In 2012 the Costa Short Story Award was launched, given to a single story and not voted for against the other categories. The public votes for the winner from three shortlisted stories selected by five judges and published on their website.
All shortlisted stories are available on this page to download and either listen to or read. The judges may also select an additional number (up to six) of Highly Commended authors each year. Those authors are notified and their details released once voting has closed.
The 2017 Costa Short Story Award
This year’s Short Story Award is open for entry from Monday 3rd July to Friday 4th August. Follow this link to enter, find details of terms and conditions, and more: http://www.costa.co.uk/costa-book-awards/costa-short-story-award/
So, now we’ve come to the end of our Writer’s Blog Short Story Week, you may be thinking of composing a short story of your own. But how exactly do you go about doing so? To help you out, here is a basic ‘How To’ guide for anyone considering turning their talents to the wonderful genre of the short story.
1. Know what a short story is
Before diving into any genre, it is important to understand the basics of that genre. Most definitions of a short story focus on the following key points:
- A short story is a prose narrative
- Is shorter than a novel
- Deals with limited characters
- Aims to create a single effect
Other definitions, however, are more concerned with word count, stating that a short story may range anywhere between 1,000 – 30,000 words. Anything over 30,000 words, however, tends to be considered ‘too long’, and crosses into the classification of a novella.
But how important are word counts? Well, if you are looking to have your work published, the word count can be extremely important. For instance, most literary magazines prefer their short story entries to be kept brief, and even stipulate a limit for all their submissions. You should always check the submission guidelines of any magazine you wish to send your work to. These guidelines can generally be found on the magazine’s website.
It is also crucial that you never underestimate the importance of reading. Read the form you hope to write in. To see a list of Classic short stories you could check out yesterday’s post.
2. Develop an Idea
Once you know a bit about the genre, and what is expected from a short story, you can begin creating one of your own. As with any fiction writing, this all begins with an idea. But where does a writer find ideas? When faced with this, very question, Neil Gaiman stated:
“You get ideas from daydreaming… You get ideas from asking yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?”
With this answer, Gaiman highlights the importance of the writer’s imagination in the process of developing a story. But what if your imagination needs a little prompting? Although daydreaming can be an excellent tool in crafting a story, sometimes our imaginations need a little external stimulus to help light the spark. So what sort of external stimulus can be helpful in sparking a good short story idea?
Polite society will tell us it is wrong to listen in on other people’s conversations, but a sly bit of eavesdropping every now and then can be quite invaluable for a writer.
The people in the world around us – whether they be on a train to the city, on the phone in the supermarket, or enjoying a family barbeque in the park – provide an exceptional case study of human character and behaviour. By acting as an observer of daily life, and fusing together what we see and hear with our own imaginations, we can come up with all sorts of story ideas we may otherwise have never considered.
An example of this practice can be seen in ‘Rest Stop’; a short story by Stephen King, published in his collection, ‘Just After Sunset’. This story follows the experience of a writer who stops at a service station to use the bathrooms, only to find himself witness to a case of domestic violence. The writer then faces the tough decision of whether to play hero and intervene, or whether to save himself from a possible beating of his own, hop back in his car, and drive away.
In the notes provided by Stephen King in the back of the book, he admits to this idea sparking from an experience of his own, in which he stopped at a rest stop and overheard a couple engaged in a very heated argument. King writes:
“They both sounded tight and on the verge of getting physical. I wondered what in the world I’d do if that happened…”
In other words, King started with an overheard conversation (or, in this case, argument), then used his imagination to ask himself ‘What if…?’ – ‘What if the argument developed into a physical fight? What would a writer, much like myself, do in this situation?’. ‘Rest Stop’ is therefore an excellent example of how the odd bit of eavesdropping can help fuel our imaginations, and allow us to create an engaging short story.
Hint: Use a memory/experience of your own
‘Rest Stop’ is also a good example of how we can use our own experiences/memories as a starting point for a short story. Possibly the greatest advantage of this technique is the degree of tangibility it lends to our work.
For example, in ‘Rest Stop’, King is able to create a detailed description of the setting by providing a strong vision of the missing children posters, tacked up all over the walls. This attention to finer detail, pulled from King’s own memory, allows the reader to feel as though they are seeing the service station for themselves. It is more realistic, more tangible, more believable.
Of course, any fictional setting/event can be made to feel this way with the inclusion of finer detail, but starting with a memory is great practice. Once you can describe how something looked, felt, smelt, sounded or tasted in your own experience, the better you will be able to describe the fictional experiences of your characters. Try searching your mind for a very clear memory of your own. What did you see? What did you feel? What did you smell? Now use this memory to construct a short story by throwing in the ‘What if?’ question. For example, ‘What if this character had a similar experience?’
Hint: Read the daily papers
They say fact is stranger than fiction, and in no place is this more evident than in the daily news. Like eavesdropping, newspapers and news reports can also provide writers with an interesting case study of real life. Try collecting some news clippings of extraordinary stories, and imagine a character of your own witnessing these events. How does it affect them? How are they involved? Does their experience challenge what was reported in the clipping? Perhaps experiment with different points of view – try writing the story from the varying perspectives of those involved.
Hint: Make a playlist
Another excellent prompt for the imagination is music. For example, try listening to a random song on your ipod. What mood does the song create? What images come to mind? What story do the lyrics tell? Now try writing a story around one or more of these elements.
Hint: General writing prompts
If none of these techniques seem appealing to you, the Internet is full of writing prompts that may ignite your creativity. For example, a list of writing prompts may be found at Writer’s Digest, and Creative Writing Now.
Sometimes just playing around with ideas can actually lead to some of our best work. Before writing your story, try composing a few ‘test’ paragraphs. Use these paragraphs to trial a number of different voices, styles and points of view (POV). Try writing in first person, then try writing in third person, or possibly even second person (although be wary that second person narratives are rare, and difficult to do well). Experiment with different tenses. Change things around and try to find the style, voice, POV, and so on, best suited for the story you wish to create. For more on finding the right tense/POV/etc for your story, try here.
Another great way to experiment is to try free-writing. Free-writing, much like stream of consciousness, is high speed, continuous writing, free from planning or self-editing/censorship. This type of writing can unlock phrases and ideas, hidden away in our subconscious, that may otherwise prove elusive due to our tendency to over-think.
Despite the previous point about overthinking, there is also something to be said about the benefits of planning. Once you have a solid idea for your work, it is a good idea to plan your story. Although some writers work better with plans than others, mapping out and structuring your ideas can be a highly beneficial process. American novelist, John Gardner once wrote:
“Writing a novel is like heading out over the open sea in a small boat. If you have a plan and a course laid out, that’s helpful.”
Although short stories may not seem as epic an expedition as a novel, the overall structure of the genres are not so different. Like the novel, a short story is a form of prose narrative, expected to contain a beginning, middle and end. Thus, just as it is helpful to plan a novel, it is also helpful to plan a short story.
Essentially, what a plan does is provide us with a ‘print preview’ of our work. It allows us to see clearly any kinks or problems we may need to smooth over before we commit our story to its final form. (For more on the benefits of planning, read this Writer’s Edit’s article on How To Plan Your Book.) You can plan in whatever way is most helpful to you – whether this be mind-mapping, jotting down your key plot points, writing character profiles, or mapping out the order of events. You may also want to try planning your story using Freytag’s Five Stage Story Structure as a guide.
5. Know the Specifics
If you are composing your short story with the hope of publishing, it is important to take care of the finer details. For instance, who are you writing for? Some writers set out to write a short story with a particular magazine or publication already in mind. However, it is often best not to write this way, unless you have already been commissioned to do so. Writing with a sole publication in mind could not only restrict/limit your story, but could also be potentially devastating if the publication in question decides not to publish. Instead, it is often far better to write the story that feels right for you, then search for magazines that suit the tone/feel of your work, rather than the other way around. In other words, be true to yourself, write what you’re passionate about, and eventually, you and your story will find the right home.
Nevertheless, it is important to demonstrate to any magazine you submit to that you are familiar with their publication, and their style. Before you submit anywhere, ensure you subscribe to the publication, or at least thoroughly read a number of past editions. Make sure that your story suits the publication, and be ready to convince the editors exactly why your story would be suited to their magazine.
But knowing who you’re writing for is about more than knowing the magazines you approach. It is also about knowing your audience. What genre does your story fall under? What themes/issues does it deal with? Once you know who your story will appeal to, you will be better equipped to find that ‘home’ your story is looking for. For example, if your protagonist is a teenager, and your story explores issues of coming of age/crossing the threshold into adulthood, chances are your story falls under ‘young adult fiction’. You should therefore direct your story to a magazine with a largely young adult readership. If, however, your young protagonist happens to be a skilled wizard/dragon-rider, fighting a war against evil goblins, your story’s ultimate genre is likely fantasy, and you may be better off researching which publications appeal most to fantasy readers.
Identifying your target audience, and finding ways to direct your work towards them will provide your story with the ideal environment and conditions to flourish, so always try to keep them in mind.
6. Write it!
Once you have your idea, you’ve played around with different ways of writing, and you have a clear plan for your plot/structure, you can begin to write. Often getting started is the hardest step, so try not to put this off for too long. If you need help, refer to your plan or use some of your experiments as a starting point. Remember, you can always redraft and/or edit later if you are not happy with anything you put down. The most important thing is to get started, and the rest will follow.
7. Don’t Rush
One of the biggest mistakes writers can make is to become so focussed on the end game of getting published, that they don’t take the time to perfect what they’re writing. Often the result of this is an obvious sloppiness to the work, possible plot-holes, contradictions, inconsistences, and an overall rushed feeling that doesn’t do justice to the story being told. So take your time. Don’t rush. If you want to get your story out there, create yourself a writing habit.
Set aside time each day that is purely for writing. To maximise your productivity, limit your distractions during this time. Shut off Facebook, find a room with no television (or a quiet spot outdoors), switch your phone to silent, and just get as much writing done as you possibly can. By making this a regular habit, you can afford your writing the time and focus it deserves.
Once you have a completely finished draft on your hands, you can begin to edit. Editing is an extremely crucial process that allows us to mould our work into its best, possible shape. It is through editing that we ensure our writing is as effective as possible. For any writer, the first step to editing is to edit your own work, however, when editing your work, it is also important to consider the feedback of others. Try taking your story along to a writing group. Writing groups are a great place to seek constructive feedback from other writers. This feedback, along with the workshop nature of these groups, can prove absolutely invaluable when revising your work. During the editing process, it is also highly beneficial to consult the advice of a beta reader. A beta reader can serve as a proof-reader, check the story for effectiveness, plot-holes, consistency, believability, and so on. If you do not already know an ideal beta reader, writing groups are a great place to meet them, so get out there!
Once you have edited, re-edited, and edited some more, you should finally find your story is in a form you are happy to call ‘finished’. Now you’re ready to try submitting your work to the magazines/publications you have properly researched as suitable for your story. This can be a daunting task, and you may well face a number of knock-backs, but if you persevere, you will eventually find that you have a published copy of your short story, right there in front of you, and for all to see.
Continuing on with our Writer’s Blog Short Story Week, Writer’s Edit put together a reading list of top ten classic short story recommendations. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the short story emerged as a recognised and respected literary genre throughout the 19th century. What better way to celebrate this literary form than by returning to some of the great tales and classic authors who helped shape this genre into the literary gem it is today.
Here is the pick of the top ten ‘must-read’ short story classics!:
10. ‘The Signal-Man’
Author: Charles Dickens Year: 1866
Written by one of England’s greatest novelists, ‘The Signal-Man’ is an eerie ghost story about a railway signal-man who is haunted by foreboding, spectral visions.
Favourite Line: “So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.”
No doubt the best aspect of ‘The Signal-Man’ is the way Dickens establishes atmosphere. An example of this can be seen in the quotation above. Here, Dickens succeeds in creating a haunting, supernatural atmosphere by not only suggesting the narrator has “left the natural world”, but also by describing the setting much like a graveyard.
9. ‘The Happy Prince’
Author: Oscar Wilde Year: 1888
‘The Happy Prince’ is a melancholy tale, reflecting the style of a fairy-tale or fable – which is, after all, where short stories found their roots as a genre. The story looks at themes of love and sacrifice, wealth and poverty, and the nature of true beauty.
Favourite Line: “At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.”
This line is extremely effective and moving due to the dramatic irony of the narrator’s suggestion that it was merely the frost that had broken the prince’s heart. In contrast, the reader is able to recognise that it is the prince’s sorrow, and love for the poor, little swallow that has caused the “leaden heart” to snap in two.
8. ‘The Magic Shop’
Author: H.G. Wells Year: 1903
The Magic Shop is a curious tale that follows a father and son’s experience of visiting a ‘genuine magic shop’. While the little boy explores the shop, seeing only joy and wonder, his father is confronted with much more sinister visions. The story therefore examines how we experience the world as children versus how we experience the world as adults. In doing so, ‘The Magic Shop’ forces the reader to consider whether innocence and evil truly exist in the outer world, or whether these are merely determined by our own perceptions.
Favourite Line: “I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail – the little creature bit and fought and tried to get at his hand – and in a moment he tossed it carelessly behind a counter… ‘Astonishing what people will carry about with them unawares!’”
The symbolic implication of this line seems to sum up the overall purpose of the story. The narrator, of course, believes the demon belongs to the magic shop, yet the shop owner claims that the narrator has been carrying the little devil around himself. This therefore begs the question – is evil born of our own perceptions?
7. ‘The Gift of the Magi’
Author: O. Henry Year: 1906
‘The Gift of the Magi’ is a simple story about a young, married couple’s quest to find each other the perfect Christmas gift. In securing these ‘perfect gifts’, however, each partner is forced to give up something highly valuable, and precious to them, resulting in a rather unfortunate twist.
Favourite Line: “But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
This line is made all the more wonderful by the contradiction of the line immediately preceding it, which suggests that the couple were extremely “unwise” for giving up their greatest treasures. The delightful contradiction forces the reader to consider how the couple could be considered both “unwise” and yet also the “wisest of all”. In doing so, O. Henry invites the reader to recognise that, although the valuable sacrifices the couple make for each other ultimately reduce their gifts to irrelevance, their sacrifices were made out of love, and are therefore the most valuable gifts of all.
6. ‘Rip Van Winkle’
Author: Washington Irving Year: 1819
After falling asleep in the woods, the ‘henpecked’ Rip Van Winkle awakes to find his village deeply changed, and is startled to discover twenty years have passed. One of the greatest, classic short stories to emerge in America, ‘Rip Van Winkle’ takes a metaphorical look at the changing American Identity following the event of the Revolutionary War.
Favourite Line: “I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”
Through this exclamation, uttered by Rip Van Winkle, Irving perfectly captures the crisis of identity he aims to represent. Through this line, more than any other, Irving portrays America as a nation that must struggle to map out its own, unique identity, after severing its ties from the previous monarch (much like Rip, after finding himself free of Dame Van Winkle).
5. ‘Désirée’s Baby’
Author: Kate Chopin Year: 1893
Set in Louisiana, prior to the American Civil War (a time when slavery was still considered ‘lawful’), ‘Désirée’s Baby’ examines the injustices of racism and gender discrimination.
Favourite Line: “But above all,” she wrote, “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.”
The sense of karmic justice in this final line leaves the reader feeling smugly satisfied. After expelling his wife and child from their home, merely for their mixed heritage, the reader takes great delight in discovering that it is Armand himself who is not entirely of white descent. Within this ending, Chopin highlights that all people are ultimately the same, and that not one of us, for any reason whatsoever, have the right to treat another person as less human than ourselves.
4. ‘The Body Snatcher’
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson Year: 1884
Inspired by the Burke and Hare murders of 1828, ‘The Body Snatcher’ is a gothic tale that follows two med students, involved in crimes of grave robbing, in order to keep their anatomy professor supplied with instructional cadavers.
Favourite Line: “We were all startled by the transformation, as if a man had risen from the dead.”
What makes this line so intriguing is the way it seems to strongly foreshadow Stevenson’s grotesque, gothic ending.
3. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman Year: 1892
Flying the flag for feminism in this story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman provides an interesting and unsettling exploration of the oppression of women in nineteenth century society.
Favourite Line: “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.”
The rich symbolism of the emerging wallpaper pattern as we witness the narrator’s gradual descent into madness is definitely what makes this story so memorable and effective. It is clear to the reader that, just like the woman in the wallpaper, the narrator is being held prisoner by her husband, and is desperate to break free.
2. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’
Author: Edgar Allan Poe Year: 1843
Of course, we couldn’t have a Classic Short Story list without including the ‘Father of the Short Story’ himself, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. It is always difficult to choose only one story from such a prolific writer, but in our opinion, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ serves as an excellent example of Poe’s prowess in the Short Story genre.
Favourite Line: “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
What makes this story so memorable is Poe’s brilliant use of the unreliable narrator. From the very opening line (included above), the reader is given the strong sense that the narrator is not to be entirely trusted. The structure of the introductory line is erratic and disjointed, creating the impression of mad ramblings. In addition to this, the narrator plants the seed in the reader’s mind himself that he is, in fact, ‘mad’. Of course, the wonderful irony of this is that the narrator is attempting to convince the reader of his sanity, and yet with every sentence, the reader only becomes more and more certain of the opposite.
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Year: 1899
Anyone who has heard the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would know he is most famous for his hugely popular Sherlock Holmes stories. But perhaps not everyone realises what a talented, and prolific writer he truly was – particularly in the genre of the short story. The Sherlock Holmes stories themselves are, of course, exemplary of this. Of the sixty stories, chronicling the adventures of the consulting detective, fifty-six of them are short (and all sixty are well worth the read, if ever you get the chance). But for anyone who has ever wondered what this author can do outside of the Holmes stories, ‘B24’ is excellent in highlighting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a master of the short story.
Favourite Line: “I have only you to look to, sir, and if you will clear my name of this false accusation, then I will worship you as one man never yet worshipped another. But if you fail me, then I give you my solemn promise that I will rope myself up, this day month, to the bar of my windows, and from that time on I will come to plague you in your dreams if ever yet one man was able to come back and to haunt another.”
Spoken directly from the narrator to the reader at the end of the story, this line is extraordinary in a number of ways. By addressing the reader in this way (both here, and in the opening) Doyle personally drags the reader into the story and places a great deal of responsibility on his/her shoulders. In doing so, Doyle establishes an acute sense of realism in the tale, allowing the reader to feel as though the narrator can, in fact, extend beyond the page and come back to haunt them as promised. The line is also notable for the seed of doubt it places in the reader’s mind, that the narrator may be unreliable.
Written from the perspective of a thief, attempting to convince us he has been wrongly accused of murder, the assertion that he will hang himself if we, the reader, refuse to help him, makes us question the narrator’s sanity (much like the narrator in the Tell-Tale Heart). If the narrator is mad enough to hang himself if he is not listened to, perhaps the reader cannot trust his testimony after all? In this way, the reader is left wondering, do they really know who the killer is?
Keep an eye on Writer’s Blog for our upcoming third and final article, celebrating Short Story Week where we will cover how to write a short story of your own.
“Were I called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which… should best fulfil the demands and serve the purposes of ambitious genius, should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion, and afford it the fairest opportunity of display, I should speak at once of the brief prose tale.” – Edgar Allan Poe.
The lovely people at Writer’s Edit recently had a ‘Short Story Week’ – and so, here on Writer’s Blog, we shall also celebrate and examine the literary genre of the short, prose narrative.
Why the short story?
Just what is the significance of the short story? Why is this literary form important? And why should emerging novelists be writing short stories? Perhaps these questions are best answered by returning to the opening quote.
At the beginning of this article we quote Edgar Allan Poe – often deemed the ‘Father of the Short Story’. At the time Poe was writing in 1847, the short story was just emerging as a recognised literary genre. Clearly, Poe thought very highly of this new genre. After all, throughout the mid-19th century, he crafted some 69 short stories of his own. And indeed, the 19th century saw a boom of literary greats turn their talents to this format. Think Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, just to name a few.
What place does the short story hold in literature today?
Although most modern writers strive to find ultimate success via the novel, it could be argued that the short story is still the best medium to ‘serve the purpose of ambitious genius’ and ‘afford it the fairest opportunity of display’.
For instance, short stories can often act as an important stepping-stone in the career of a novelist. For a first-time novelist, it can be difficult to establish credibility, both with readers, and with publishers, due to a lack of previous, published work. By publishing short stories in literary magazines, a first-time novelist can build up their profile, establish a readership, and gain credibility as a writer.
What is it about the short story that serves the ambitious writer so well?
Once again, the answer to this can be found in the words of Poe.
“As the novel cannot be read at one sitting, it cannot avail itself of the immense benefit of totality. Worldly interests, intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, counteract and annul the impressions intended… In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out his full design without interruption. During the hour of perusal, the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.”
Here, Poe indicates that the short story’s greatest advantage is its ability to be read ‘in one sitting’ – claiming that this allows the author to create his/her desired effect on the reader without being interrupted from the distractions of everyday life.
Short stories in the NOW…
Over 150 years later, Poe’s point is more relevant than ever. In a world of smart phones, social media, and high-speed Internet, it seems society’s attention span is ever-shrinking. If a writer wants to make an impression on a reader, they must do so quickly. They must be able to grab and hold the reader’s attention before the lure of the likes of Twitter chirps in their ear, and calls them away.
However, it is not only the reader’s attention we writers must fight for, but also that of literary agents, editors, and publishers as well.
Before committing their time and energy to developing us as writers, these literary professionals often wish to see examples of what we can do, however, they are also extremely busy, and often pressed for time. They will not, therefore, wish to sift through an entire novel manuscript. Instead, they will more likely be interested in shorter examples of our prose. While excerpts of longer works may still be helpful, a short story will have the advantage of ‘totality’. A literary agent/editor/publisher will be able to read a short story and develop a proper understanding of our abilities to create a complete, and unified narrative.
So, now you know the benefits of a short story, why not try writing one of your own? And keep an eye on Writer’s Blog, as we delve further into our celebration of Short Story Week – tomorrow we look at the 10 Best Classic Short Stories.
This article is part one of three in an examination and celebration of the short story form. Stay tuned for parts two and three!
This week author Ian McEwan expressed his love of short novels, saying “very few [long] novels earn their length.” Certainly it seems like a novel has to be a minimum of 500 pages to win a major literary award these days, and many genre novels have ballooned to absurd sizes.
I’ve tried to avoid the most obvious titles that are regularly assigned in school (The Stranger, Heart of Darkness, Mrs Dalloway, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, The Crying of Lot 49, etc.). Hopefully you’ll find some titles here you haven’t read before.