Friday, 18 October 2013

A Reader

Being a reader for short story competitions means I have to read a helluva lot of stories. There are many ways to start a short story - scene setting; conflict; mystery; and a narrator who speaks to you are just a few. I can usually tell from the first paragraph whether or not the story is going to work. I am also a reading detective and am often disappointed if from that first paragraph, I have worked out the plot of the whole. If I am reading for pleasure and am not hooked by that first paragraph, I can decide not to read any further, if I'm reading as a judge then I have to read on.

I am also a trained 'reader'. I underwent The Reader Organisation's, 'Read to Lead Training', some time ago. The Reader Organisation brings people and literature together, not just any old literature but 'great' literature. They use an innovative 'shared reading' model that brings people together for weekly read aloud reading groups. Stories and poems are listened to, thoughts and experiences are shared, personal and social connections are made. I recently ran a 'Make Friends with a Book', session in the restaurant of the hospital where I work. It was lunchtime and packed with nurses, doctors, other NHS staff and members of the public. I chose to share, 'Tea with the Birds', by Joanne Harris. A powerful story about loneliness, isolation and mental illness. It also happened to be Mental Health Awareness Week so it was the perfect story in the perfect setting.

I suspect that as Canadian author Alice Munro has just won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, there will now be a revival of the short story form. Sarah Hall, winner of the BBC National Short Story award says: 'My feeling is that the short story is, if not gloriously ascendant in Britain, then airborne and at reasonable altitude'. And I agree, it has been a struggle but in all honesty the short story form has been slowly clawing its way back from banishment for some time. It was the 10th anniversary of the short story festival, 'Small Wonder' that is held every year in September, at one of my favourite places, Charleston - the former home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Having just completed another batch of short stories for the Greenacre Writers competition, I've been questioning: What makes a good story? I may change my mind in a few days but this week I am saying it is the subject. There will be those among you who say, any subject can work as long as it is written well, and yes this is probably true. For me though, it is what is at the heart of the story that is important. I have to be interested in what I am reading about as well as how the story has been written. And that of course comes down to the telling, the voice, the emotion, and often a funny little title. So it is not the first line that must grab your reader, it is the title. Put everything into that title - intrigue, emotion, strange voice, and if possible even humour.

'Tea with the birds' - what does this title conjure up for you?

Sarah Hall's winning story 'Mrs Fox', is about a woman who turns into a fox much to her husband's bewilderment. Here's an extract from the story: Mrs Fox

Do you have a favourite short story?