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Why do we write short stories and who reads them?
Category: Writing
Tags: short stories readers writers

Why do we write short stories and who reads them?

The first question is easy to answer – in my case anyway – so I’ll start there.

  • Satisfaction comes more swiftly by writing a few hundred or a few thousand words than it does by completing a full-length novel.
  • Competitions give a chance to validate your work. Merely getting placed on a longlist can boost the spirit. No less the ego. As a writer lacking self-confidence, that gives me further motivation.
  • Writing 2000 words and winning one competition might earn you as much as writing a novel. It’s only a suspicion. I don’t know. Often we writers say we don’t write for money but it is kind of nice.

There are downsides. If the chances of success are there, the odds are high. And is it as satisfying to finish thirty or so short stories as it is to complete a full-length novel?

Although I write short fiction almost exclusively, 98% of my reading is novels, not short stories. I find the experience of full emotional engagement and immersion in the story, over several days or weeks, more satisfying. On the other hand, the high standard of writing required in a short story is hard to keep consistent in the longer form. Perhaps why I hesitate to go there myself.

So, who reads short stories?

  • Writers are more likely to read them than your average reader. Personally, before entering a competition I check out former winners if they’re published on the site. A quick scroll determines the style of writing – literary or perhaps a mixture. Often I flash through to the end in an effort to gauge how conclusive they are. If you call that reading.
  • Short story anthologies, apart from the most prestigious perhaps, are mostly read by friends and family members of the authors. Free downloads are added to the statistics but there is no proof on how many stories are actually read.
  • The general public is more likely to buy a collection of stories if written by a celebrity (Tom Hanks comes to mind) or by a best-selling author – personally, I love Joanne Harris’s “Jigs & Reels”

The latter are the kind of books that build the sales figures and, as a recent Guardian article suggests, “create the myth” that the short story is having a renaissance. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom.  

In France a company called Short Édition is trying to engage the public, both adult and younger readers, by offering free short stories in paper format in over 100 dispensers throughout France, mostly in railway stations. You can choose between a 1, 3 or 5 minute-long story.

This brilliant idea has caught on elsewhere. Francis Ford Coppola, a short story fan himself, has installed a dispenser in his Café Zoetrope in San Francisco. Other places in the States have followed suit, hoping that the novelty of reading fiction from a piece of paper will inspire children, and keep them – at least for a few minutes – from their digital screens.

Like any character in a good story, I’ve had a eureka moment. Writing this has inspired me to read more short stories and I’ve just ordered another collection

The Other Side of Writing Comps. Tags: Writing competitions readers

 

Early this year, in the dead of a Nova Scotia winter, I was invited to be a reader for the Annual Atlantic Writing Competition. This competition has been running for over 40 years under the auspices of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia  http://writers.ns.ca/awards-competitions.html  and draws submissions from all of Canada’s Atlantic provinces (Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.)

 

It is a competition (with $ prizes) designed to motivate emerging writers in six categories: creative non-fiction; novel, poetry, short story, writing for children, and  young adult novel. Interestingly, established writers can also enter - but only in a category that is new to them.

 

The submission category I was asked to read was poetry.  There were guidelines for the reader. In addition to reading, you were expected to provide constructive feedback (nothing negative, only motivating comments, suggestions for further reading maybe, and no marketing ideas.) I was indeed honoured. I had won a second place in this category in 2001. I had no idea just what a ride I was in for. Fortunately I had a ‘reader partner’ - more on that later.

 

 

 

I was presented with over 70 manuscripts that constituted collections of up to 5 poems from anonymous poets. My job was, together with my fellow reader, to come up with a shortlist of five to present to the judges. I read and reread the collections early in the mornings. Late at nights. On rainy days. On snowy days. On bright sunlit days. And out loud to hubby and the dogs as we drove down the coast on our many winter outings. I think that last approach was the clincher.

 

I came to the conclusion that I could only place the five I enjoyed the most on top of my pile. These were poems that had lines that stuck with me, that left me with visuals, that made me smile, that made me cry. That informed and educated me (eg - did you know that it takes a sloth a month to eat a lettuce leaf.) And poems that sang with a pure clear unique voice.

 

The poems that finished up at the bottom of my pile were those that were soaked in seIf pity, that were all about I, I, I, and me, me, me. I’m sorry emerging poets, it’s all very well to express yourselves in your work, but maybe you should try song writing instead.  I didn’t say that in my critique but suggested to these entrants that they try rewriting in the 2nd person - to involve and include the reader.  Wandering lonely as a cloud can’t always work in today’s world.

 

It was time to consult my fellow reader. I had never met him, and still haven’t. We discussed the poems via Skype video.  It didn’t take long to find we had come up with the same shortlist. Pretty amazing, really, considering he is a young guy and I am an ancient gal. We concluded that we’d selected the poems that really spoke to us. That resonated with us.

 

And we submitted our findings.

 

When the results of final judging were announced I was pretty chuffed to see that the winning order matched mine. It was a cathartic moment in my writing career in an odd sort of way. It gave me courage of my own convictions - something that I have often doubted.

 

Being a reader, a critic, a reviewer can, I believe, make better authors and poets of us. And here on WA we get loads of opportunities to hone that skill, don’t we?

 

 

 

 

 

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