Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Tag: Australian writing

Crafting a Short Story Collection

My new short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be out in September 2020. 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 September 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 September 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 September 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 keep 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 September 2020 by Wakefield Press.

On gardens in literature: Six novels

blog ungardeners picGardens lie at the centre of many compelling novels as places of sanctuary, nourishment, control and ruthlessness. In others, only a tendril might snake its way in – with striking effect. Here are six of my favourite Australian novels about people and plants.

The Ungardeners by Ethel Turner
Ethel Turner (aka Jean Curlewis) is best known for her classic novel Seven Little Australians. Her less well-known work, The Ungardeners, was published in 1925. Part fable and part witty political satire, the original colour plates suggest it might stretch to a children’s book.
Australian poet and gardener Annie travels the globe with her English stockbroker husband, Peter Purcell. After he suffers a nervous breakdown, they settle in Australia for a gentler life. Eventually Annie lures Peter out of the sick bed and into her world: the quiet joy of the garden.
But times are tough and Annie is forced to sell off some of her land. When she returns from a brief trip away, she discovers “the bit of creek fringed by wattles” has become a housing estate clustering around the busy chimney of a jam factory. Soon her flowers begin to disappear. The neighbouring “slum” children are the culprits, and claim they need flowers for a relative’s funeral. Is it manipulation or ingenuity when Annie discovers the children are selling off her flowers at the local cemetery?
The Ungardeners is about many things, including Australia’s place in a fragmented and rapidly changing world, the universal tension between materialism and art, and the idea of development versus nature.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Gardens are usually seen as the triumph of order over chaos. In The Secret River, gardening brings chaos and dispossession.
When ex-convict William Thornhill takes up a piece of land on the Hawkesbury, he establishes a house and a garden. Armed with a bag of seeds, precious tools, and labouring help, he is determined to slough off his old life of austerity and petty crime. The aim is to move up in a society where the hierarchies of Britain don’t necessarily apply.
But Thornhill’s seemingly simple act of gardening can never be innocent or neutral in a colonial land. As soon as he plants his plot, something – or somebody – digs it up. His garden becomes a “message”, the equivalent of “hoisting a flag up a pole”, a claim that this “insignificant splinter” of the country is now his.
In The Secret River, Kate Grenville reminds us that Australian history is contested ground. One person’s feast is another person’s famine, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White
The Hanging Garden was published posthumously, accompanied by a level of controversy. This ‘unfinished’ novel centres on fourteen-year-old Eirene Sklavos who arrives in Sydney from Greece with her mother, the flighty Australian-born Geraldine. Eirene’s father, a Greek “patriot”, has been tortured and killed in prison. Once Eirene has been delivered, her mother returns to war-weary Europe.
Eirene ends up creeping about a boarding house on the harbour, inhabited by the migraine-prone but not unkind Mrs Bulpit, and another teenage exile, Gilbert Horsfall. Gil has been evacuated from the London Blitz and suspects his father was pleased to offload him.
Gil sees Eirene as a fascinating “snake”. He’s impressed by her casual snippets of Greek myth, her worldliness, and firsthand experience of communism and volcanos. For Eirene, Gil is a “sinewy white monkey”, who swings between being her friend and a traitor.
In the no man’s land of Mrs Bulpit’s overgrown garden above the cliffs, Gil and Eirene discover the fragile possibility of companionship. But loyalties continue to shift as quickly as the fickle harbour light. Their place in the garden is a shared but precarious, fleeting sanctuary, poised between childhood and adulthood, the world and home.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Heat and Light is divided into three parts: Heat, Water and Light. In the Water section, the line between people and plants blurs. Set in the 2020s, the Australian government is evacuating islands in Moreton Bay so Indigenous people can apply to live on a kind of “super” island. However, some of the islands’ mysterious original inhabitants, known as “the plantpeople”, are proving difficult to move.
The protagonist, Kaden, is a young Indigenous botanist. She comes into contact with the plantpeople when she scores a job distributing a scientific formula to them on behalf of the government. Larapinta is the first “specimen” she meets. Green-skinned and of fluid gender, Larapinta “has a face like me and you”. As their relationship develops, Kaden becomes more politicised and suspects her seemingly benevolent role at the company has another agenda.
Heat and Light has been described both as a novel and an anthology, and as a sci-fi/fantasy work. Like the character Larapinta, the book resists neat classification as it pushes back and forth through the porous borders between human and non-human; truth and myth; past, present and future; the other and self.

A Curious Intimacy by Jessica White
A Curious Intimacy is inspired by the nineteenth-century botanist and plant-hunter Georgina Molloy. The protagonist is Ingrid Markham, who rides her horse around Western Australia in pursuit of plants. Back in her hometown of Adelaide, Ingrid has been trained in the rigours of botany by her ageing but liberal-minded father. Unable to make fieldtrips himself, Ingrid sets off with a bruised heart, a passion for discovery, and the latest in collecting kits. With Victorian-era fervour, she is both woman and explorer, finding, cataloguing, and painting her discoveries.
During her expedition, Ingrid meets Ellyn Ives, whose husband has been away for months. The differences between the women are stark. Ingrid flourishes outdoors, and easily fixes a broken water pump. Ellyn rarely steps further than the water-deprived rose beds encircling the dilapidating homestead. Ingrid is enlivened by studying plants she hasn’t seen before. Ellyn is reluctant to leave the unhappy domestic atmosphere where an empty cradle haunts one room. To her the bush looks “all the same”, and is a place where she will become lost. As the two women form a tentative bond, the homestead garden serves as a rickety bridge between their worlds.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
The Watch Tower opens with Laura and Clare Vaizey being abandoned by their mother and cast out of their boarding school. Sydney is in the grip of war. The sisters are adrift until Felix Shaw, a small-time businessman with a purring car and grand ideas offers to take them under his wing.
Laura is persuaded to work at Felix’s box factory. As soon as she settles into the tedium, he abruptly changes his line of trade. Felix keeps both girls off balance, playing them against each other as he zigzags from one shady venture and extreme mental state to another. Any seemingly kind action is attached by a web of strings.
As Felix moves up in the world, he wants the flashy house and garden to match. Once the sisters are installed, Felix marries Laura and Claire begins to refer to her sister as “Hostage Number One”. Felix takes to working outdoors, lunging at the garden like a bayonet-wielding soldier charging across a battlefield.
The garden is only a fleck in the tight weave of this narrative, but it is a potent symbol of Felix’s obsession with appearances. As he tries to assert control over nature, and others, he attempts to maintain his dominance in his relentlessly vigilant corner of the world.

This article was first published in ‘northerly’ the NRWC’s magazine.

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 September 2020 by Wakefield Press.