Saturday, July 10, 2010

Oxfam Bookfest Readathon & More About Reading

This is me taking part in the Oxfam Bookfest 24-hour Readathon at Oxfam Books in Marylebone High Street in London last Monday. I don't normally like pictures of me at all, but I like this one, taken by the Oxfam photographer - an action shot! I read for 20 minutes - I had thought I'd read 3 flash stories and then realised I would need rather more than that so ended up reading 9. They seemed to go down well, I think, despite the traffic noise in the background and the general hubbub in the shop, and it was a real honour to be involved.

An added bonus was when I discovered that the reader after me was Kate Mosse, founder of the Orange Prize. I risked missing my bus back to Bristol to stay and hear her read, and then accosted her afterwards to thank her personally and tell her how being commended for the Orange Award for New Writers last year changed my life. It really did. She was lovely, gave me a hug - and was kind enough to mention me in her article about the Readathon in today's Guardian Review!

Talking about reading, I am in the thick of reading entries for the Sean O'Faolain short story competition (deadline July 31st, 3000 words max, no minimum, get your entries in now). It is quite a daunting task but certainly has taught me a thing or two about what it takes for a short story to grab me. As an illustration, I picked up the new Granta magazine today and intended to just flip through it before settling down. But I read the opening paragraph of the first story, Missing Out by Leila Aboulela and it was as if the story grabbed me by the throat. I had this overpowering physical sensation that I just couldn't stop reading. It was amazing, this had never happened to me quite like that. I kept reading and there was never any point at which the writer allowed me to stop. Just wonderful. 

I thought about this afterwards. What is it about words on a page that can actually compel the reader physically? I mean, the whole magazine is printed in the same font, the layout looks the same, but this particular arrangement of letters seized me somehow. This happens to me very very rarely and what I think I can put my finger on is that Aboulela threw me right into the action - no explanation, no preamble, no introduction, just two characters, a mother and a son, in the midst of doing what they were doing - and this is what drew me so far in in just that opening paragraph that I felt I was already inside the story and simply had to know what happened. The plot was also something that intrigued me, otherwise I am sure I wouldn't have continued. 

Of course, this experience is utterly subjective. I am certain that other people wouldn't have been grabbed in this way. Sadly, this has happened to me only extremely infrequently with all the short stories I have read this year, a number that has probably topped 300 so far, and with perhaps another 300 or more to go. So many writers seem to feel the need to introduce, set the scene, but the risk here is that your reader, who doesn't actually need to read this story, won't have the patience to wait for the action to start. Should you take that risk? 

My preference - and once again I say that I can only speak for myself - is for stories that don't do this. I prefer not to know, to preserve that sense of mystery that will keep me reading. I like to be made to think, "Ah, who is this? What's happening here?" rather than to find it all out at once. But there is a fine line between intriguing mystery and utter confusion - you need to drip-feed the reader enough so as not to cross over that line. I might make it through a page without really knowing exactly what is going on, but I might not be prepared to go for a 2nd page in this state - unless the voice telling the story is so completely irresistible!

So, no real "rules" there for writing a short story to please everyone! Just a few thoughts that came up for me as I plough on with my Mammoth Year of Short Story Reading. I'm incredibly lucky, I am the sole judge of the Sean O'Faolain short story competition which means I get to pick only the stories I love, the ones that grab me. I have definitely found several already, and looking forward to more - of any length up to 3000 words! (Do stick to the max word limit, stories that go over this limit won't be considered.)  Looking forwarding to being delighted by your entry - in an entirely anonymous way, of course!

1 comment:

Simon Kewin said...


Thanks - an invaluable and enlightening post. I do agree with you as regards starting in media res. I'm off to check on the competition you're judging now ...