Tuesday, 9 September 2014

I wish I could write a short story: announcing the 2015 CWA Margery Allingham Competition ... by Julia Jones

"I wish, I wish ...." Peter Duck 2014
If I had One Wish and wasn't allowed to use for anything altruistic (eradicating poverty & inequality, enforcing world peace etc) I think I would wish to learn how to write short stories. I've never wanted this before. I'm a very quick and gulpy reader, too impatient (in the past) to savour the subtle pleasures of a good short story. These are the stories that force you to close the book, turn off the e-reader and let them linger in your mind. I've always been over-eager to race on, read more. 

Occasionally binge-reading works even for short stories. As a child I read obsessively  MauriceGriffiths's Ten Small Yachts, his 1933 follow-up to his masterpiece, The Magic of the Swatchways (1932) I read that book too but without the same compulsion. Ten Small Yachts told me story after story (they were true) of MG's relationships with his successive boats. I would end one story satisfied, momentarily, that MG and his current yacht had survived whatever storms or groundings fate had thrown at them but I'd see, from the next page, that he'd proved faithless and moved on to vessels new. Horrified, I would need to read that next story – despite the fact that the edges of each page were already grubby with the dirt from my under-washed hands. (I was always on Peter Duck when I read Ten Small Yachts. It didn't really work at home.)

I once met MG when I was a teenager
and was too overwhelmed to do more than
blush and stutter.
I suppose the ultimate exemplar of the compulsive short story collection is the Arabian Nights. It's no good reading just one of Scheherazade's tales, it's imperative to reassure oneself that the next one's equally good in order to be certain that the narrator will survive. As an adult I now realise that the essence of Scheherazade's art is that she only began one story each night, promising to finish it on the next occasion. She should therefore be the patron saint of instalment fiction but I don't think I've ever seen the stories presented in that way. I read her as a child with that terrifying framing device so firmly fixed in my brain that I had the perfect reason NOT to stop reading and turn out the light but to carry on devouring story after story for as long as my eyes stayed open.

But how many short story collections are there that sate the greedy reader? I almost always turn to Margery Allingham when I want to know the answer to anything (anything non-nautical, that is). I guzzle-read my 1950 Penguin paperback Mr Campion and Others enjoying each clever puzzle neatly resolved but then I admit to feeling slightly sick – as if I've binged my way though an entire box of chocolates. Allingham herself  made it clear that these were purely entertainment stories, written for expatriate readers ofThe Strand magazine who wanted reassurance that everything in England was still The Same. Too many dowagers and damsels in distress and dear old-young, unobtrusive Campion blinking misleadingly behind his specs.

The puzzle short story can probably be taken in bulk if entertainment is all that's required -- and if the cleverness is really clever. I've romped merrily through volumes of Sherlock Holmes short stories, requiring only to be reassured that maestro will solve the mystery again ... and again ... and again. Those puzzle shorts don't stick in the memory for long – not in mine, anyway. Reading Conan Doyle or Christie or Allingham in pure detective mode is essentially a passive experience. I know the writer is going to tell me whodunnit so I mentally sit back and wait for them to deliver.

Margery Allingham at work
I've re-read two other Allingham collections recently. The Allingham Casebook (1969) was compiled by her widower Pip Youngman Carter. The Allingham Minibus (1973) was put together by Margery's sister Joyce. Neither can be read without pauses and this, I now feel, is good. The stories that lingered longest are not the puzzle tales or even the Charlie Luke police procedurals (the 'Coppershop Tales') for all their fine moments of psychological insight. The stories that persuaded me to stop and reflect are a varied selection. Some are fey ('She Heard it on the Radio'), some are melancholy ('The Correspondents'), some preposterous ('Bird Thou Never Wert') and others vicious little studies of bullying and abuse ('The Psychologist' & 'They Never Get Caught'). Both of these last two are packaged in Allingham's 'mystery' box of crime and detection but the insights on the way are easily as important as the surprises at the end.

Presentation of
the CWA Margery Allingham
short story prize
Since I've been part of the Authors Electric group I've learned to appreciate many other varieties of short story as so many of my colleagues write them so expertly -- and apparently effortlessly -- as part of their professional repertoire. I wish that I could do the same (there's an AE short story anthology coming up) but as with every form of writing the challenge is to discover one's own voice. A highlight of the past year has been my involvement with the Margery Allingham short story competition which is run in partnership with the Crime Writers Association and offers £1000 prize for an UN-published short story. The entries are deliberately anonymous – Christie, Conan Doyle and Julia Jones could all be judged on equal terms. The 2014 winner, Martin Edwards, is a knowledgeable and accomplished short story writer and anthologist. His winning tale 'Acknowledgements' uses a subtly comic narrative voice that Allingham herself would have relished. 

I've been over to the CWA website and have taken a look at the other writers who were shortlisted from over three hundred entrants in 2014. Some are at an early stage in their writing careers, others are novelists or playwrights experimenting with this different form. They are all putting fingers to keyboards and having a go. Now it's September and the 2015 competition is underway. I'm too close to the Allingham world to be involved even if I pulled my deerstalker right down to my nose and donned an exuberant Belgian moustache, but I wish I were one of those entrants. The infallible way to learn about short stories must to stop reading (for a while) and start writing. Perhaps I should take myself back to Peter Duck and construct a scenario where there are Ten Small Yachts and one will be sunk every night if I don't find the magic words which will keep her afloat ...


For more information about the CWA Margery Allingham Short Story competition please visit the CWA website http://thecwa.co.uk/debuts/short-story-competition/

10 comments:

madwippitt said...

Go for it! And good luck!
I love short stories - some of the most memorable stories I've read were of the short sort: possibly Ray Bradbury's The Sound of Thunder being the one that has lingered longest with me ...

JO said...

I love short stories, when they fit in with other stuff - so if I've hours to spend reading I'd rather have a novel, but for stations, airports etc short stories are wonderful.

Bill Kirton said...

I love the form, too, Julia. It's so flexible, so accommodating. I think it was maybe Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday that started it for me (although I'm not sure the tales really qualify as short stories since they're held together so tightly by his themes and the wonderful characters, but that's how I remember them.
I'm actually surprised that there aren't more anthologies and it hasn't yet taken over as the ideal form for our now-now-now age. Or maybe it has but so quickly that I didn't notice.

Dennis Hamley said...

The short story is a wonderful form, immensely satisfying to read and soul-expanding for the author when one comes off properly. The short story properly executed has the formal perfection of a string quartet (theme, development, resolution - or thesis, antithesis, synthesis). Jan Mark called it 'virtuoso writing' and I don't think she was far wrong. You should try them, Julia. You'd be great!

Nick Green said...

It's such a hard form, I agree. I did write one recently, but it was a total accident. I find them so much longer to write than novels...

Like Karen, I love a good science fiction short story. It might even be the best form for hard SF. You don't need to get bogged down with character, you can make it almost a though-experiment for the ideas and concepts.

Nick Green said...

That's 'thought' experiment. :-(

Lydia Bennet said...

Hurray for Julia Jones and the Margery Allingham comp for crime short stories! Great to hear it's back this year and hopefully will be every year. Iv'e been commissioned to write a crime short story for an anthology to be published next year, in some very august company, which will be new for me as it's about the only genre I've not 'done'. Also I'm just running some crime fiction writing workshops so will pass this on. Short stories, especially in the crime genre, are very different from novels, you can do something different but also you don't need to try and cram a whole novel plot into a few pages - it can be more about the situation, what happens to someone - a close look at a smaller area. I've been giving my workshoppers some prompts which are good for launching short stories as well as novels.

Lydia Bennet said...

Hurray for Julia Jones and the Margery Allingham comp for crime short stories! Great to hear it's back this year and hopefully will be every year. Iv'e been commissioned to write a crime short story for an anthology to be published next year, in some very august company, which will be new for me as it's about the only genre I've not 'done'. Also I'm just running some crime fiction writing workshops so will pass this on. Short stories, especially in the crime genre, are very different from novels, you can do something different but also you don't need to try and cram a whole novel plot into a few pages - it can be more about the situation, what happens to someone - a close look at a smaller area. I've been giving my workshoppers some prompts which are good for launching short stories as well as novels.

julia jones said...

Wish I could come to your workshop then!

julia jones said...

Yes, please, do share the Marge Allingham / CWA announcement. Competition is open now - closes next spring ...