2014 was a successful year for our judge, Annemarie Neary. She won the Michael McLaverty short story competition, achieved joint second place in the KWS Hilary Mantel international short story competition, and was joint runner-up in the Sean O’Faolain international short story competition.
Emma Mitchell, senior editor at Hutchinson (Penguin Random House UK), bought world English rights to her novel, Siren, as well as one other book. About Siren she said:
“This brilliant novel grabbed me right from the dramatic opening scene. Annemarie is an outstanding storyteller and builds the tension, page after page, to an exhilarating denouement. I’m delighted to have her for the Hutchinson list.”
Siren will be published in hardback by Hutchinson in spring 2016 followed by a Windmill paperback. The second novel will follow in Spring 2017.
- You’ve judged other flash fiction competitions in the UK. There are many different styles in the flash fiction genre, but can you tell us what stood out for you in the winning entries?
Apart from their quality — they were all very good — they stood out for different reasons: an assured voice with a perfectly pitched child viewpoint; the use of colour as an organizing metaphor to shocking effect; a familiar story reinvented through the eyes of a minor character; a prose poem that was like a beautiful iridescent seashell.
The truth is that there are no rules. Take my breath away, move me, make me laugh. You’re out to make a mark on the reader. 300 words, wham, that’s it. You can’t have too much plot in there, or too much description. If you start pulling rabbits out of hats, the story will seem too trite and the reader will feel cheated. If your language is careless, you’ll squander your 300 words (and your reader’s attention) very quickly.
A successful flash should leave something behind – an image, an emotion, a stain. The ending is important — it defines your story and its seed should be in there somewhere from the very start. Remember that you don’t necessarily need to close things off neatly. Sometimes the story will be held in quiet suspension. Sometimes the reader will be left to decide. It’s your story and your ending – just make it faithful to the rest of the story.
- Have you found entering competitions yourself over the years has helped you hone your writing skills?
Yes, definitely. I started sending work out about 7 years ago, and some early successes really helped me to keep going. And even if you don’t win a prize, I think shortlists are hugely important – to have your story plucked out from hundreds of others is a wonderful boost. And this is solitary work, you need a boost now and then!
However, it’s not just about raising confidence, I do think that competitions hone valuable skills. They encourage you to have a purposeful attitude to your work, whether that’s writing to a word count or deadline, or just finishing what you’ve started. Anyone can write a dozen beginnings, but if you don’t actually finish any of those stories then you’re ducking out of the craft element – to some extent, the ending is where the artistry is.
Of course, it’s good to just play around with language and ideas (and do keep a file of all those exercises in just taking a line for a walk – they might lead you somewhere interesting one day). But if you finish something, however short, then you’re on your way. That’s a huge achievement. You’re saying I made this. I gave shape to something. That’s the bottom line — learning to finish, and then sending your work out. And when the story comes back unloved and unrecognised, as it often will? A cold eye can work wonders. Does it need to be cut, expanded, merged with something else? Maybe it’s in the wrong form, or perhaps your point of view should change. Sometimes there’s nothing particularly wrong with it at all – each editor or judge is different. When you’re ready, dust it off and send it out again while you work on something new. Above all, persevere.
- You post stories by different authors on your site each week and it’s very interesting to read the variety. How do you make these choices? Are they selected from current favourites?
I really only discovered a love of short fiction when I started to write. About a hundred years ago, before becoming a lawyer, I studied literature at Trinity College Dublin. However, I was more interested in drama and poetry back then. So yes, most of these are fairly recent discoveries — writers I’ve come across through recommendations, or through the process of one book leading to another (or on Twitter, when I should be writing instead). I post them because I think others might enjoy them — and it also acts like a kind of treasure trove for me.
- Who are the short story writers you would return to again and again for inspiration?
I don’t tend to re-read stories as much as I’d like — there always seems to be so much more to explore. The short story writers I’d return to more often if I had the time are William Trevor for empathy and restraint, and Kevin Barry for voice and daring and sheer verve. I also love the dark brilliance of Patricia Highsmith’s short fiction as much as I do her novels. And if you are writing flash fiction you really should read Tania Hershman’s story ‘My Mother Was An Upright Piano’ — as deft an example of the form as you’re likely to find. As for current reading, having just finished the long haul of ‘The Goldfinch’ (which I loved) I’m reading short again and have just started ‘Legend of a Suicide’ by David Vann, already stunning.