Ivy Bannister, award winning short stoy writer recently spoke at Dublin City Hall with authors Kate Kerrigan and Mary Malone as part of the Dublin Book Festival, 2011. The panel, discussing how short fiction can get you published, was chaired by Vanessa O’Loughlin. All the panelists were contributors to The Big Book of Hope, an anthology of short stories from over 40 of Irelands top authors, media personalities, business people and politicians compiled by Vanessa O’Loughlin to benefit The Hope Foundation and their work with the street children of Kolcatta. Here Ivy reveals her secrets for success.
Over the years, I’ve won various awards for individual short stories: among them, the Hennessy Award (the year that Ian McEwan was a judge); the Francis MacManus Award; and more than a dozen miscellaneous awards for short fiction in England and Ireland. But it was the Irish women’s magazines that blessed me with the awards that served me best. My first computer, an Amstrad 6128, was a prize from IT magazine for a Mills and Boon type story. Then Image magazine twice presented me with a thousand pounds for the top award in their fiction competition. What a thrill this was! It was the early 1990s, and I viewed these two thousand poundses as a wage: twenty pounds a week for two years.
So, how did I manage such pleasing success? Let me start by saying that writing to win is not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, writing as a profession is not for the faint-hearted! In his book called Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell states that there is no such thing as genius. What starts you on the road to success, he says, is 10,000 hours. That works out as roughly ten hours a day, seven days a week, over three years. Make no mistake about it, success in writing requires formidable application, perseverance in the face of constant rejection, relentless self-discipline – and it helps to have an independent income.
An addictive personality is good too. Anne Enright advises us to cultivate our constructive addictions, and to stamp out our destructive ones. I couldn’t agree with her more, although even at the age of sixty, I’m still struggling with this!
Back to writing winning stories: I’m going to offer up four things for you to think about.
Firstly] When possible, check out the judges. Taste is an infinitely varied thing, as any quick look at what people wear will prove. There’s no point in sending a Maeve Binchy type story to Martin Amis, or a Martin Amis story to Maeve Binchy – unless you want to provoke mutual loathing/ mutual incomprehension/ mutual hysterical laughter.
That first story that blessed me with my first annual wage was judged by Clare Boylan and Frank Ronan. I knew Clare Boylan’s work well, but Frank Ronan was new to me. So, for a week, I dropped into Waterstone’s and stood there reading Frank’s wonderfully titled book, The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton, then went outside and scribbled down adjectives. ‘Spiky’ is the only one I remember now, but I used it in my story – and took care to choose subject matter, language and the sense of dark comedy that I thought would appeal to both Clare Boylan and Frank Ronan.
Secondly] Your opening must be written with care. Get real here.
Any competition with a big prize attracts a big entry. The Francis MacManus numbers around a thousand entries a year. Imagine yourself as a judge entrusted with the business of drawing up a long list. You have 1000 (8 page) stories to read. Picture the stacks of these stories rising in mountains around your desk. 8,000 pages filled with… well, HOPE. But you’ve a living to make, the dog to be walked, and the usual needs for food, sex, sleep, and a splash of alcohol. So if any story’s going jump out of the pile onto the long list, it’s going to need to grab your attention from the start.
Because, in fact, what your first reader is looking for is a reason to discard your story, ASAP!
A whirl through the fiction in the recently published The Big Book of Hope (compiled by Vanessa O’Loughlin with Hazel Katherine Larkin) will give you plenty of ideas of what a good opening might be:
‘Katie Granger glanced anxiously over her shoulder, her finger hovering over the mouse.’
‘When my Spanx shrunk in the spin-dry on the day I was due to interview James Bond, I lost the will to live.’
These openings are, in different ways, SEDUCTIVE! You as an author need to fill your reader with desire – the desire to read more.
Thirdly] Revise, revise, revise. Writing a story is not like having a baby that comes out perfectly formed. Indeed, a story needs to be worked over amilliontimes, until – every word is the right word, in the right place. To start a story a year before next year’s competition is not too soon. You’ll need the time to take each draft to as high a level as you can, then put it away for a few weeks, before coming back to it again with a fresh eye.
Fourthly] Be that little bit different. As it happens, all stories have been told before. There are meant to be only seven basic plots. What matters is the way you tell the story. What you are looking for is your own voice, your own literary fingerprint. Be yourself, and catch the world as you alone see it.
There’s a kind of magic in great writing – something that thrills the reader, plunges her into an unexpected world, inspires her with a sense of possibility, graces her with insight. So let me go back to the idea of 10,000 hours. When you work at your writing day in, day out, this magic has an astonishing way of materialising quietly and stealthily.
God knows, it doesn’t come frequently, but then, it is all the more precious for being so rare. It’s this magic that keeps writers going (and readers too)!