesn’t just show professionalism on the author’s part: it also helps the editor to connect to the words themselves. (If the editor spends the first 30 seconds with your manuscript adjusting it to be easily read, that’s your first impression gone.)
The key thing to remember about manuscript formatting is that it’s not about looking pretty, or showing off creative or literary credentials. The idea is to make the formatting itself disappear, so that the focus is on the words and nothing else. And the easiest way to make the formatting disappear is to make it look exactly the same as all the others. The six rules below should help you to do that.
Incidentally, I’ve written this post specifically with regard to electronic submissions, but the rules below apply equally to printed submissions (though the reasons may vary). And all publishers vary: if a specific publisher asks for different formatting, it’s always best to give them what they ask for.
The Basic Rules
1. Use 12-point Times New Roman. Everybody is used to seeing Times New Roman on their screen (or on paper), and every computer has it. It’s the most invisible font there is. On a standard paper size (see below), 12-point text is comfortable to read, and if reading on a screen, the editor will be set up for it.
2. Double space your text. Even if the days of making notes between lines are over—on the screen, at least—the extra white space helps your writing go down easily. Always apply double-spacing through the formatting menu: don’t just hit ‘return’ twice at the end of each line. (We get a few of those.)
3. Mark a new paragraph by indenting the first line; don’t leave an empty line between paragraphs. Each new paragraph, or line of speech should be indented. Again, there’s an option to indent the first line of each paragraph automatically in the paragraph formatting options: don’t use the tab key to do it. Leaving a complete blank line between paragraphs is something you’ll see when reading online, including on this site but, has no place in text documents.
3a. If you want to mark a change of scene or time, the kind of thing that would have a blank line left in a printed book, mark it with a centred hash, as I’ve done at the bottom of this list. This means it will still be visible when the text is copied into other software for typesetting. An empty line may just get lost at this stage.
3b. Don’t indent the first line of the story, or the first line following a chapter break or scene change – anywhere you would expect to see a blank line left in a printed book, or marked with a hash as in (3a) above. (The job of an indent is to make it clear that there’s a new paragraph starting, and this isn’t necessary in these cases as there’s no paragraph immediately above.)
4. Leave margins of roughly an inch and a half. A little more or less won’t hurt, but don’t go too far in either direction. There’s no need to shrink the margins to squeeze more words onto the page, or to make them larger to give the text ‘breathing space’.
5. Use a normal ‘paper’ size. In Europe this means A4, in the USA use US Letter. Don’t try to mimic the page of a book or use any other size.
6. Use a simple header. Personally, I’d suggest having author name on the left, title centred, and page number on the right. For the first page, use a unique header (it’s a Word setting) that has your full name and contact details, and word count. All of these details belong in the header and nowhere else: never try to put the page number at the top of each page within the body of the manuscript, because the smallest edit near the top will make a mess of the whole thing. (It’s rare that people do this, but it does happen.)
So there are six basic rules. If you can stick to those, your formatting will be in the top 1% of manuscripts we see. And while it may feel like you’re jumping through hoops, it’s really just about making sure that you’re showing off your writing to its best advantage.
For writers, international travel is generally a very good thing: even if you don’t write about your travels directly, encountering different places, cultures, and people gives you a certain perspective and insight when you come to write about your own.
There are however certain dangers, afflictions that can show up in a travelling writer’s prose, a sort of literary equivalent of 19th century Grand Tourists coming home with venereal disease. I’ve identified four of them below.
(The examples are invented, but the afflictions are all too real.)
1. A pedant writes…
This condition is particularly common among visitors to cities that have a strong and visible history, a typical example being Rome. The sufferer becomes so overwhelmed by the information they receive and research about the city that they need to pass it on to their readers, whether it belongs in the story or not.
The two new lovers arrived at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and stopped to admire the elaborate Baroque craftsmanship.
‘It was originally designed by Bernini in 1629,’ he said lovingly. ‘But not constructed until a century later. It’s 26 metres high and 20 metres wide.’
‘I notice that people are throwing coins into it,’ she said, pointing at a coin glimmering in the water and hoping that he might continue to talk about it for ages. He sounded so erudite when he spoke; just like Wikipedia. She moved a little closer to him.
‘It’s funny you should notice that,’ he said. ‘They say that up to €3,000 are thrown into the fountain every day. The money has been used in part to subsidise a supermarket for the city’s poor. People often try to steal the coins, too.’
‘That’s very interesting,’ she said. ‘Now could you recommend me three hotels in the €50-€75 bracket, and perhaps share some useful weblinks?’
2. “I am literally the only person who has ever eaten a pizza!”
Or a baguette, or a croissant, or a frankfurter actually served in Frankfurt.
I bit into the pastry: it was sweet and fresh, not at all like the croissants sold in supermarkets at home. It was still a little warm from the oven; the pastry flaked lightly away as I bit, and drifted around me in a cloud of flour-based ecstasy that nobody who hadn’t been to Paris could possibly imagine.
I lingered for a while. I may have been a space detective sent back in time to capture the evil Marspirate CheLuck, but right now I was having my croissant moment.
3. “The Henry Miller rush”
This one is most frequently found in prose coming from Paris, where idealistic young authors go in search of poverty and cheap wine, in the mistaken and perplexing belief that sleeping under a stolen urine-stained blanket will somehow make a writer of them.
The symptoms visible in the prose are an almost complete lack of story, an impressive amount of energy expended going nowhere, a hint that there’s probably a very interesting rhythm underlying the prose, if only you as a reader can consume the exact same combination of cheap French wine and narcotics as the writer. Some extreme cases will also leave the reader with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the author was probably sat naked at a typewriter when he wrote it.
I’m walking down the streets and they’re the wet streets, the wet, the rain-soaked, the boulevards under the torrents and the thunderclouds that aren’t like the ones back home but this is something new and different and I can feel it in my veins like back home and like where I’m going. Pierre told me once that the real wine, the good wine is like another thing, not wine at all but a way forwards, into your life and into yourself and Pierre was right, damn him, damn Pierre, damn Pierre with his moustache that cried in the winter back there in Avignon where I was before my trust fund ran out.
But there are other Pierres and I have other trust funds and the sky is grey like the mercy they showed him and maybe they’ll show me; like God’s mercy and the mercy of these boulevards that they call the boulevards of dreams, the old dreams, European dreams and hopes and I have my notebook in my pocket and two old pencils with the ends chewed and the leads blunt but my wits are alive under this rain; as alive as Pierre is no longer alive; as alive as the cockroaches in my garret that costs me three thousand euros a month, money I stole – I had to steal! – from the Trevi Fountain when I was there.
Now, let me tell you about the girl.
No. Let’s not let him tell us about the girl.
4. This story sponsored by Linguaphone
More of a technical problem, this, but some writers can get terribly unstuck when it comes to dealing with foreign languages.
‘Guten tag,’ said Berthold in German. Hello.
‘Hello,’ I said, using Gerthold’s own language: Guten tag.
‘Wie geht’s?’ he asked me: how was I? ‘I hope that you had a good trip, and didn’t have too much trouble with your passport at the border. The guards have been getting more strict later, since the recent political changes.’ He said all that in German as well, but I can’t be bothered to transcribe it.
‘Nein,’ I replied in the negative. ‘Es war nicht a difficult trip, aber it could have been shorter.’
There was a pause. Somewhere in the distance, ein hund barked.
So there you go: four conditions to watch out for when travelling with your muse. The cure, sadly, is almost certainly not less travel but much, much more.
Monday, 2nd April 2012. There are 7 Comments.
Quite a few of the short story manuscripts we receive at The Fiction Desk are headed with quotations from other sources. These can be anything from religious texts to ’80s pop lyrics; sometimes the writer provides two or three — or a pageful — before getting to their story.
We are very, very unlikely to publish a story that starts like this, and if we did accept one, it would almost certainly be conditional on losing the quotation(s). I thought it might be worth writing a quick blog post here on why that is, and why writers might want to avoid the temptation to add quotations to their short stories.
As usual with our posts aimed at writers, the following is specifically from the point of view of The Fiction Desk, but much of it will apply to other publishers as well, or to good writing practice in general.
1. Thematic cannibalisation
Often, quotes are used by writers to simply express in brief the idea or theme that the story is going to explore in more detail. If the story explores the ideas well, there’s probably no need for an accompanying quote, and it can even take some of the punch out of the story. If the story doesn’t succeed, sticking a quote on the front won’t save it. (That said, there are times when a quote might give a different or more humorous take on the subject to the one the story provides.)
Take a look at the first page of one of our short stories: at the top is a comment introducing the story, then there’s a space, then the title, then the author’s name. The story itself begins at least halfway down the page. If we were to shoehorn a quote in there between the author’s name and the start of the story, there would probably only be three or four lines of story on the page, and so many different styles of text that the first page would be a hell of a mess, and not terribly tempting for the reader.
Using a quotation, especially a poorly chosen one, can sometimes make the writer look a little pompous. Novels seem to get away with it in a way that short stories often don’t.
4. Depowering the opening
The first few lines of a short story are where you meet the reader and have your chance to engage them and set the tone. Why compromise such an important moment by delegating it to Janis Joplin?
5. Rights issues
This doesn’t always apply, but if the quoted text is still in copyright, we’d likely have to get permission to use it. This takes time and often money, neither of which we really have to spare.
There are of course exceptions to every rule, and certainly not all of the above points apply in every case. But it’s worth thinking them over, even if you ultimately decide you disagree; and if you’re sending work to us, it’s definitely worth clipping Cicero or Pink Floyd off the top before you do.
When writers send us their short stories, one part of the submission form that often seems to present problems is the field asking for a brief author bio. This is the line or two designed to tell us who the writer is, what kind of publications they’ve had in the past, and sometimes, what credentials they have relating to the story they’re sending. It works exactly like the biographical paragraph in a cover letter. (In effect, all our form does is arrange the information into a digital cover letter and forward it to us.)
People often feel uncomfortable when called upon to describe themselves like this, and the bio section of the form is often one of the weak points of a submission, where writers come across badly, or miss opportunities to come across well. Having gone through several thousand submissions over the last year, I thought it might be worth sharing some tips on writing a good author bio. Although these are written very much from The Fiction Desk’s perspective, they should be helpful when preparing to send your short fiction anywhere.
If you have no previous publications
- Don’t be embarrassed about being unpublished. Everybody has to make their debut sooner or later. Many editors love to discover new authors, and personally I’m always keen to have more debuts in our anthologies. On the other hand…
- Don’t make a big deal about being unpublished. Writing may be your lifelong passion, and seeing your work in print may be your life’s ambition, but this is a professional communication, and pouring your heart out looks unprofessional. Don’t harp on about the years you’ve been writing without publication, as this won’t instil much confidence in the reader.
Good: I have no previous publications.
Bad: I have been writing for twenty-seven years, and love to write, but have never been published. It’s my lifelong dream. Mr Hedgehog, my stuffed and only friend, will give you a big kiss if you make my dream come true!!
Listing previous publications.
- Only list relevant publications. You may have worked on technical manuals in the 1990s, or have written greetings cards, or 2,000 search engine optimised descriptions of shoes, but none of that has any bearing on your abilities as a short story writer. You don’t want to give the impression that you can’t tell the difference between the forms of writing, so if you mention this kind of experience at all, do so in passing. Feature writing and journalism may be more relevant, so use your judgement.
- If you have a lot of publication credits, only list highlights. We sometimes receive submissions featuring great long lists of publications in all sorts of journals we’ve never heard of. After a while, this begins to inspire various unhelpful thoughts, like ‘Is the writer making some of these up?’, or ‘If they’ve had so many publications, how come I haven’t heard of them?’ Be proud of all (well, most) of your credits, but pick highlights when you’re trying to impress other people. Choose those highlights based on where you’re submitting; so in the examples below, you might mention Tin House and Postscripts to us, but point out Hippies with Inkjets and Flower Picker if you’re submitting work to a stapler-wielding hobo with mice living in his beard.
Good: My short stories have featured in several publications including Tin House and Postscripts.
Bad: I have been published in Tin House, Spatula Fun Magazine, Short Short Shorts, Photocopied Ineptitude, Staples Down the Side, Fictional Fiction, My Mate Alf’s Telescopic Love Machine, Hairy Tales for Frightened Youths, Flower Picker, Flower Picker II: More Stories we Received, Friends’ Tales, Spurious Journal, Postscripts, The Online Degree-Granting Unaccredited University Journal, Printouts in My Study, If Stories Were Horses, and Hippies with Inkjets.
Grinding an Axe
- Don’t do it. Writing – like publishing – is a personal business, and we all have things that frustrate us, or have disappointed us in the past. But your submission isn’t the place to air these grievances. Remember, you are a happy, flexible, laid-back person to work with.
Bad: I DO NOT WANT TO PUBLISH THIS ONLINE, but in a real book because computer books are rubbish, and authors are always taken advantage OF because they think we’re thick. WE DON’T EVEN Need publishers anyway, but IF I let you use my story, I do not expect to be EDITED SEVERELY, especially by a foreigner.
Personal Experience & Credentials
- List anything relevant to the specific story under submission. For an editor who doesn’t know you from Adam, it’s reassuring to hear if you have credentials or experience relevant to the subject matter of the story. If the story is about a meteorologist, and you’re a weatherman, a pilot, or a sailor, say so. If the story is set in some remote African village, and you’ve worked in that area, that’s good to know. If it’s historical fiction, mentioning your credentials in that area will give the editor confidence. Don’t panic if there’s nothing relevant to mention, though: we’re dealing in fiction, after all.
- Say something about who you are. A few words (and no more) to say where you live and what you do can really make a good impression. If it’s not relevant to the story then don’t dwell on it, but it’s still worth a mention.
- Mention academic qualifications, but don’t dwell on them. If you have a writing qualification or certificate, again this is something that you should mention, but don’t give the impression that you think it’s all you need.
Good: (Especially when submitting a story about a farmer) I run a small holding in Devon.
Bad: I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Tinyborough University. [And nothing else to say about myself.]
Bad: When I was sixteen I got a job part-time in a newsagent, but it was really full-time, because there was this guy who was supposed to work Thursdays and Tuesdays, only he couldn’t always come in, and so they’d call me, and that was fun but then later I moved for university, and I did some bar work, which I didn’t enjoy much although there were some good tips. After college I entered a graduate position at a local company specialising in IT analysis and visited businesses in the area giving information and advice on transitions from Windows to Mac, although Apple’s recent prioritising of the consumer market has led to…
Putting it together
- Make it brief and professional. The bio really just needs to be two or three lines. Stick to the point, don’t repeat yourself, and try to avoid any spelling mistakes (yes, even though this site is full of them). Remember this isn’t for publication, so it doesn’t have to be entertaining. You’re essentially just introducing yourself to a prospective business contact.
- Make it targeted. Although it’s good to have a couple of basic bios ready to go, on individual submissions take a few moments to make sure that they’re relevant to the publication you’re submitting to and the story you’re sending.
Good: For the last three years I’ve been living in Iceland with my family. The enclosed story draws on my own experiences driving a taxi in Reykjavík. I have had stories published in Ploughshares, Stinging Fly, and several other magazines.
Short, to the point, and shows that the writer is drawing on his personal experience for his writing.
Good: I recently completed a Creative Writing Master’s degree with Colborough University, and now live in Ohio where I keep chickens. I have no previous publications.
This may not be exciting, but it’s simple, to the point, and professional.
Bad: I prefer not to talk about myself.
That’s all very well, but talking about yourself is part of being a writer. Is this a sign that the author would be unprofessional or difficult to work with?
Ultimately, the author bio may be a small part of the submissions process, and I’ve certainly turned down work from authors with great bios, and accepted stories from authors with lousy ones. But if you get good at writing your bio, and tailoring it to each submission, it’s going to be one more thing in your favour, and might just help to put the editor in the right frame of mind when they turn to the story itself.
In the early days of planning our anthology series, I worried about whether we’d have the resources to find enough writers from abroad, allowing us to feature an international blend of stories. In the event, I’ve been surprised to find that we have the opposite problem: despite being based in the UK, it’s been a real challenge for us to find British short story writers. We’ve been working hard to increase awareness, getting in touch with all sorts of different organisations around the country, but just 10% of our submissions come from the UK.
As this is National Short Story Week in Britain, it seems like a good time to ask: where are our new short story writers?
I’m not talking about famous, established, or dead writers, you understand. Let’s not get sidetracked by shouting ‘Somerset Maugham’ and ‘Graham Greene’ and, I don’t know, ‘M R James’ at each other. (Although we maybe should save that for another time.) I’m concerned with the new writers: the ones who are maybe just producing their first publishable material, or who have begun to make a name for themselves with longer works, and are now starting to take an interest in the short story. I’m thinking of the people who might be publishing their first collections in two or three years’ time, and who should now be placing their first stories and starting to get their names in front of readers. These are the kinds of authors that we’ve been featuring in our anthologies, and these are the kinds of authors that it’s hard to find in the UK.
We’ve been pretty active about encouraging more submissions from British authors. Aside from some online appeals (which have done very well), we’ve also worked with more than a dozen universities around the country, providing books to creative writing courses for workshopping, hopefully to encourage students to work with the short story. We’ve also contacted independent writing groups to encourage their members to send in material.
One problem is that short stories, especially new short stories, just aren’t widely read in the UK. Often, an otherwise keen reader will tell me that they simply “don’t read short stories”. For obvious reasons, this makes it hard for British publishers to maintain a regular, quality publication: when stories are published, it’s often with very limited resources, meaning the stories aren’t great, or are only by big names, or are Worthy rather than entertaining. As a result, readers don’t come back for more, and the momentum never builds.
(British short story publishing may be at its healthiest today not in mainstream fiction but in genre publishing, where the editors and writers still keep in mind—more often than not—the ability of short stories to entertain.)
It’s sometimes said that the short story is more an American form than a British one, but I don’t really believe that. The UK has produced some terrific short story writers in the past, and there are some around today too. I do think though that the Americans are better at promoting short stories: they have more magazines and journals, which they take more seriously. As a result, they have more opportunities to write and read quality short fiction.
I hope that The Fiction Desk’s anthology series will in its own small way help to improve the situation in the UK. By giving the country a decent quarterly publication dedicated to new short fiction, I hope we can encourage writers to write short stories, and encourage readers to buy and read them. If you’re a writer and you think you might have a story for us, you’ll find our submissions information here.
And if you’re a reader, please consider taking out a subscription to the anthology series, because the best way to support new writing is to read it, and because you might just be surprised by how much you enjoy it. You’ll find subscription information here.