Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Crafting a Short Story Collection

My new short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be out in June. Here’s an article about navigating the advice – and counter-advice – on building a house of short fiction.

Much has been said about short stories – as a form. They’re the literary equivalent of practising your scales, limbering up for the novel symphony. Publishers avoid them. Yet continue to publish them. Nobody reads them. Except they do. They’re back in fashion. They never went away. As Jane Rawson puts it ‘the short story is both on hiatus and in the prime of its life.’

When I began thinking about creating a collection, there was plenty of ‘how to’ advice about writing short stories and flash fictions but far less about crafting a compelling whole from various scraps. Maybe because it’s as simple as plonking them into one long document.

Not quite.

Reading like a reader

Herding all my stories into one file was revelatory. I tried to sit on the other side of the desk and read them as a reader – rather than the author. One thing leapt out: repetition of ideas, issues, images – even phrases. Nobody had noticed these little obsessions when I’d farmed them out to different places over the years.

I cut several stories. But how best to tend to the keepers?

Mix tapes, zoos, share houses

Nathan Scott Macnamara compares organising a collection to ‘sequencing an album’ or mixed cassette tape, striking ‘a balance between familiarity and change’ and ‘fulfilling the reader’s desires, while also challenging them.’

Randall Jarrell thinks it’s like ‘starting a zoo in your closet.’ The giraffe takes up all the space. As Valerie Trueblood quips, it doesn’t take long to identify which one is the giraffe.

I started to think of my collection as more like a share-house peopled by a mix of timid, loud, pedantic, erratic, reliable, long-termer tenants and fly-by-nighters. The allocation of rooms was paramount.

To theme or not

Some bind their collections to a distinct theme. When it comes to organizing a linked collection, chronology may have already done the job.

It’s been said themed collections – or ‘almost-novels’ – are easier to sell. Perhaps because continuity of characters/time/events may promise fewer gear-changes for the reader.

Set in a seaside village, Ursula Le Guin’s Searoad is bound by place and divided by intergenerational feuds.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, also in a seaside town, showcases an ensemble of protagonists. But Olive is the star, so too in the sequel Olive, Again.

Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light is hived into four parts, a hybrid, blurring multiple realities.

Toni Jordan’s Nine Days interlocks one-day-in-a-life of characters through time.

Apparently Nam Le’s award-winning The Boat was never marketed as a collection. Are these are novels, or collections? Or are they carving out space in between?

 Order in the house of short fiction

If your collection is not overtly themed – the question becomes which stories where? It seems logical to put the published pieces or prize-winners first, or the ones already edited by professionals. But suddenly the frame and the context have changed. Now there are many voices speaking from differently-decorated rooms, some of which will have porous walls. Others boast large windows with views to the gardens, as opposed to broom cupboard-sized affairs overlooking the bus depot.

So, who’s on first?

Macnamara says the opening story must do two things: ‘establish the writer’s authority’ and ‘prepare the reader’ for what’s to follow.

In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Speak to Me’ a quasi-alien whooshes into a fantasy writer’s backyard. The reader has been warned from page one – uncertainty abounds.

Amanda O’Callaghan’s ‘The Widow’s Snow’ invites us into a middle-aged woman’s thoughts during a protracted date. Ambiguity, trust, snap decisions and death, course through the book.

Josephine Rowe’s ‘Brisbane’ begins with ‘and’, pulling us in for the ride in Tarcutta Wake and addressing us mid-sentence, aka in media res.

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ sets up the skittles with the opening sentence: ‘The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.’ She does. And motors towards a murderer.

However, Daniyal Mueenuddin believes the ‘brightest’ story will entice the reader in. Others plump for the ‘best’ piece with the ‘widest’ appeal.

Find the shape

Matthew Fox offers ‘shapes’ for building collections eg mosaic and hourglass. There’s also the ‘tent pole’ – planting stronger pieces a few pages apart to hold the whole thing up.

As for stories of differing length, opinion seems divided about where to put longer stories (aka ‘the giraffes’). Weight it at the end, like Nam Le’s novella in The Boat, or satisfy early with a hearty appetizer. Flash fictions might flit about the equatorial centre. Recurring characters can inhabit adjoining rooms and whisper through the key holes. If there’s a title story, it may settle wherever it pleases.

The last word

For Macnamara, the last story should ‘make emotional sense of everything that’s come before’ and ‘wrap things up.’ Fox says they’re an opportunity to ‘open up to the world.’ The final page should be like the final page of all your stories. Equally resolved – or nebulous.

 Pitching to a publisher

Any decent proposal takes time and effort. Tease out idiosyncratic themes as well as the universal. Highlight any unusual angles, settings, characters, events.

When it comes to writing a synopsis, there’s plenty of advice about novel synopses, but there wasn’t much online about collections. I asked other writers.

Put your characters up front, one suggested. X does Y in Z.

I read a range of collections – recently published, classics – and scoured their blurbs and reviews, noting which stories were singled out, and the adjectives used ie gothic, gritty, cerebral, mythical, fierce, achingly real.

Before I sent out my collection, I rewrote all the stories, old, new, published, unpublished, long, short. If some were written for a themed competition or journal, I checked whether they still made sense transplanted in their new terrain.

I moved them all about many times in the hope they’d pique – and maintain the interest of a publisher – all the while knowing any potential editor would have their own ideas and strategies about what should go where – and which stories should stay or go.

Finally, I spackled together a log-line, wrote a long synopsis (one sentence per story), a short synopsis (a phrase) – and submitted both.

Rejection

Rejection is part of a writer’s job. There are more writing competitions now – and more writers. Fewer journals – and fewer publishers. Kim Liao famously aimed for 100 rejections a year.

Useful – or prohibitively expensive? Galvanising or soul-crumbling? Kim Liao later revisited her idea in her article about ‘creative failure’. It’s worth reading both.

I tend to send out my most polished pieces to the ‘right place’. By ‘polished’ I mean I edit, edit, edit. Or as the submission guidelines for Griffith Review state: ‘Good fiction writing stands out immediately – polish, proofread and repeat.’

By ‘sending to the right place’, I mean somewhere interested in my kind of work. The only way to discover this is by researching, reading, and subscribing to publications, and learning more about their editors and authors.

Just like rejection, research is also part of a writer’s remit.

Who knows if rejection gets any easier?

Perhaps it’s what you do with them that counts. Early on, a writing in my writing life a lecturer said she dealt with rejection by ‘crying for a day – then getting back to it.’ Natalie Goldberg learnt something similar from her Zen teacher in her famous handbook Writing Down the Bones: if you finish writing a book, excellent. Now, start another.

Whenever one of my stories gets a ‘no’, I’ll either pull the story apart, try another polish, or wait until a themed journal or competition seems a better fit.

The ‘good rejection’ is when an editor takes the time to send a comment along with the no thanks. Their notes might be a critique or an encouragement. Either way I thank them, and ruminate on what they’ve suggested. It might not resonate immediately, but sometimes it’s enough to spark a rethink or an overhaul – or keep me plugging away.

Some recalibrated stories are eventually picked up. Others – never.

I keep various incarnations on files by year, flick through them occasionally, excise the odd sentence or idea, cut false leads, and see if something new emerges.

The best story on rejection closes out Maxine Beneba Clarke’s award-winning collection Foreign Soil.

Allegedly semi-biographical – the protagonist in ‘The Ski-yaki Book Club’ is a struggling writer scratching out a living in her cramped apartment next to a railway track. She amasses her growing stash of rejection slips as ‘literary armour’ against a world she’s been told is not ready for her kind of work. But as Emily Laidlaw points out in her reading notes on Foreign Soil, that this book exists at all proves they were wrong.

Success

So if your collection finally gets the nod – fantastic. You’re one of the lucky ones who’s persisted. You’ve found a publisher who ‘gets’ your work and is willing to invest time, money, and energy into editing, improving, and promoting it.

But what to say when usually omnivorous readers claim they never read short stories? Never? All short stories? Not even by authors they already admire – Margaret Atwood, Emma Donoghue, Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, George Saunders, Gail Jones, Zadie Smith?

Isn’t that a bit like saying you don’t like music?

Perhaps you’ll try to persuade them and say short stories are perfect for our busy lives, perfect to dive into during the daily commute, to flick through while the pasta boils, or as a welcome distraction in the waiting room.

Or perhaps you’ll smile at your new book clutched in their hands – hoping its contents will surprise, illuminate, entertain, provoke, amuse, engage – and they’ll become so intrigued by your glimpses into your strangely familiar tenants’ minds and worlds – they’ll forget about the type of house you’ve built for them to share.

Emma Ashmere’s short fictions have appeared in the Age, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review, and shortlisted for 2018 NUW/Overland Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize. Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in June 2020.

Read more of Emma’s posts on reading and writing short stories here.

A version of this article first appeared in the Bryon Writers Festival magazine Northerly March 2020.

 

Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist: When a story arrives

The Queens Theatre Adelaide, 1992, photo by Delma Corazon.

My short story ‘Nightfall’ has just been published on adda, the online literary magazine for the Commonwealth Foundation. The story was shortlisted for the Pacific region of the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize.

‘Nightfall’ is set in 1800s Adelaide and features the Prado Music Hall at the old Queens Theatre. Apparently it’s the oldest theatre in mainland Australia.

I was actually writing something else when the voice of the protagonist arrived. I scribbled it down, submitted it to a few places, had no luck, cut it by a third, thought why not, and sent it into the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize – and was stunned to hear many months later it was shortlisted.

Since then, my short story collection Dreams They Forgot has been picked up by Wakefield Press and will be published in May 2020. ‘Nightfall’ will be in the collection.

My thanks to all involved with the Prize, and the Commonwealth Foundation.

Thanks also to Delma Corazon giving permission to use her photo.

The 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize closes on 1 November 2019. Entry is free, there’s a diverse panel of judges, and you can submit in a number of languages.

Best of luck!

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

The Bookshelf: Book Reviewing on Radio

I’ve done a bit of book reviewing in the past – in print – but it’s another thing to talk about books on the radio. Being a bit of an avoider of public speaking in the past – this adds another layer. But I do love talking about books.

the bookshelf jun 2019

So it was wonderful to be invited onto Radio National’s weekly fiction program The Bookshelf as one of the reviewers talking about novels with the two Bookshelf hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullough. Somehow they manage to put everyone at ease, whether they’re in the studio or calling in from elsewhere – while deftly and wittily dissecting the plot, setting, imagery, psychology of the characters, and the structure and politics at work in that week’s book selection. I kept my trusty reviewing notes on hand – and off we went.

The program will be broadcast at midday today and is also online. There is a fantastic interview with Scottish author Damien Barr, plus links to past programs and podcast extras. A great resource for readers and writers alike.

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

 

Celebrating the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist

cropped-greentypwriter

The 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist has been announced – I am still is shock to see my name on it!

There are over 20 writers to celebrate on the shortlist including from Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, New Zealand, UK, Cyprus, including two translations. The regional winners – from Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Europe/Canada, Pacific – will be announced on 9 May. The overall winner will be announced on 9 July. All winners will have their stories published in Granta. Shortlisted stories will be published online.

My short story ‘Nightfall’ is set in  1800s Adelaide – my home town.

See more about some of the shortlisted writers:

https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2019/04/10/131397/nz-oz-writers-shortlisted-for-2019-commonwealth-short-story-prize/

https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/2018690872/pacific-women-writers-recognised-by-commonwealth

https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/386841/cook-islander-s-story-shortlisted-for-commonwealth-prize

https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/books/news/2019-04-10-sa-writer-alex-latimer-shortlisted-for-the-commonwealth-short-story-prize/

https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/2019/04/10/the-jrb-daily-2019-commonwealth-short-story-prize-shortlist-announced-including-writers-from-kenya-nigeria-south-africa-tanzania-and-zambia/

https://www.thebookseller.com/news/women-dominate-commonwealth-short-story-prize-shortlist-983536

And keep a look out for next year’s Prize. Entry is free. The judging panel is diverse. Stories can be submitted in a number of languages.

You can find out more about all the shortlisted writers, plus more about this year’s Prize from the chair of the 2019 judging panel, Caryl Phillips.

http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/2019-cssp-shortlist/

I’s been 20 years since my first short story was published in the now defunct Australian Womens Book Review. This is a wonderful way to mark that anniversary.

Happy writing.

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

Review of Nicola Griffith’s ‘So Lucky’

The New York Times describes Nicola Griffith’s new novel So Lucky as a ‘compact, brutal story of losing power and creating community’. A genre-blurring, ground-shifting book, So Lucky centres on Mara Tagarelli, who’s just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Griffith, a British-American writer who has MS, is known for her acclaimed novel Hild and the Aud Torvingen crime series.

The opening lines throw us right in:

It came for me in November, that loveliest of months in Atlanta: blue sky stinging with lemon sun, the squirrels screaming at each other over the pecans because they weren’t fooled; they knew winter was coming.

As Mara waves goodbye to her 14-year relationship, she loses her footing on an autumn leaf. Later, when she reaches for a bottle of milk, her hand doesn’t work.

Trained as a martial artist, Mara has fought to become confident in her body and her world. After surviving a violent assault at the age of 22, she turned her rage into strength:

[and] … learned to fight, to smash wood with my hands, to stretch my body, to toughen it, make it harder, stronger. Learned not to be afraid: to break their narrative.

But how to deal with MS, this ‘it’, this ‘thief’, this ‘grinning thing’ that’s come to stay?

The most powerful passages spotlight the reactions of others, the casual and institutionalised able-ism. Suddenly the line between Us and Them has moved. ‘Sufferer. Victim. Was that who I was now?’

Mara’s day job involves running a budget-stretched non-government HIV/AIDS organisation. At first she doesn’t tell anyone about her diagnosis, but there’s the profound exhaustion, the limp, the walking cane, the overwhelming effects of summer heat. On top of that, she has to convince her colleagues their office needs a ramp:

… the pavement wavered in the heat and my cane seemed to sink into the blacktop. A man I passed at the door pretended not to see me struggle. The woman behind the reception desk smiled in a bright Southern way … before the cane she’d greeted me by name.

For anyone whose health has changed suddenly, Griffith deftly captures the disorientation of dealing with new practicalities, the confronting recalibration of identity, the denial, fear, anger, and the seemingly random wins and losses with the medical world. Mara eventually takes the advice to ‘find her people’ and attends an MS support group, which spins into the surreal.

She flies across the US to an annual conference, but this time she needs a wheelchair. While the airport attendants reluctantly organise one, they speak about her – not to her – as if she’s a piece of baggage. Things don’t improve at the conference. There’s none of the usual banter or flirting with the other delegates. Even here, she’s become invisible. The wheelchair has written her ‘out of the story’.

But Mara is having none of that. The next time she travels, she’s adapted her survival strategies:

This time I expected to be ignored, so it hurt less. And this time I saw all those people like me on the periphery: people in chairs, people with dogs, people with interpreters. But I was too tired to manage anything but the conference minimum …

Forced to take leave and subsist on her limited health insurance, she draws on her IT skills, contacts, and new knowledge to establish an online community and a much-needed support service. This is where the novel morphs into a harrowing psychological thriller. Mara’s enterprise is hijacked. People’s lives are put at risk as paranoia, vulnerability, and danger collide.

But So Lucky is also punctuated with flashes of subversive wit and fierce hope. Mara has a nifty way of dealing with able-bodied drivers who hog disabled-reserved car spaces, and there’s a blossoming bond with her shambolic dope-growing neighbour, Josh. As for the avalanche of slick MS drug pamphlets, she detects the familiar whiff of a promise and threat, heaven and hell, showcased in these slick, sanitised parallel realities:

Glossy sales brochures full of pictures of clean-cut, unstressed, middle-class people with white teeth posed with clean and shiny mobility aids, or standing on top of a mountain, or riding a bike … They reminded me of tampon adverts … buy this and magically be able to ride a white horse bareback through a field …

Griffith has said So Lucky is her ‘version of just writing a story I want to write … a way to sort of overwrite the ableist narrative … just give people a different story to replace the old story’. Apparently she didn’t plan to write this book. Suddenly it ‘came roaring out’.

Some readers may find So Lucky an unsettling book. For others its honesty, power, and capacity to destabilise certain assumptions are a welcome recognition and an urgent articulation of familiar realities.

Nicola Griffith: So Lucky published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018 PB 192pp $21.99

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

This review was first published on Sydney’s Newtown Review of Books.

 

Short & Sharp: Flash Fiction Competitions

fbflashfictioncompblogjun2018Yesterday in Byron Bay, the wild surf crashed and the winter sun flickered. In an upstairs room off main street, a dozen or so keen writers hunched over their notepads writing Flash Fiction. The workshop was timed to coincide with the inaugural Byron Flash Fiction Competition – now open across Australia.

More Flash Fiction opportunities are bobbing up all the time. Some are morphing into multi-platform affairs: animation, sound, postcards, dance etc. But what makes an editor or competition judge decide a piece is ‘good enough’?

In previous posts I’ve mentioned strategies for writing memorable short stories. In my post on microlit there’s a link to David Gaffney’s tips on writing Flash Fiction published in The Guardian. Gaffney has since revisited this. Apparently these ideas have ‘followed him around.’  See also Claire Fuller’s suggestions.

I’ve been sending work to journals and competitions for 20 years. Some stories have been picked up. Most are not. The main thing is to keep going. As Natalie Goldberg says in her classic how-to book Writing Down the Bones – when you finish a piece of writing – and start another.

Writing short isn’t easy. Sometimes the real story only emerges as you hack away the extraneous. Cut too much and the story withers. The great thing is you can go back to a piece years later, change a lazy word, or add a different title. Sometimes you have to take out the fire-bellows to coax a new spark in a piece that’s been slouching around your ‘rejected/needs edit’ file. It’s all about decision and precision. As New Yorker creative-nonfiction writer John McPhee says: ‘Writing is selection… You select what goes in and decide what stays out.’

Some competitions or journals call for a particular theme. With a bit of renovating a dormant story might fit. It might even catch the judge’s or editor’s eye. But once it’s sent, it’s out of your hands. As Priscilla Long says in her book The Portable Mentor – make your work as good as it can be. We only have an allotted amount of writing/living time. So send out your best.

It’s heartening to find some very short fictions tucked away in recent short story collection. Laura Elvery’s ‘Man about a Moon’ appears in her new book Trick of the Light (UQP). Roanna Gonsalves’ NSW Premier Literary Award-winning collection The Permanent Resident (UWAP) includes the short piece ‘First Person’. Mixing up short and longer stories isn’t new. Virginia Woolf’s twin shape-shifting meditations on colour ‘Blue and Green’ were published in 1921. See also Carys Davies’ ‘In Skokie’ in her collection The Travellers (Text), and Janet Frame’s ‘The Linesmen’ in You are Now Entering the Human Heart (Women’s Press).

There are many excellent fiction and non-fiction opportunities in Australia and beyond, including:

Bryon Bay Flash Fiction Competition

Spineless Wonders joanne burns microlit award

https://brevity.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/electric-lit-seeks-flash/

http://www.fishpublishing.com/competition/flash-fiction-contest/

https://mastersreview.com/flash-fiction-contest/

Happy writing and good luck!

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

 

 

Small big worlds: Writing microlit

final micro worlds for blog sep 2017

From the inkstone to the smartphone, some writers will always be drawn to brevity. Here’s a quick look at the increasingly popular short form – microlit.

Microlit. Microfiction. Flash fiction. Micro non-fiction. Sudden memoir. What are they? And how do they differ from the good old short story? It must be all about the word count, right?

Yes. And no.

Word count is everything

Microlit is the umbrella term for very short pieces of writing – fiction, prose poems, non-fiction. The term was coined by the Australian publishers Spineless Wonders, although not everyone agrees on the word limit for each sub-species. As a rough guide, microfiction/nonfiction hovers around 200-500 words. Flash fiction/non-fiction is up to 750-1000 words. Short stories range from 1,000 to 10,000 words before straying into novella territory. But one thing is certain. When you’re submitting to a microlit journal or competition – stay under their set word limit.

Word count isn’t everything: control, illusions of space, gaps

In short stories, every word must pull its weight. In microlit – every syllable counts. Control is paramount, as Cassandra Atherton emphasises in her introduction to the microlit anthology, Landmarks. But it’s not the kind of control that stifles or dulls a work. It’s a suppleness, exactitude, and restraint. Paul Hetherington refers to the ‘TARDIS’ qualities of microlit. They may look small and unassuming on the outside, but once inside, they defy the usual conventions of space.

If every syllable counts – so do the gaps. As Spineless Wonders publisher Bronwyn Meehan says, ‘in the best flash fiction, there is no spoon feeding, the … writer trusts the reader to fill the gaps, to sit with unresolved endings and ambiguity.’ Karen Whitelaw puts it this way: ‘Things don’t have to be explained, merely implied. This is the beauty of the form, that behind the words a whole world is peeping through.’

Perhaps that’s why many poets have taken to the form. The boundaries between poetry and microlit seem intriguingly blurred, elastic, porous. Both experiment with rhythm, and seek to distil complexity. Anyone who’s tried their hand at haiku knows the challenge of creating something personal yet universal, regulated but surprising, tiny but expansive.

A thimbleful of history

Like haiku, versions of microlit have been circulating for centuries as fables, pithy sayings, and commentaries. In the 1330s Japanese Buddhist priest Kenkō sat at his inkstone for several days, ‘feeling strangely demented’ as he jotted down ‘at random whatever nonsensical thoughts’ entered his head. His series of witty, precise, sorrowful snippets became Essays in Idleness. But perhaps the most notorious western 20th century microfiction is Ernest Hemingway’s six-word haunter: ‘Baby shoes. For Sale. Never worn’.

Then there’s the Man Booker-winning Lydia Davis who’s been publishing bracing short fictions for decades. Her 700 page Collected Stories reads like one drip-fed mini-drama at a time. Davis says she draws on ‘humour, language, and emotional difficulty’ rather than focusing on what her stories might be ‘about.’

Joy Williams’ new book Ninety-nine stories of God is a dazzling mosaic of funny, harsh, tragic, shards of imagined and recorded lives. Some pieces seem beguilingly smooth. Others lacerate. The famously non-computer-owning Williams typed out a list of 8 Essential Attributes for the aspiring microlit writer, the first being: ‘a clean surface with much disturbance below.’

So how to go about writing it?

Ask the locals

Several successful local microlit writers have shared their thoughts in a series of interviews on the Spineless Wonders blog.

Moya Costello: ‘I draft and re-draft a lot. I also work by imitation (intertextually). I love working with language over narrative/plot.….If you get the right first line, you are often away on a short piece.’

Nick Couldwell: ‘there are no rules. Unlike a novel or traditional short story where there are obvious points that need to be covered like plot, character building and the ending… microfiction has to drag the reader in in only a couple of lines.’

Stevi-Lee Alver: ‘Short sentences must be carefully placed together to convey meaning and paint emotion, like pieces of a puzzle… I often spend a great deal of time exchanging words, with similar meanings, until the words right sound.’

Barnaby Smith: ‘I wrote one in 10 minutes whilst visiting my sister in Stockholm, after being reminded of an experience we shared as children – and very quickly jotting it down – it was a fairly spontaneous, impressionistic thing. I’m not one for ‘stories’, more imagistic fragments. I see them as prose poems more than flash fiction.’

Whatever a writer’s style, technique, ‘rules’, intent, or content – microlit in all its many guises continues to morph, sending out its tendrils, snaking into people’s lives via phones, audio, social media, zines, and film animations.

Read/hear

If you’re interested in writing microlit – read and listen to as much as possible. Australian journals include: Canary Press, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Mascara Review, Pencilled in, Peril, Seizure, Snap Journal, Spineless Wonders, The Lifted Brow, Suburban Review, Voiceworks. Competitions: Avid Reader Miniscule comp, Big Issue comp, joanne burns/Newcastle Writers Festival microlit award, Odyssey House, Outstanding, Peter Cowan Writers Centre comp, Wyndham Writers comp.

Starting (and ending)

South Coast writer Susan McCreery set herself the challenge of creating one piece of microlit a day and ended up with her book, Loopholes. She says of course you must ‘work hard at whittling away unnecessary words, rearranging sentences, chucking out flabby bits….’ But other pressures are at play. ‘There’s not much time to set a scene, or introduce character… Implication is crucial. The title is vital. Endings shouldn’t be too neat.’

‘Start big, end small,’ says David Gaffney in his 6 point how-to list, who also advocates starting ‘in the middle’. As for endings – avoid cheap punchlines. The last line should ‘ring like a bell’.

Twists, changes, shifts

Hillary Simmons suggests successful microlit ‘must combine efficiency of text with immediacy of imagery and neat narrative twists, all in a space small enough for a single reading.’ Emma Marie Jones says, ‘Microfictions are, after all, still fictions: they need, even in their brevity, character, setting, action, conflict, a shift.’ This ‘shift’ or ‘turn’ might be as imperceptible as a shadow creeping across a room, or a horizon-tilting quake. Sue of Whispering Gums took her first dive into reviewing microlit via Angela Meyer’s collection Captives, and noted a pattern: ‘the protagonists confront a challenge, a change, a decision, or they create worlds that suit themselves.’

The aim of the microlit writer then, is to construct convincing, compelling, contained worlds – or shards and slices of micro-worlds.

All writing is rewriting…

Even if your piece arrived fully formed in a burst of clarity (as suggested by the term ‘sudden fiction/memoir’) it still might need reworking. Identify loose threads and pull them out. If the piece still hangs together, you’ve cribbed another micro-inch to stitch in another sentence, idea, nuance, glimpse, or layer. If less really has become less, rethink. Editing microlit is not so much charging in with the pruning shears, but more your dexterous tweezer work.

…with one eye on the wordcount

If a story still can’t manage to limbo in under a 200 word count, perhaps set it aside for a 500-750 word-er. A themed competition/journal might cast a new light, giving sharper focus or stronger direction to an earlier wandery draft.

Microlit becomes microlisten

Before pressing send, consider reading your drafts aloud – a kind of microlisten. This can detect any stumbles, unintended repetitions, slumps, clanging notes, and clumsy rhythms. Better to find those misbeats or hollow notes before your piece wings its way to a publisher – to double-check you’ve paid attention to the small big things. The glimpses. The control. The tension. The rhythm. The precision. The twists. The gaps. The expansiveness. And of course – the word count.

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

This article was first published in the Sept/Oct 2017 edition of Byron Writers Festival magazine Northerly.

 

 

 

On encouragement…keep writing

Readers are hungry for ‘a good story well told’  as publishers often say.

But what is a good story? And how do we know if it’s been well told?

In the late 1990s I started sending out short stories by the mail. A thick returned envelope was a bad sign. The story was rejected. A thin letter – hooray. Occasionally the words Keep writing were scrawled across the rejection slip. I now know this was a ‘good rejection’. Back then, I was puzzled.

Keep writing? Did it mean the story wasn’t any good? It certainly hadn’t made the cut. Or did it need a little more work. Or another theme. A different plot line. Less characters. A punchier opening/ending. Perhaps I’d sent it to the wrong place. Or was it a good idea poorly delivered? Or vice versa.

These days I think keep writing means just that. Keep writing. But behind those two words lie others. Keep learning, reading, editing, rewriting, trying to improve. Keep working away at your sentences (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.)

Keep making each piece is as good as it can be, as Priscilla Long says in her focused and practical workbook The Writers’ Portable Mentor. Because, as she points out, we only have an ‘allotted time’ at the keyboard. Life’s too short to put out lazy work. You could say The Portable Mentor doubles as The Portable Encourager.

The long and hilly writing path can be bereft of encouragement. If/when it does appear, I soak it up. Whether it’s a kind comment from a reader, or a piece picked up for publication, or someone in the writing world opening a door, or a positive review – encouragement can be a life saver when (like many writers) we spend a lot of time splashing about in a sea of doubt.

A few weeks ago my novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted on for the 2016 MUBA prize – for books that ‘haven’t received enough attention’. It didn’t win the MUBA, but it was as if my novel gave the literary equivalent of a high kick before shuffling off the stage.

I’ve learnt to savour ‘good rejections’, to learn from them, to apply them as a balm against the inevitable stinging ones.

Above all, encouragement in all its forms, refuels this writer to… keep writing.

Here’s a recent Q&A and review of The Floating Garden by Lisa Hill on her excellent blog ANZlitlovers.

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

The Floating Garden shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016

Very happy my novel The Floating Garden is on the shortlist for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016 – alongside books by Patrick Lenton, Christopher Currie, Marcus Westbury.

It’s such a great award. See Chad Parkhill’s excellent post on the Emma Ashmere The Floating Garden Coverhistory, motives, and criteria for the Award from the Kill Your Darlings blog. (He was one of the judges last year.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years whether writing short stories, novels, or non-fiction – it’s to just keep on reading and writing!

 

 

 

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.

Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.

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‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.

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For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.

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Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in June 2020 by Wakefield Press.