I blame Frank O’Connor and my English teacher for piquing my interest in the short story. At school, English and Science were the two subjects in which I felt relatively secure. Mr Keating, my English teacher, was a kind, softly spoken man and one afternoon he opened my ears to Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’. There was a collection of O’Connor’s stories at home but I had hardly glanced at it until that afternoon, sometime in the early seventies, when I was drawn into the moral quicksand of O’Connor’s masterpiece.
I’m not the first person to note that writing short stories is more complicated than is often imagined. The problem lies, I feel, in the word ‘short’. It appears to imply easier – as in, for example, a ‘short run’ compared to a marathon. Whereas, in fact, a good short story is difficult to write. Moreover, short story writing can soak up time, and ultimately a good story idea can fall flat – this realisation striking you well after you have spent quite a long time exploring the story’s possibilities.
However, these considerations aside, short story writing is an excellent discipline to test and hone your writing skills. Even a moderately accomplished story requires of its writer competency in construction, characterisation and style. Moreover, it’s quite feasible to work on a number of different stories at the same time, which is particularly useful if you want to explore even one aspect of writing – say voice. You can make multiple efforts using different narrative voices and each attempt will teach you something about what you’re writing and the limits of your story.
Another aspect in favour of the short story is the number of reputable journals looking for new short work. If you get a story published in one of these journals, it is, I believe, fair to say that you have reached a milestone. What, though, if your work isn’t selected for publication? Does that mean that your story is un-publishable, a failure even? Far from it. Competition is intense and decisions about what goes in or doesn’t will often reflect the editorial perspective and not necessarily the quality of your work. However, rejection is an important opportunity for you to ask questions of the story you have entered. Could it be better? Is there something missing? Are you absolutely sure about the story? Could it be tighter? If you have any doubts at all, then it probably means that the story needs some reworking. You have to be ruthless.
Short story competitions are another important stepping stone. There are a range of competitions in Ireland and internationally where the standard is high and demanding. Enter, and if your work is longlisted or shortlisted, that is significant endorsement of your ability and talent. It is certainly confirmation that your writing effort is moving in the right direction.
You might well ask why is being told that your writing is moving in the right direction a good thing? Well, for this important reason, as I see it. There are overnight successes in the writing business and we’ve all read about them. But for many writers – I would argue the majority – making a breakthrough, even a moderate one, takes time and willpower; perseverance if you like. It’s not easy to keep going. Believe me when I say it is nice, once in a while, to have someone say, ‘We really like your story and we would like to publish it …’
For me winning the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award in 2016 was an important achievement. I had held the prize in high regard and the story I won with, ‘Lake Disappointment’, mattered to me. Importantly though, winning also opened a number of doors. Some led nowhere but one led somewhere important. I submitted a near completed novel to Blackstaff Press and To Keep A Bird Singing was published last year. The sequel, A River of Bodies, is being published this month.
One other thing is worth noting, I feel. Way back when I was starting out, I came runner-up to the renowned Michel Faber in the Ian St James Short Story Award. I was very happy to have done so well and a while later I got a call from none other than the late David Marcus. He is regarded rightly as a legend in Irish publishing – and many established writers cite him as the one who gave them their break. David had heard about my success in the Ian St James and asked to see my other work. I only had two more finished stories and a couple of other, half-baked drafts – I knew myself that it just wasn’t enough. In due course he got back to me confirming as much. Importantly though, he added, ‘Keep going. You have a voice.’
Although it would be quite a while before I got a chance like that again, the experience with David Marcus made me realise that I needed to focus on longer work and that I needed to get that in shape as soon as possible. So my advice to new and aspiring writers is by all means focus on the short story. It is a difficult form but it is where you can make yourself a writer. True, it is a highly competitive area but it does offer opportunities and these must be seized. The trick in the process is finding your voice, while finding a story that the publishing industry wants.
(c) Kevin Doyle
About A River of Bodies:
None of us involved in this are safe, do you realise that? I don’t feel safe. Since I stepped off the fuckin’ plane in Cork last night, I haven’t felt safe.
Noelie Sullivan, disaffected ex-punk and grassroots activist, has every reason to be afraid. His investigation into Danesfort Industrial School and the boys who went missing from it is attracting attention. Special Branch want him to disappear and he’s made enemies of the powerful Walsh and Donnelly families.
But Noelie is determined to get to the truth. He won’t walk away. At least that’s what he tells himself until his friends and family start paying the price.
A River of Bodies is the gripping sequel to To Keep A Bird Singing and the second part of Kevin Doyle’s Solidarity Books trilogy.
Order your copy of A River of Bodies online here.