Short Story Tips from A Master Storyteller: Donal Ryan | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Tips for Winning Short Stories

Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

Last week news that Booker shortlisted Donal Ryan had won the hugely prestigious Guardian First Book Award was announced, and with a special interest in short stories, as sponsor of the Short Story of the Year Award, we asked Donal for his top tips. He told us:

  • Read as much as possible before committing yourself to the task of writing. We have a massive history in Ireland of short story writing, we’ve always been the best in the world at it, and the tradition is being kept in rude health by the likes of Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Mike McCormack, Colin Barrett and countless others. Publications like The Stinging Fly are an outlet and a showcase for talent.
  • The best basic advice I ever received about short story writing is to write your first draft in longhand. This forces at least one full rewrite as you transcribe to your pc or laptop.
  • I also always bear John Boynes’s advice in mind  – to let my subconscious move a step ahead of my conscious mind while writing, while heeding Kevin Barry’s warning that fluency can be easily mistaken for inspiration.
  • Don’t worry about the structure of your first draft, just get your idea out and shuffle things around later.
  • If a short story idea comes to you while you’re out somewhere, try to make a note, or send yourself a text or voicemail about the idea. Countless times I’ve had sudden ideas while driving, and have forgotten them before I’m even finished congratulating myself on my brilliance. Although I’m not advising anyone to make notes while driving. Maybe pull over first. But not too suddenly.
  • Forget about everyone else while you’re writing and speak in your own voice. Don’t try to get fancy, just tell your story. Start with what you know, and when you’re feeling more confident, start exploring what you don’t know. Divest yourself of self-consciousness. Write like no one’s ever going to read it.

Ryan wrote the first draft of The Spinning Heart in the summer of 2010, as economic crash devastated the country. Told as a set of interlocking short stories, Ryan summons up a chorus of voices struggling to make ends meet in a village near Limerick: an out-of-work foreman, a single mother living on a ghost estate, a former apprentice leaving for Australia to look for work. These first-person accounts explore the scrabble for work in austerity Ireland and the bitter conflicts which blight families from generation to generation.

Speaking on Today fm’s The Last Word with’s Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin and New Island editor Eoin Purcell last week, Ryan revealed that his third book is also a collection of short stories…another one to watch!

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

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