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Welcome to The Literary Pig's blog - a safe haven for all those afflicted with
the unbearable urge to write.

Monday, 28 September 2015

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: the shortlist

The shortlist of five has been announced for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award (NSSA) and were broadcast on R4 last week. You can still listen to all five stories and below there are links, along with my thoughts on each one.

Did you enter? This time round I didn't bother because as you can see from the shortlist the standard is incredibly high, dominated by well known writers. The winner gets £15,000, along with substantial publicity, which explains why some very successful writers enter this competition (runner-up gets £3,000 and the others all get £500). So you need to enter your very BEST story and then be prepared to tie it up for six months. One plus is there's no entry fee, but you do need to have publishing credits, which again encourages the professional writers to enter. Earlier this year I made the final 50 long list for the Bath Short Story Award - and was pretty chuffed about that. The top prize was £1000 and there was an entry fee of £8, yet there were >1000 entries compared to 439 for the BBC NSSA, which again says something about the field entering the NSSA. The maximum word count for the NSSA is 8,000 - high for a competition, so you do need a longer story as clearly you will need to fill a 25 minute slot on Radio 4 ... So will I have a go in 2016? Hmm, I'm thinking about it, but don't yet have a short story long enough. Clearly, first person narration works well for an audio story, so that's another thing to consider. This could be a new goal for me post the MA dissertation ...

If you plan to listen to these then I'd recommend not reading the blurb that goes with them on R4 - it does spoil the experience a little.

Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley (read by Maine Peake)
A well constructed and written story, subtle yet powerful. The first person narration is lifted by the skilful reading of Maxine Peake. Which did make me ponder on how much the chosen reader can enhance the story? This story totally absorbed me from the opening sentence to the very end. I can find it difficult to concentrate on audio stories, but this one mesmerised me. My coffee went cold. Highly recommended.

Bunny by Mark Haddon (read by Colin Buchanan)
There were changes in point of view, which I'm not a fan of in a short story, but for the narrative the changes were important. At first I thought there was nothing new in the theme of this story and then the ending came as a total shock. The final tragic 'twist' lifts the story, explaining how it made it to the shortlist. Unnerving.

Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston (read by Kate O'Flynn)
Another first person narration, read engagingly by Kate O'Flynn. But even the humour didn't keep me engaged. I've listened to this twice now and drifted off both times. It points to tensions in a family relationship, but possibly was too subtle for me and I may have missed its hidden depths.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (read by Rebekah Staton)
You may have already heard this version, as it was broadcast towards the end of 2014 when R4 serialised some of the collection (same title). Cynically, one could think the BBC saved a bit of dosh by re-using the recording... Again this is first person narration, though starts off sounding almost omniscient pov. Clever device to re-imagine a real past event and consequently the reader/listener can't predict the outcome. When I sat to listen again to this story I couldn't remember the ending. Even now I couldn't tell you how it ends - I remember the theme, but little else. Enough said.

Do it now, jump the table by Jeremy Page (read by Blake Ritson)
I would definitely read more of Jeremy Page after listening to this entry. The story leaps right in with a lively third person narration. Delightfully comic and yet tender, gentle and bittersweet. I was fully engaged and enjoyed every minute of this story. Highly recommended.

My favourites for the top prize are: 'Briar Road' and 'Do it now, jump the table'. These are the stories that lingered longest with me. I'm a huge fan of Hilary Mantel and her writing, but I don't think 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' is her best. To be honest it felt bit of a gimmick - the controversial theme certainly must have helped to promote and sell her collection (published 2014). I don't know if the stories are read anonymously (up to shortlist stage), but if you know anything about the short story world you'd instantly recognise Hilary Mantel's story from its title ... Let's wait and see who takes the prize this year ...

Monday, 21 September 2015

Top tips for Live Lit

September in West Sussex seems to be a popular time for Live Lit events. I have three coming up in the next week or so. Take a look if you fancy coming along ...

Small Wonder Slam with The Moth magazine (the US mag): read more here. This is a true slam where you put your name in a hat and they pick ten readers for the night. The theme is BRIEF. I have a story ready, but it will be in the lap of the gods if I get picked ...

Live-Lit with Melanie Whipman: 28 Sep, 7.30pm start, The Holly Bush pub in Frensham (nr Farnham) - details here. If you live close enough and would like to read (poetry and prose up to 9 min slots) then just email Melanie (contact details on her website). I'm definitely reading at this one. The last event in June was good fun. It was great to see a group of young poets all reading their poetry - and all very talented.

Words and Music at New Park Centre (Chichester): organised by Raine Geoghegan, an evening of poetry, flash and music. Readings by named writers then an Open Mic session. Starts 7.30pm at New Park Centre, New Park Rd, PO19 7XY. (entry fee £4 to cover room hire). I'm delighted that Raine has asked me to read at this. You can read my piece here. I've chosen 'Tantric Twister' as it's a  saucy piece of Flash Fiction that reads aloud well (is fun to read too!) - it's a bittersweet comedy, but hopefully also says something about memory and aging.

You can probably tell I'm a fan of these events, but reading your work aloud can be daunting and, quite frankly, terrifying. So here are my own top tips for surviving a Live Lit event:

  • Time Limit: most events have a set time limit for reading. Slams and competitions can be VERY strict and will stop you reading if you hit the time limit - even if you only have a couple of words to go. So time your reading several times to ensure you have plenty of time to finish. Read it aloud at home, at the pace you intend to read at the event. Try not to rush through to get under time. If the story is too long, then edit or pick another.
  • Choosing the piece: think carefully about what you plan to read. If there is a theme then stick to it. If you've been to the event before then what pieces went down well with the audience? Comic pieces work well. Complicated stories with lots of voices may confuse. Twists work well. Evocative or very emotional pieces may not sink in at first reading to evoke a reaction. Also choose a piece you know you can read convincingly. I have several stories with foreign accents and I CANNOT do accents, so I never pick these. If you have lots of expletives and know you will falter or blush then avoid these too. If there are words that you will stumble over then edit them out or pick another piece - you control the reading!
  • Getting a slot: if you need to contact the organisers in advance then do this. Otherwise you could be disappointed that there are no slots free on the night. For competition slams then it can be pot-luck with names going into a hat. But many organisers will do their utmost so everyone gets to read if the time allows.
  • Location: if the event is somewhere new for you then ensure you know where you're going. Nothing worse than being late when you have to read first. Allow to get there early and check out room/stage etc.
  • Clothing: most events are pretty casual and laidback (like most writers). I know we often don't get out much, but if you glam up then be prepared to stand out. Others are likely to be in jeans and T-shirts. Dress for comfort. You may find yourself having to climb up steps onto a stage, so ladies those brand new heels may be risky - falling flat on your face will dent your confidence. Watch out for microphone leads etc too ...
  • Props: whatever you're reading from, be it Kindle/tablet or paper then check you have the correct story. If paper then I always take several copies and even keep a back-up with a friend (if going with someone). And check you have ALL the pages. (My writing chum Wendy likes to tease me about the reading evening we both went to at a friend's house, where I forgot to check the pages of my story. At the exciting part I suddenly realised I hadn't printed out the last 2 pages. Ad-libbing the rest of the story really didn't work.) Also check you can actually read the piece - make sure the font is big enough and you have the right glasses for reading! (My husband never seems to have the 'right' glasses wherever we go).
  • Timed slot: if there are time slots then don't dawdle, get up to read quickly when your name is called. Don't suddenly start searching through your bag for the story/poem. Don't waste time introducing yourself or the story, but do clearly announce the title of what you're reading even if the compere has already given the title. To me the title of the piece is often critical to understanding and enjoying the work. Don't hang about on stage after you finished - get off quickly. This could mean the difference between there being time for more readings at the end or running out of time.
  • Introductions & questions: if you've been asked to prepare a biog or introduction then bring it along. A compere may also introduce you if you've forwarded a biog. Some events encourage questions after the reading (Rattle Tales in Hove are famous for this. The audience all have rattles on the tables to use when asking questions or showing appreciation.) Be prepared to stay up on the stage for a few minutes to answer these.
  • Speed: take your time. I can't repeat this enough. Nothing spoils the enjoyment of a piece more than the reader gabbling through it at top speed - just to get it over with. Remember the audience has come along to hear stories and poetry (they may have paid to get in) - they want  to enjoy your work. People don't go to Live Lit events to see others fail - they want you to succeed! A lot of events use stages with spotlights on the reader. This is a good thing! Once you get up on the stage you realise the audience is hidden in darkness - you can't see any of them. Relax and pretend you're back in your kitchen reading to the cat (I always read to LitPig).
  • Alcohol: avoid it before you read. You make think one glass of wine, or pint of beer will help to relax you, but alcohol will dry out your throat. You may end up a little too relaxed. Stick to water or soft drinks before you go on. Once you've read then a glass or two is always a nice reward - you will have earned it. Though you may find the natural high after a live reading is better than alcohol!
Unfortunately, I don't have any photos to share of any of my previous readings. I'll try to get some at the next events. If you've survived any Live Lit/ Open Mic events then please share your experiences, good or bad or both!

Also next week R4 is broadcasting the shortlisted stories from 2015 National Short Story Competition at 3.30pm Mon-Friday. Starting with Jonathan Buckley's 'Briar Road' on Monday 21st Sep. I will be listening to these and posting next week about my favourites for the top prize. Along with my thoughts on the competition and why I didn't enter this year. Why don't you listen to the shortlist and share your favourites here next Monday.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize: winner announced

On Tuesday 8th September, at Marlborough House in London, the prize winning story (and writer) was announced for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I was lucky enough to be invited, as I made the shortlist for UK and Canada region last year. The evening starts well with free-flowing wine as the international guests (from all over the Commonwealth) mingle and chat. I met up with the bubbly Debz Hobbs-Wyatt (shortlisted in 2013) to catch up on her writing news. Her debut novel 'While no-one was watching' (Parthian Books) is doing well and you can read all about Debz and her writing projects here.

There were short excepts from each story read beautifully by actress, Martina Laird. Then the winner was announced. I was right at the back of the room and being of reduced stature couldn't see anything of the winning writer, Jonathan Tel. Luckily, he stayed on for some time and I did get to congratulate him in person. His mesmerising story is 'The Human Phonograph' (you can read it here) and comes from a collection featuring other short stories set in China. He told me he's looking for an agent/publisher for the collection so hopefully this win will bring him the contacts he needs. His writing deserves to be published.

You can read all the 2015 regional winning stories from links on the Commonwealth Writers website here. My other favourite story is Light' by Nigerian writer, Lesley Nneka Arimah (African regional winner). I'm pleased Jonathan won overall, but for me it was a close call between the two stories. Read Lesley's entry here to see what you think.

After stuffing ourselves on the delicious canapes - sussing we were the veggies the servers continually brought us tasty platters of samosas, mini quiches and all things vegetarian - the party was thinning so we headed home. Picking up our goody-bags containing the new anthology of previous winning stories 'Let's tell this story properly' en-route. (Details here, I think you can get 20% off using the promotional code COMMONWEALTH)

The 2016 Short Story Prize is now open, full details of how to enter are here. Entry is free for a 2-5,000 word story. Overall winners receives £5,000 and the regional winners £2,500. To be in with a chance I think your story needs to have a strong sense of place and setting. My own shortlisted story was set in England but reflected the multi-cultural society we live in. It also had a lot of heart.

Though I had a pocketful of business cards and there were literary agents in the room I never seem to find the courage to just walk up and introduce myself. If anyone has a top tips on how to sidle up to agents and casually let them know you have a debut novel ready to go, then please share ...

Monday, 7 September 2015

Discovering new voices

What was my excuse for not blogging throughout August? I think it was a good one. Post completing the novel I needed to rest and re-energise my fraying thought strands - for me the best way to do this is by READING. And I had permission from MA dissertation tutor to 'forget about writing' and go read for a couple of months (she actually said 12 weeks! Wish I'd asked her to write this down as proof for hubby that I was under strict instructions). As my dissertation is a quartet of short stories (each one based around a character from the novel) she suggested a reading list of short story collections - 35 different writers in total! After picking myself off the floor I did feel a little chuffed that I'd already read many on the list and had their collections on my shelves. Great story writers such as: Helen Simpson, Adam Marek, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver and Alison MacLeod etc. But there were a whole bunch of names I knew and hadn't read, and some totally that were new to me. I can get a bit stuck in a rut with my reading, staying with familiar names I know who'll deliver the goods. But I headed off to the campus library (University of Chichester) to check out as many of these new names as I could. Weeks later I'd like to share the revelations I've discovered. These are a sample of the new voices I've fallen in love with. Well, they're new to me ...

Come to Me: Amy Bloom

After reading Amy Bloom's debut collection I am now a committed fan. Character driven stories all set in the US. Loved how several stories connected together. Her psychiatric/mental health background shows through in the problems her characters have to deal with, but all the stories were absorbing. 'Sleep walking' touches on a very taboo subject and will haunt me for some time. For lovers of short stories I highly recommend this collection. (I'm now reading her second, 'A blind man can see how much I love you', and it's living up to expectation.)

Fascination: William Boyd
I particularly enjoyed how Boyd experimented with form and structure in this collection. There are only a handful that follow a traditional narrative form and I liked that. He accurately captures the male voice in a time of mental, and usually mid-life, crisis, both with humanity and humour. There is a truly sinister story of spiritual possession, 'A Haunting', in this collection, which is a close rival to Penelope Lively's story: 'Revenant as typewriter'. A couple of these needed a second read from me due to their complexity, but they always improved on further reading. I'm determined to read more of Boyd's short stories and novels. The televised drama of his novel 'Any human heart' was heart-breaking and I really should get on and read the original book.

Birds of America: Lorrie Moore
Only just started on this collection, but 3 stories in and I'm hooked on her voice and characters. Very accessible reading. Comedy and pathos knitted beautifully together. In one story ('Which is more than I can say about some people') a mother and daughter take a road trip to Ireland from the US, with the ultimate goal of kissing the Blarney stone and boosting the confidence of the daughter for public speaking. At times this is very funny, yet also achingly sad when Moore shows the truth behind their relationship.

There were, of course, other writers that I didn't fall for. All well respected short story writers, but they just didn't do it for me. I'm not going to tell you about them because we all have such varying tastes and I like to focus on the writing/stories I do enjoy.

I also have been reading 'off-piste' as it were and have discovered even more new great voices in the short story universe. More on them later ...

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Short Story - monthly competition

I've recently discovered this opportunity for short story writers: The Short Story - online platform dedicated to short stories (click here), it does what it says on the tin. It also runs a monthly short story competition closing at the end of each month. The max word count is 2,000 words. The winner gets
£250 for an entry fee of £4.99 per story (£7.99 with feedback). A real plus for this competition is the turnaround - the result comes out early the following month. You can read the winning stories online too.

The site also includes interviews with short story writers. There's even an interview with me: read it here. I feel honoured to be included along with some really great writers such as CG Menon, Tom Vowler, Paul McVeigh and Mark Newman (to name a few).

They also offer critiques, reviews, articles and links to online free short stories (some classics are here). Follow them on twitter: @ShortStory2000

Before I sign off I have to apologise for my blogging absence through August. Wish I could blame this on the scorching summer weather or an exotic holiday or even LitPig's laziness. In reality I took a break from writing after finishing the novel (I've started submitting & you can read my theory of Schrödinger's Agent here). More in my next blog on what I did instead of writing ... LitPig is giving you a clue.