When Jude Higgins of The Bath Short Story Award telephoned me last Wednesday to say I’d won the competition, I vowed to blog about the history of my story, ‘That Summer’. Everything has a history and sometimes, when something wonderful happens, we are too busy celebrating to ponder how we reached that goal. When I recall what happened to ‘That Summer’ before the main judge, Carrie Kania of Conville and Walsh awarded me first prize, I realise that a lot of elements had merged to bring me to that point.
‘That Summer’ was written over a year ago. When it was drafted, I spotted a Tweet by fellow Northern Irelander Paul McVeigh, mentioning a Radio 4 competition for new writers. I sent it off and waited, and waited, forgot about it, then had an e-mail from the production company, Sweet Talk, to explain they’d been inundated with entries and the judging would take much longer than expected. I think the original version of ‘That Summer’ was out for around nine months (really) before I heard that it had not been selected as one of the finalists. I’d lost a bit of interest by then and had been working on other stories as well as overhauling my novel, so I wasn’t particularly bothered. But as I do with all stories that are rejected (and there have been quite a few), I dusted it down, re-edited, spruced it up and decided to send it out elsewhere.
I had a gut feeling ‘That Summer’ was a competition piece rather than a journal story, so I scanned Twitter and the Internet for approaching deadlines and fired it off to The Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Again, the judging seemed to take ages and I didn’t make the short list, so I welcomed ‘That Summer’ home again. In the meantime, and following a handful of rejections for other stories (as well as two acceptances), I decided I needed some advice from successful short story writers. Who was in the news, who had just won something big, what were they saying in interviews? The wise words of three writers – Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, and Lionel Shriver, didn’t change the way I write, but certainly changed the way I present a story to the world. I want to share these tips with other writers because I feel it’s my duty. Making stories better, delighting readers, is surely part of keeping the whole business of writing and publishing afloat. We also need to support each other.
Danielle, Colin, and Lionel said these things first. I’m just passing them on to anyone aiming for short lists or hoping to win a competition someday soon.
Danielle McLaughlin: published in The New Yorker, Short Story Editor of the literary journal Southword, Judge of the Sean O’Faolain 2015 Competition. Her first book, ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’ is published in September.
‘My stories sometimes go through 40 edits.’
I’m sorry, Danielle, did you say FORTY? This really was an eye-opener for me – 6 or 7 edits had probably been normal for me before reading this. According to Danielle, every sentence must be scrutinised, tweaked, again and again. I do this now. I put a story away, re-read it, edit it again, completely rewrite some sentences, turn to something else, come back to it and every single time I read it, I change something. ‘That Summer’ maybe had 80 edits.
Colin Barrett: 2014 winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize, The Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for his debut collection of short stories, ‘Young Skins’.
‘I love Thesauruses.’
Ah, now Colin, that’s going too far (and shouldn’t that be ‘Thesauri’)? But it’s not going too far, you know. I mean you can’t do it for every sentence, but when I put some of my descriptions under the microscope, I realised they were on the limp and insipid side. So yes, there is a better word than ‘rusty’ for that old car in the backyard and if you’re stuck, a Thesaurus is your only man. I now keep my dog-eared copy on the desk and it’s actually fun to dig in when a word that’s fresh or unexpected is needed.
Lionel Shriver: Best-selling novelist and winner of the 2014 BBC National Short Story Award. She probably doesn’t even keep track of all her publications these days.
‘Sending a story out before it’s ready is a mistake.’
Aha, the question being, how do you know when it’s ready? I watched Lionel’s interview after winning the BBC award and her little smirk said it all. Even she had done it – sent a story out to a competition when there were still things that needed changing. The judges know their stuff – they will sense when a story is not as good as it could be. I don’t write for a specific competition now, but instead, keep reading and editing a story until there is nothing left to change. There’s always some deadline on the horizon – perfect the story first.
Writing is a fantastically creative occupation but there is also a craft to short story writing and perfecting the story requires a certain amount of graft. But ‘success’, if that means publication and the odd competition win, may also involve other elements like timing and luck. Perhaps ‘That Summer’ would not have been so well received by the Bath reading team if they’d picked it up in December with snow on the ground. And perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so lucky if I’d sent the story to The Francis McManus competition instead of Bath.
So here’s the final piece of history about ‘That Summer’. In April, I was standing in a queue in a post office in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE with a hard copy of the story ready to post to Dublin for the Francis McManus RTE radio competition. The queue was slow moving. The very pleasant Arab man attempting to serve me was new and his older, Indian colleague was doing what ‘jobsworth’ types do, ie, making the weighing and stamping of an envelope seem like a Herculean task. There was confusion about the length of time it would take to reach Ireland. An extremely elderly Emirati man, his bejewelled knuckles clasping the head of his walking stick appeared at my shoulder and started waving a document in the faces of the two assistants. He was agitated, spoke very loud Arabic and needed help. The older Indian man saw to his needs whilst the trainee explained to me that unless I wanted to take out a small mortgage, my envelope containing ‘That Summer’ would take 10 to 12 days to reach Dublin. He slid a form across the counter to me and was summoned by a colleague to do something else. I began to write the destination address and then thought, no – it doesn’t feel right and I might miss the deadline. So I left the post office, picked up a cappuccino on the way home, and brought ‘That Summer’ up on the laptop. I read it again, changed the opening line and submitted it online to the Bath Short Story Award. The rest is history (a cliché never to be used in a short story). Rather than feeling proud of my writing skills when Jude telephoned me with the result, I just felt extremely lucky. Lucky to have access to great advice from those who have been there and done it already; and lucky to have made the right choice for ‘That Summer’ on its third, better-dressed trip out into the world.
Let me end by saying thank you to those writers mentioned above – Paul McVeigh, Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, and Lionel Shriver, but also to Bath Short Story organisers – Jude Higgins, Jane Riekemann, Anna Schlesinger, and judge Carrie Kania. Every one of you played a role in the history of my story ‘That Summer’ and I’m incredibly grateful.