"A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realisation. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb. There is a record by the American singer Tori Amos called Little Earthquakes. That¹s a good metaphor for a short story".
- Joseph O'Connor, 1997

This section of the Fish Publishing website is aimed at providing constructive and, we hope, inspiring information on writing short stories. We will be relying on the wisdom of acclaimed short story writers, some of whom have judged the Fish Short Story Contests. Since 1994 the Fish Anthologies have had insightful introductions by many gifted authors. Here are two pieces from distinguished judges, Joseph O'Connor and Pat McCabe, on some of the qualities needed when writing short stories. These pieces formed the introductions to our 1997 Anthology, 'Dog Days and Other Stories and our 2003 Anthology, 'Feathers and Cigarettes & Other Stories.'

One of my own favourite quotes is attributed to Mark Twain. The great author and prolific short story writer, in a letter to a friend, wrote that he “would like to have written a shorter letter but didn't have the time.” For me, that sums up short story writing nicely. - Clem Cairns.

We have two articles by respected writers and Fish Alumni - Rejection and Criticism by Suzanne Power and How to Get Published by Sean Lusk. Plus Kurt Vonnegut's list of writing tips.

There is also a section describing how the judging of our competitions works. This is designed to help our authors to understand how we go about selecting the very best entries to any of our competitions - Judging Short Stories.


Introduction to the 1997 Fish Anthology, Dog Days & Other Stories,
by Joseph O’Connor

What kind of strange creature is a short story writer? I must confess that I don’t know. A high priest or priest of art? A wounded soul who can’t understand the real world and thus feels a need to re-invent it? A moralist? A Spinner of yarns? An entertainer? A prophet? Probably all of these things. Possibly none.

The single fact I can be sure about is this: writers are watchers. The one and only thing they have in common is an ability to look at the everyday world and be knocked out by it. Stopped in their tracks. Startled. Gobsmacked.

My favourite short story writer, Raymond Carver, has this to say:

You can read some of the short stories from these anthologies by visiting our Short Stories to Read Online page

Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks, or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset, or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.

Another writer I love, Flannery O’Connor, put it even more strongly:

There is a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.

There is only one trait that writers have in common and that’s it. They watch for the extraordinary magic that lies in the everyday. A writer is always quietly looking and thinking. Not willing inspiration but just being open to the world. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination. It’s letting in ideas. It’s trying, I suppose, to make some sense of things.

In that sense, it is important for a writer to be always writing. Even when you’re not actually sitting with a pen in your hand. You don’t take days off. You don’t go on holiday from writing. Sometimes you don’t even go to sleep. If you’re serious about writing then you’re a writer twenty-four hours a day, in the office, in school, doing the dishes and in your dreams.

Writers have their eyes open. They keep them open all the time.

Ezra Pound said ‘fundamental accuracy of statement is the one morality of writing’. Naming things, calling things what they really are. This is all writers can do in an age where language has become debased and sterile.

James Thurber was a full-time writer. His use of his spare time is interesting:
I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing’. She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No’, my wife says, ‘he’s writing something’.

The short story is one of the greatest, most challenging, most infuriating forms of literature. They look so easy! That’s the thing about really good short stories. They don’t read like they were written. They read like they simply grew on the page. When we read the work of a short story maestro like Joyce or Frank O’Connor or Richard Ford or Alice Munro or Mary Lavin, we think, yes, there is just a rightness about that sentence, that image, that line of speech. But anyone who has ever tried to write a short story will know just how tough it is to hit that reverberating note, to say something – anything at all – worthwhile about the human condition, in five thousand words or less. It’s hard.

A short story is a glance at the miraculous. Joyce used a religious word. He called his stories ‘epiphanies’. A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realization. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb. There is a record by the American singer Tori Amos called Little Earthquakes. That’s a good metaphor for a short story. Often, a good short story will be a little earthquake.

It is a form that has all the power of the novel – some would say more – but none of the self-importance. A deftly imagined and carefully written short story like Karl Iagnemma’s Dog Days, or Frank O’Donovan’s Johnny Mok’s Universe, or Anne O’Carroll’s Flame, by concentrating on the particular, can say a whole lot about the universal.

So let us get idealistic for a second or two. V.S. pritchett’s description of a short story is ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’. And our task as short story writers is to grab that moment with both hands and invest it with all of the power and humanity and sympathy we can. To develop our skill at language and characterisation and structure and dialogue – our fundamental accuracy – for one reason. To tell the truth. That’s what all the hard work comes down to in the end.

If we forget that, we forget everything.

Joseph O’Connor
Dublin
1997


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Introduction to 2003 Fish Anthology – Feathers and Cigarettes & Other Stories by Pat McCabe

Henry Thoreau said that it didn’t have to be long but it would take a long while if you wanted to make it short. What was he saying this about? About the form we know as the ‘short story’. Everyone over the years has had something to say on the subject. For V S Pritchett it was an athletic form. If you got a good start you could sprint to the end, unlike the nineteenth-century novel. For Frank O’Connor, it was the closest you could get to the lyric poem, in that the novel requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

Katherine Ann Porter wrote her stories in one sitting. Or so she said. But then writers say all sorts of things. Another thing that was said about the form – and I think it’s a good one – can be attributed to William Trevor. That it’s the ‘art of the glimpse’. Meaning that if the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story tends more towards impressionism. It is an explosion of truth and its strength ought to lie in what it leaves out as much as what it puts in, if not more.

O’Connor has said that for him short stories and plays go together – you take a point in time and develop it from there; there is no room for development backwards. Thomas McGuane made a similar point regarding the relationship between novels and movies, and I think it is pertinent to the story as well – in that, in the writing of screenplays you are conscious of the dangers of ‘dead air’. You are not quite as willing to leave ‘those warm-ups’ in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of activities. You are very conscious of dead time, in the same way that playwrights are, or ought to be. Twenty mediocre pages, attests McGuane, won’t even hurt a novel but in a movie screenplay they are fatal. You can’t afford to hint at such slackness while writing a short story either.

P G Wodehouse said that his tales began in all sorts of different ways. He would start to write and in the process whatever it was he’d started off with got lost. On other occasions, stories would simply come out of nowhere.
Irwin Shaw, author of Rich Man Poor Man, said he loved its freedom. How it refuses to conform to any theory. Which would seem to render commentaries such as this one redundant. But perhaps there are, indeed, one or two constants. One of them being, as William Trevor has pointed out, that whereas the novel tends to imitate life, the short story is ‘bony’, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

This quality was uppermost in my mind while I was reading these submissions. I was looking for narratives where form and content were seen to synthesise perfectly, providing this ‘essential quality’. As Trevor has written elsewhere, this ‘explosion of art’.

But, most of all, I was searching for the ‘new.’ In the nineteen–seventies, the critic Alan Titley wrote a much-admired article entitled ‘Not Another Irish Short Story!’

It was so devastatingly incisive that I remember going into hiding for weeks, my suitcases at the time being full of adolescent comings-of-age, not to mention any number of sagacious old farmers pondering their lives as the townland’s lake swallowed up the local sun.

Lest anyone should think this is some sort of roundabout way of suggesting that what I was after were stories about ‘Modern Ireland’, and up-to-the-minute anatomies of ‘Celtic Tigers’, nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t care where they were set or what they were about but I wanted them, more than anything, to surprise or startle me. Astonish me, indeed.

For I think that was what Alan Titley was getting at – that the subject matter was in danger of becoming tired, and its treatment often as well . For me, the surprise tends to come from the style and when that happens I have to admit to being delighted. The Terrible Eyes of Big Hawkins by Geona Edwards was so accomplished it surprised me, sealed, as it were almost, completely within its claustrophobic and occluded world. Even if that world isn’t entirely original, familiar as it is from any number of steamy Mason Dixon rural firecrackers. The Last Elf-Mite by Jason Bellipanni most definitely did surprise me, like some skewed but ordinary Harold Pinter domestic episode eccentrically reworked by Isaac Asimov. I found it courageous and fastidious and unflinching in its courage. A writer well worth watching, I feel. But then there were many writers whose work came my way that I feel that this can be said about . Mazes by Linda E. Clopton was a very good, if quite traditional story, meticulously sculpted and without a single superfluous detail.

There was a lot of writing from America, I noticed, and much of it good, I have to say. But I would have preferred more recklessness here – initially, I mean – the shape can come later – and perhaps less of the admittedly excellent craftsmanship that seems to be the forte of the writing schools in that country.

What did surprise me was the manner in which much of the Irish writing approached its subject with an almost weary disinterest or knowledge of the society in which the story was taking place. One hopes that writers are not falling for this would-be deracinated, citizen-of-nowhere nonsense without which Gogol’s Chichikov or Joyce’s Bloom wouldn’t have been half the men they were.

But, that said, there was much talent on view, and if I suggest that these writers should lock themselves in libraries, there to devour every possible tome on history and criticism and the politics of society, it is only because I think their work would be immeasurably improved. Especially now that the past has started to rumble and in far-off Mesopotamia the past has once again become the present as it has done, from Cheever back to Caesar and when Horace and Virgil were chewing their pens.

I would like to pay tribute to Fish Publishing for bringing this work to my attention and for providing writers with this platform. In a world where twenty screens of digital bullshit seem to be revolving without respite, cobwebs are gathering on majestic church organs and you can’t turn on the radio without yet another irate ‘taxpayer’ complaining yet again about his ‘rights as a consumer’, there is nothing that can surpass the ‘explosion of art’ and its obstinate insistence on making sense of things, these dedicated scribes, as though some secret society, heroically, humbly, espousing a noble cause.

Pat McCabe,
Sligo
2003


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Kurt Vonnegut

Eight rules for writing fiction:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


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Suzanne Power - Author of Rejection and Criticism. About writing short storiesRejection and Criticism

by Suzanne Power

We have to learn to get used to both. The most brilliant receive them and the best take what they can from parts of them and rise above the rest.


Criticism

The most important thing to remember within this group is that we are working writers. You have paid to be part of it and you did not pay to be slated. So in offering criticism today or throughout the week please begin with what you liked about the person’s work. Then make points that are helpful, not destructive.

Criticism in question form works best. The writer then has questions to answer, something to respond to. You have to give your overall impression, but you don’t have to give it unkindly.

If only editors and agents learned from this advice they would receive far better manuscripts from those who are unpublished. Their slush pile would be turn back into driven snow. Sadly, often they are fielding far too many requests, reading too quickly and working too hard. So they do tend to take it out on people who are not yet successful. Note the use of the word ‘yet’. Everyone is rejected. Everyone remembers what their rejection letters said. Everyone remembers the bad lines in reviews.

Even when books are accepted, you will be criticised in your editing process. This can make you feel like you wish they’d never taken you on, or wonder why they did in the first place, but it’s all part of the process and it will make your story better.


Rejection

When students ask me what being rejected is like, I say that it is like losing a lover. It depends on how much you loved them and how cruel they were in parting. Gradually you begin to wear repellent against the sting and you know that if you cave in to criticism, you are not doing your efforts justice.

I read one piece of advice that you have to read the critique, read your work with regard to it, change what you can and send it straight out in the post again. Don’t hide work in drawers for your grandchildren to find when they’re clearing out your house.

You deserve better. And you will get it if you persevere.

Exercise 1

In critiquing the work of others, you need to answer the following questions:

Title

If it has one, does it work for you? Does it evoke mystery and a sense of involvement?


Language

Is it clear? Is it evocative? Is it giving impact to the story?


Character & Setting

The author’s description, was it true to the character?

Credibility, did you believe in this person enough to be intrigued?

What they said, the dialogue, did it ring true to the author’s description of them?

Did the author draw the scene as well as they did the people in it, or better even? If not why?


Plot/Storyline

Was it sustained from the start?

Did it flow once it began? Were you carried?

Was the writing good and the construction in need of work?

Was the writing in need of work, but the construction good?

Did the author feel like a natural storyteller?

Was this story original enough for you to want to know more?

Was it too involved, did it need simplifying?

What did you need explained to you, if anything?

If the plot isn’t working, for you, can you suggest how it could be restructured?


Pace & Impact

Was there anywhere were you lost concentration, even momentarily?

Were you having to make an effort to listen?

What parts worked best for you?


Dialogue

Was it like a real conversation?

Was it flowing or stilted?

Was it stereotypical? Often it’s in dialogue that we resort to this, using stock phrases and cliché instead of reaching for the character’s true voice.

Exercise 2

Learning to Receive Criticism.

My first response, now that I have learned to have one, is to thank my editor, do some horse trading on some of the points I don’t think I can give on and finish by thanking them again, saying: “you’ve helped me to make this a better story.”

I like to receive the comments in writing, after a long conversation either face to face or over the phone, and then I tick them one by one as I address them.

This is down to you, but here are some suggestions. First of all - thank the reader who is commenting for their contributions. If you can be gracious you can let down your defences, you can learn from what they have to say.

Listen. Write down what they are saying. If you didn’t get it all get the rest of it after the session.

Use the rest of this page for your notes if you wish.

Remember, those reading your work are expressing an opinion. However well informed it is, it is still only that. You are the final critic.

Exercise 3

Dissect a page of a published novel. Take an in-depth look at how it moves on storyline, character, setting, plot, circumstance and character. Does the dialogue ring true? Are all the components working in the same direction?


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Sean Lusk, author of How to Get PublishedHow to Get Published

by Sean Lusk

Why is getting published so very hard to do?

It should be hard, shouldn’t it? To get published. Walk into any bookshop, pick up the first book you see, turn the lime green/bright pink/gold embossed cover and chances are you’ll think it a load of rubbish. You’ll wonder how it ever got published in the first place. And all the while your brilliant novel, that prize-winning, spine-tingling sure-fire hit still sits somewhere in a slush pile or on your hard drive or even further back in the recesses of your mind.

As someone who one Tuesday morning about five years ago resolved to become a successful novelist, I would like to share with you my agonies, divided into seven easy (huh! easy?) steps to getting published.

Step 1: Read

You really can’t write unless you read. A lot. If you’re trying to write a modern literary novel, read all the other modern literary novels you can lay your hands on. They’re your competition, some of them are actually quite good; and you can steal their ideas. Read plenty of other stuff, too. Thrillers for plot, plays for dialogue, classics for their mastery, short stories for their precision.

Step 2: Write

Funny, that. But after a few weeks of sullen resentment that I was not yet a published author, I realised that I’d have to write something first. A novel is big, so most people start with stories, which can be short. If you can write a story, you might be able to write a novel. If you cannot write a story, you should probably think about taking up photography instead. Not that stories are easy; they’re very hard. Get people to read your stories and comment on them. If they tell you that you are a great writer, they are lying and they aren’t helping you. A good reader will tell you what’s wrong and will make suggestions. You do not have to do what they say, but you do have to rewrite - about fifty times. Stories don’t spring into life, fully formed. What does?

Step 3: Learn

Lots of universities, colleges and local schools offer courses ranging from Masters degrees to evening classes. An evening class in a damp school hall can be just as good as a prestigious (and expensive) university course – or just as bad. In any writing group there will be three people who you are sure must struggle to write a shopping list, let alone a story. There will be one lunatic and two people who actually wanted to do pottery but that class was full. There will also be one sharp and sassy writer who will be your best critic and best writing friend, and you will become theirs.

One week residential courses (like those organised by the Arvon Foundation: www.arvonfoundation.org can be really useful, not only for learning but also for making useful contacts. There are also lots of literary festivals which offer readings, workshops and seminars, of which the West Cork Literary Festival is one of the best.

Step 4: Compete

Enter your stories in competitions. There are lots of these, mostly advertised on the web. If you get nowhere, you’re probably not as good as you think you are; go back to steps 1, 2 and 3 and practice. If you find yourself regularly short listed, or even start to win prizes, you have probably already made….

Step 5: Develop your own voice

A distinct voice is what any book about creative writing will tell you that you must have, and they’re right. If you are a living miracle, you have your powerful and unique writing voice as a gift from birth. If not, you need to let your voice grow on the debris of bitter rejection for at least three or four years. Voice means:

  • Creating compelling, believable characters

  • Getting them to tell truth and lies to other characters

  • Telling a story that needs to be told and demands to be read, that never leaves a reader doubting it or you, and that has an ending.

Step 6: Get an Agent

You have very little chance of getting a publisher to look at your novel without an agent. Ideally you will be recommended to an agent, perhaps by an established writer who has judged one of your stories at a competition or met you at a festival or on a course. Alternatively, cold call. This takes courage, but so does writing a novel, doesn’t it? Whatever you do, don’t simply send off your work without first speaking to the agent. Some agents like detailed synopses, some like brief ones; some want to see one chapter, some three; some only want to see a book once it’s finished, others in its early stages. You need to know this, and you can only know by asking them.

Step 7: Get published

This is the tricky bit. But you’ll never get there without walking, staggering and crawling your way over the first six steps.

Incidentally, it’s not about getting to step 7. It’s all about step 2. If it’s not the writing you love, then forget it, my love.


Sean Lusk
May 2005


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Judging Short Stories

Many people have asked how the Fish Short Story Competitions are judged, so here is a brief explanation of the process.

The stories are read by the editorial staff at Fish. Many of the editors have been working with Fish since it´s inception in 1994. They are all experienced literary critics, conscientious and proud to be part of the process of creating a worthy anthology. They are also responsible for the excellent Critique Services Fish provides.

Our readers are all looking for good, literary writing, with a weather eye out for anything that breaks the mould - Fish seeks to publish new and exciting work from new and exciting writers. All the entries are read carefully and are graded on a scale, A, B or C.

The C's are those entries which are clearly not up to the mark for one reason or another. The B's are those which are nearly there but fail to make the highest level because they fall down on one or other of the key attributes our readers are looking for (See Rejection and Criticism above.) This is not the end of the story for the B's however. The list of B's is carefully looked over by another member of our senior editorial staff to ensure that no A's have been missed. If any reader is in doubt, they are encouraged to pass the story on to other readers for a second or third opinion. Any B+ material out there will probably be read several times before it is finally decided whether it is actually an A or not.

And then we came to the A's. All the A grade material we receive becomes our Long List. Every story on the Long List is read by several members of the senior editorial staff. What they are looking for is the very best out of a bunch of material almost all of which is of publishable quality. What makes the difference? Well. if we could answer that question for you, there would be no mystery left in the art of writing.

After a lot of discussion, argument, even the odd fight, the short list is agreed. This usually consists (for the Fish Short Story Prize at least) of around twenty to thirty entries. The very best of that year's offerings. These are then given to the judges, who are asked to give their top five stories. All 15 of these are published in the Anthology. The Judges are then asked to rate the three number ones and these make the three top prize winners. In the case of no clear winner, Fish Publishing Director, Clem Cairns, has the casting vote.

Also published alongside these will be the winning entries in the One-Page Prize and the Fish International Poetry Prize. All of these are judged along the same lines, being whittled down to a final Short List, on which the Judges decide.

That is how the Fish judging system works. Apart from the C's, each story is read and reviewed several times before the Long list is arrived at. after that every story is read several times to get to the Short List, and at this point all the stories are read many times by all the judges just to make sure that the very best entries make it into the anthology, and that the very best of all win the prizes.

Good luck with all your writing.

 


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