Thursday, August 29, 2019

Short Stories

I had a bit of a flurry of getting short stories published a few years ago, but nothing in the last year or so. Strangely the last story I had published was picked up for Best British Short Stories 2018. I think I've lost the thread of who is publishing what, but doing a bit of writer's admin, I've found I've got about half a dozen completed ones that are on the publishable (i.e. short) side. A couple of these I've sent out to competitions but they're not really competition stories, as they're all a little downbeat, introspective and philosophical. I seem to have a few unnamed protagonists, in faceless towns, and perhaps that's too colourless for some.

Going back a bit, my short story writing has never fitted into a particular theme or groove or even single voice.

There are some commonalities. I write a lot of two-handers, where two characters (usually, but not always, two male characters) are interacting with each other in different or unusual ways. I'm interested in the way that men interact: as something more than acquaintance, but not quite friends. One of those male traits that seems to be undervalued is how often we rub along together, finding some commonality - drink, football, or simply the group - where personality wise there wouldn't be much in common; or even a certain symbiotic relationship. I realise this isn't exactly a radical theme, how many stories are about the master and the pupil for instance? but its interesting that I draw back to it. In a reversal (or confirmation) of Alison Bechdal's Bechdal test (two women in a scene talking about something other than a man), its rare that two men in my stories would talk about a woman. In "The Good Citizen" which was published in VLAK magazine, two Asian men become wary friends, as they live in the same rooming house. The one is trying to keep his head down, the other is becoming entepreneurial, the misunderstanding is the tragedy at the heart of the story. In "Life Grabs" (from Best British Short Stories), the two men have only a business relationship - the man whose son went missing, and the man in the computer shop who helps him piece together what happened. These easy/uneasy friendships are at the heart of how many interact, its transactional as much as anything. When I meet an old friend we talk about old friends we have lost touch with; its not that we were ever really close, but we want to pretend that the transactional friendship meant more than it did.

Another theme of my stories has been the hidden, or mysterious - something on the edge of believability. Sometimes it has a Borgesian text (as in The Four Hills of Manchester, which also acts as the title of a book extracted from in the story), other times its the location (as in Last Testament of a Lighthouse Keeper, where the protagonist is on an island, alone, his past a mystery.) In The Cat (from Unthology 4) its left open whether the cat of the title is real or a metaphor. Perhaps its both. Occasionally its been deliberately fantastical, Aliens landing in Ashton IKEA in The IKEA in Ahston Can Be Seen From Space, or a drone that is personified in Dear Papa.

Longer stories have used real events or have a parallel with what's going on in the world. Finding a way into writing about contemporary politics I've often approached things from a different angel  - here it is the structure of the story that helps. I've often talked about stories having a slow reveal, where the truth about the story has been there from the start but its approached sideways.

But more recent stories have been more introverted I think: the character is often alone, and the thing that is happening to them they are unaware of. They are less plot, more philosophical. I think perhaps I need to improve their saleability by developing the plot a bit more. Part of the problem is how Manchester has changed - it used to be a city I could easily write about, but increasingly I find it hard to describe - there's nothing memorable about its sleek glass towers, its chain bars and restaurants.

So here I am, writing about writing, rather than writing... procrastination of the highest order!

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