We’re so excited to share with you our six-week online course, Writing Short Stories, led by award-winning short story author Cynan Jones. Cynan Jones won the Betty Trask award for his novel The Long Dry and he won BBC National Short Story Award in 2017, for which he is on the 2019 judging panel (shortlist to be announced on Friday 6th September 2019). His short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies and in journals and magazines including Granta and the New Yorker.
Here Cynan talks about all things short fiction: from his reading recommendations to his top tips for aspiring short story writers…
You won the BBC National Short Story Prize for your story The Edge of the Shoal in 2017 and now you’re on this year’s judging panel for the prize. How does it feel to come full circle? And what do you look for when reading short stories for competitions?
Judging the competition has certainly pointed out what an extraordinary thing it was to win. Ultimately, all a writer can do is write as strongly as they can, and work on a story until it’s the best possible piece they can produce. What happens to that story is a product of the work and attention put in. If nothing else, I know I’ve really worked hard to write strongly. In many ways then, it feels less of a circle and more of a starting point! What next? I’m always aiming to challenge myself.
The sense a writer has challenged him or herself is in the best stories too. You read great pieces and think, ‘How!? How did they write that?’ Such stories feel both totally impossible to write, but as if they couldn’t be written better.
When reading stories for competitions I look for that. Stories that take narrative risks and show the technical ability to make those risks pay off. That’s much rarer than you think.
What are some of your favourite short stories? And what makes a compelling story?
So many! My father gave me the Collected Stories of Dylan Thomas when I was fifteen, and that opened my mind to the fact stories can be about apparently ‘normal’ situations, and situations and settings I felt I knew.
Reading Hemingway’s Men Without Women blew me away as a sixth former; and a short while later Steinbeck’s The Long Valley – astonishing, full of humanity, and so adept.
Then, to be honest, I read a lot of pedestrian short stories and went off the form for a time. That changed when someone directed me to Raymond Carver. I still remember feeling physically tense at the brilliance of the prose.
I read a glut of short stories when I was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award in 2013 and found Claire Keegan, James Salter’s collection Last Night, Wells Tower, Tom Lee’s Greenfly…
Too many! Fast forward to more recently.
I read Roald Dahl’s collection Over to You a few months ago. It took me weeks to get over some of the stories. Right now I’m in the middle of Annie Proulx’s Close Range. She can do things with short stories I’ve not seen anyone else manage…
These are all collections, so perhaps I’m dodging the answer somewhat… Some individual pieces, plucked from the air: Callan Wink’s Breatharians, Ray Bradbury’s The Fog Horn, Ted Hughes’ The Deadfall…
Every one of the collections and pieces I’ve mentioned are compelling for the same reason: the writing is so appropriate to where the writer wants to take you you don’t even feel it. You’re simply transported.
What initially inspired you to start writing in short fiction?
I think several elements led me to shorter forms. Firstly, the thing of reading a story from start to finish in one sitting. I loved that as a reader and – as most of us are copyists when we first start writing – wanted to replicate that experience.
I also think that, even in my initial attempts at serious writing, the way my prose hit the page lent itself to shorter form. I aimed always to put a picture down as simply and powerfully as I could and relied on the reader to think and feel in response. That meant I didn’t write a great deal of explanation or back story, or direct a reader how to react. In itself, that makes for fewer words.
In retrospect, perhaps too there were constraints as to how long I could really dedicate to the process of writing when I first started. I usually had about three months for writing at the beginning of the year before the freelance work I did at the time really got going. Perhaps that made me feel I needed to write something I could start and finish in one block. (Which loops back to the first thing I mentioned here, about the immersive experience of starting and finishing something in one go.)
Your latest work Stillicide, is a collection of twelve short stories commissioned by BBC Radio 4 that will air through the summer this year. Audio is a very popular way for people to consume stories, but as an author what’s it like hearing your own words read back to you?
In regards Stillicide, I don’t know! I won’t hear the pieces until they’re broadcast, (starting on August 11th) which feels a little strange. In regards other stories of mine I’ve heard read, it can be thrilling or not. If the voice and pace and power aren’t right it’s hard to listen.
I should also say that in general I write to not be read out. Most acts of reading are ‘from-the-page-to-the-mind’ so I use language very specifically to suit this contract.
When it comes to writing something that is to be broadcast, like Stillicide, I give the language a different bias.
We’re thrilled to have you on board as the teacher of our brand-new Writing Short Stories course. What’s your favourite part of teaching?
Probably how teaching makes you dig into your own process and really work to understand it so you can pass what you know on.
Other than the help of the world-class authors I read, I taught myself to write. Because of that, it’s only since teaching that I’ve really dissected exactly what it is I do, and that’s helped me take things further.
What was your favourite part of writing and filming the course?
Trombones. Don’t ask me to explain that. People will just have to sign up for the course to find out… unless they leak the footage, of course…
Could you share your top three tips for writers who want to start writing short stories?
Work at the craft.
Don’t write to be published.
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