As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog, we heard from Elaine Chiew, editor of the Cooked Up anthology, a few weeks ago.
Today, it is my pleasure to welcome award-winning author, and contributor to the Cooked Up anthology, Susannah Rickards. She would be answering questions on writing, based on her long experience as an outstanding author of short stories, a sought-after writing teacher, and esteemed judge for various short story contests. She has given very useful, practical advice, some of which I’ve highlighted for you in blue.
If you have questions for her, please drop them in the comments.
1. At what age did you start writing fiction? What prompted you?
Thirty. I was an actress, cast in a play where the director told us all to write a story explaining what had happened to our characters before they came on stage for the first time. When the story was casually praised, the elation I felt was a revelation. It meant more to me than any good theater review.
2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? Which of your stories would you recommend to a reader who has never read your work?
I’m fascinated by the gap between who we are and who we think we are. Beau de L’Air tackles this, as a schoolboy discovers he is a crucial figure in the lives of people he doesn’t know. Another, Ultimate Satisfaction Everyday, explores a dog food salesman’s need to feel he’s amounted to something. Another recurring theme is indifference. People with cold fish hearts scare the life out of me. It’s fun to write what scares you.
3. What makes a successful short story?
I love stories that cast a thin wedge of light on a world so vivid and complex that the reader’s mind supplies the full length novel; that contain language with the potency of poetry – so tight that any omission would create a loss of distinction. (That’s not to say pared to the bone. I’m bored by linguistic anorexia.) Also, good architecture: an enticing structure.
4. Which authors have been your biggest influences?
Fitzgerald, Carver, Joyce, Graham Greene, Kyle Minor, Janice Galloway, Munro, Proulx for emotional depth and complexity; Stephen Dixon, George Saunders, Karen Joy Fowler, James Kelman, Russell Hoban for form.
5. Could you name five short stories you think all writers should read?
• Nobody Said Anything – Raymond Carver. Because it’s word perfect.
• Babylon Revisited – Scott Fitzgerald. A novel in a few words.
• A Day Meant To Do Less – Kyle Minor. His distinctive prose style is led by his humanity and that’s rare.
• My Chivalric Fiasco – George Saunders – a reminder of the joyful possibilities of linguistic liberation.
• For Work, Yes by Tania Hershman. A wonderful story which took years to get published. Just proves that some of the finest work can get overlooked.
6. You’ve won many prestigious awards for your short stories, and judged various writing competitions. What pointers would you give a writer submitting to these?
- Work all the time so that you have a range of stories ready and can choose what to submit.
- But also, for the hell of it, write to order sometimes.
- Set yourself a technical or narrative task that’s out of your reach and wrestle with it.
- Edit every story several times. Do specific edits for clarity, energy, scene shaping, viewpoint, language, syntax, accidental repetition, thematic development, succinctness. And so on. Often, the best stories have been edited dozens of times.
- Say what you want to say, never what you think people want to hear. Say it in a way it hasn’t been said before.
- And assume your readers are intelligent – don’t write down to them.
7. When planning a short story collection, what factors do you keep in mind?
How to refresh the reader is key. I’ve heard claims that short stories should be savoured like fine chocolates; one a day. Seriously, who eats great chocolates one a day? I read whole collections in one go, and so work on the principle that someone else might too. I try to balance 1st person with 3rd, male POV with female, long with short etc. Also, create an arc. My collection starts with a funeral, has a prison sentence in the middle and ends with a birth. That was intentional. Get a good editor. I was extremely fortunate to have Elaine Chiew’s input in story order, along with another wise author. The two of them helped immeasurably.
8. As a creative writing teacher, what advice would you give to aspiring/ emerging fiction writers?
• Read superb writers. Ones who make your hair stand on end. Ones who make you cry because you’ll never be that good. Read them actively. How do they form sentences? Paragraphs? Where do their scenes begin and end? What makes you jealous of them?
• Tap into your own emotional superlatives. What rouses your anger? Your joy? Your wit? What catches your eye that doesn’t seem to catch other people’s?
• Find good, serious fellow authors and share work with them. It’s great to swap with authors you admire hugely whose work is different from your own. They add a critical dimension you might lack.
• Send out work regularly. Make it a part of your week. Keep a spreadsheet so you know who you’ve sent what to.
• But don’t dwell on it. I had an unbroken year of rejections. Then two major prizes, a commission, a magazine acceptance and a book deal, all in two weeks. If you are shortlisted or published, CELEBRATE!
9. Please tell us about your story in the Cooked up Anthology, and what inspired you to write it.
Often a story comes out of the crucible for me when two unrelated ideas fuse. This was one. A friend sent me a photo of a pawn shop window with the word Unredeemed in flashing lights above some diamonds and I immediately wondered who not what was unredeemed by pawning jewellery. At the time, a couple of friends had been left stranded by husbands who simply ‘forgot’ to pay maintenance, leaving their own children destitute while enjoying a good life with new lovers. Indifference and lack of self-awareness – ping. I wanted to show the gap in the most fundamental way possible: through the food they eat at Christmas. As I’m allergic to shellfish, I made Frazer gorge on it and suffer the consequences. The final element was structure. As soon as I realized that every scene was set on a threshold: oyster bar entrance, pawn shop doorway, old home porch; landing and bathroom floor; kitchen doorway, porch again, the story came.
Susannah Rickards is a UK author who lives near London. Her collection of short stories Hot Kitchen Snow won the Scott Prize. Her work has appeared in anthologies and literary magazines including 33: East, The Yellow Room, World Wide Writers, Real Writers, The New Writer, Pleasure Vessels, Brittle Star, The Independent, QWF, Even the Ants Have Names, To Her Naked Eye, Front & Centre, The Piano On Fire, The Source and online at Pequin, Conan Doyle Society, Surrey Herald and Haiku Journal. Her work has won and placed in a number of awards including The Conan Doyle, Society of Authors, Commonwealth Short Story, BBC Opening Lines, International Pen, CWA Debut Dagger, Eastside, Ian St James and The New Writer. She’s in the final year of a PhD in Creative Writing at Northumbria University, writing a crime novel set on the Northumbrian coast.
Do you read or write short stories? If you do enjoy them, why? And if not, why not? Checked out the Cooked Up anthology? Have you submitted to short story contests? Do you have questions for Susannah– about her work, the publishing scene for short stories, or her experience as a judge at writing contests?
A great interview of Suzannah on how to make short stories better. I am enjoying the series, Damyanti. Bring them on:)
This was so inspiring! Brilliant pointers to keep in mind while compiling a short story anthology. I totally agree that one needs to read stuff by better writers. Honestly it makes me cry to think that I’ll never be that good but still it does egg me on to keep trying. Thanks Susannah and Damyanti.
I prefer to read and write novels but admire those who can write good short stories. I organise local book fairs and we always include short story competitions!
Wow. Loved reading abt her. Will appreciate it if u cn share what u think about this short story I wrote. Thanks
Thanks again for this very valuable information. I will most definitely follow up on your info and suggestions. You include so many contact options to follow up on. Thanks again!! 😉
Reblogged this on Oh, Kell Yeah! and commented:
Quite sensible- worth a read
I savored every question and answer. This inspired me. Thank you!
Reblogged on WritingsfromFidra, thank you Damyanti! Great to link up with you.
Reblogged this on Writings from Fidra and commented:
Such insightful advice and comments. And she understands the thrill of even a small success in the context of many failures. I feel better already, thank you. My very first published story came out last week, sigh.
That definition of a successful short story cuts off the ones that I write. My “short stories” hardly read like short stories. I don’t know what they are, really.
Just wanted to clarify that what I said is not a finite definition of the short story, which is infinite in its possibilities for reinvention. It’s just what I personally look for as a reader and aim for as a writer, not a dictate for what they ‘should’ be. No should about it. If all short stories fitted my description I’d look for something else from the form. It needs variety. Take a look at, say, Kuzhali Manickavel’s work, or most of Tania Hershman’s. Neither of them writes stories that fit what I described, and they are brilliant writers, whose mastery of the form is entirely different from what I described.
I enjoyed reading this. I needed the advice to “write what you want to say, not what you think people want to hear”. A lot of publishers push “what people want to hear”. I was struggling with that idea, and almost talked myself into not writing a book. I am not a “give them what they want to hear” kind of person. I appreciate this advice. It’s encouraging.
Thank you for liking a little story over on my blog. I clicked on who and saw the like came from someone who not only enjoys writing but likes to dig deeper into it, really understanding the how to’s and why’s. This entry I’m commenting on is proof of that. Something deeper and interesting, and very appreciative of the subject’s time. So, that like means quite a bit to me, someone who does it, get’s published with it, and actually likes something I did. Keeps my little project going amid the other distractions, like unnatural work schedules (I just thought of another short to write up, check soon) aaaand kids. I’ve never been one to follow for the sake of networking/following, but I am following this place out of real interest now. Thank you for bringing it to all of us.
I’m not a short story writer, but reading that quote–I understand the goal. It makes me want to go there.
Really good stuff here. Thanks for presenting it. 😀
You’re welcome, Steve. Susannah is both kind and wise.
Some great advice here, thanks a lot. I think that as a debut author I really need to get noticed amongst everyone else out there, so I am spending more and more time on short stories. I’ve had one published, but there’s still a way to go yet.
A terrific post, very informative. I loved Susannah’s answer to the question, “What makes a successful short story?” I always think that writing a short story has to be more difficult than writing a novel. You have to get all the elements down in fewer words.
Reblogged this on s a gibson.
Such a great interview!
Factors to bear in mind when planning a short story collection, now that caught my attention!
The creating of an arc within the collection – a funeral, a prison sentence in the middle and ending with a birth – is such a neat idea. It fires the imagination…
Thanks Damyanti and Susannah. 🙂
Reblogged this on Scribbles@Arpita and commented:
Some wonderful tips for short-story writers. Got me recharged, this one! Enjoy!
I’m trying to get back into sending out stories regularly. I appreciate the list Susannah left of short stories to read – I’m always looking for the very best to learn from.
I really appreciated her advice on sending work out weekly.
Terrific post, lots of great ideas and thoughts. I’m realising that when I think ‘there could be a novel in this…’ I tend to write a better story. It shows me there’s enough content to work with.
Totally agree. Several of my stories were novels in my head. The author Emma Darwin often says she takes a short story out for a walk and comes back with a novel. I’m the opposite. I think it’s a novel, starting making notes and the notes become a short story. And of course, many of the finest short stories would have been padded into novels by less restrained writers.
Reblogged this on oshriradhekrishnabole.
good to know that her idea of the short story being seed of a novel matches with mine, I too always think and treat them like that writing or reading.
Sorry, my big comment was lost. Just saying, love this post. Thank you Susannah and Damyanti, thank you for hosting! I’m all for shorter stories to read on my iPhone/iPad or whatever. 🙂
Stephen King says he loves writing short stories but publishers do not love them: a reader just gets into the characters and then the story is over — and the next story may not be as entertaining. I think Susannah has a great point: a great short story is so vivid in its characters and setting that the reader senses the novel in it. 🙂 I tried to make EDISON’S MANSION like that — hopefully it will pass muster for the Insecure Anthology. Wish me luck.
That title alone makes me want to read it.
A shout-out to Damyanti as well for these great and on point questions — yr questions help bring forth Susannah’s expertise. She is an amazing editor — her comments on my short stories were so incisive they hurt. And then days later I realised how right she was.
Elaine, Susannah is so talented and knowledgeable I would have been insane not to ask her a range of questions. I’m grateful for her very kind answers– and she sounds like every writer’s dream crit partner– incisive and insightful. Thankyou for the anthology, and this set of interviews.
Elaine is right about the questions. They flowed effortlessly – and we all know how much effort is put into seeming effortless. Thank you, Damyanti.
Nice interview. Thanks for this!
I can’t imagine writing down to one’s readers.
Interesting how she started writing. proof that not all of us set out to do that.
Thank you for posting this interview! It hit upon a couple of basic questions that have been swirling through my mind regarding editing. I’ll be saving this advice among my writing guides as there are some great pointers.
This is becoming one of my favorite blogs.
Where to begin? I thoroughly enjoyed the interview! I would like to ask if there is a good place to start when choosing to submit short stories for publication. Do you wait until you have a collection and submit to a publisher? Or submit a single story to a magazine or site? Thanks!
In this respect, the trajectory of the short fiction writer’s career perhaps has more in common with a poet’s than a novelist’s. I’d first focus on the work – make sure it’s better than you thought it could be. Read literary publications widely and submit to the ones in which the work strikes a chord with you. Same with awards: submit to those where you like or admire the work of the judge or the winners’ collections they’ve put out in the past. Once you have a strong body of work out there, you can offer it to publishers as a collection. Of course you can wait and present it in one go, but it’s good to get feedback on individual stories. Also, not all pieces fit within a collection. It’s good to find some of the outliers a home.
Thank you so much!
A fabulous interview. I adored reading Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected – the reveal that brought me a sense of ‘ah, I should have thought that was going to happen’ – just out of touch, classic.
Thoroughly enjoyed this blog – given me the impetus to write another short story but take my time with this one. Thank you.
Thanks, David. I’m glad this blog has been of use to you.
This was a very great and helpful interview. One of my problems is that i sometimes tend to move the scene too fast, not given enough detail to a certain event or character that i know os important, so i have been working on that. My question to Susan is after your work is complete and you have submitted it to be published either traditional or otherwise; what is the best marketing strategy?
I must be honest and say this is not my forte. I have a deep aversion to trying to sell anything – even a cake at a school cake sale! But a starting point would be to spread the word on Facebook, Twitter and all literary online forums you belong to. Make sure that your Amazon author page and blog are up to date at the time of the launch. Accept offers to read aloud at literary festivals and events. I had a big launch party and invited everyone I knew who enjoyed short fiction. They sold out and had to climb into the window to take down all the display copies. More sales-orientated authors than me are very upfront and post their wares all the time, touting for radio interviews, TV appearances etc. I’m circumspect about that. I’d rather spend the time writing. If a book only has modest sales, the real job is not to tout it harder but to plough your energy into writing a better one next time.
A very informative interview!
What I’d like to ask Susannah is this – What contributes more to the success of a short story -(a) what you write i.e the plot or (b) the way you write something i.e expression?
Ideally, the two are so enmeshed that one is not divisible from the other. This is truer of short fiction than any other form. If a novel has a brilliant plot we can forgive a clunky style (to some extent). But short fiction needs real clarity of diction. Sometimes people think this means stripped to the bone. It’s a popular viewpoint. I favour quite ornate writing at times, but in a final edit I have an edit meeting running in my head for every word on the page: asking why did you choose this? Why is it still there? If I haven’t a convincing answer, it goes. The real pleasure and art of short fiction, for me, is to find that perfect marriage for each story – the mode of expression that best carries the plot.
Reblogged this on LyonEditing.
Thank you for this! Such a helpful and insightful interview !
My question to Susannah is- Do you/publishers prefer different themes for short story collection or a collection of stories that primarily revolves around similar, if not same, theme?
Thanks for your question.
I can’t speak for publishers, but I think I prefer some sense of unity, ideally fairly tenuous. One of my favourite collections is Kyle Minor’s In The Devil’s Territory which is based around the shenanigans in a West Palm Beach Baptist church settlement. But within that community the stories cover decades and continents, young and old, wicked and genuinely devout. I think in a way it’s up to us as readers to truffle out the common themes within a collection. They don’t need to be overt.
I enjoy reading short stories. One of my favorite short stories of all time is ‘The gift of the Magi.”
Great interview,your questions are on point 🙂
Thankyou. Susannah is very generous with sharing her knowledge, and it was awesome working with her on the interview.