Short Story Writers: Perseverance is Key by Billy O’Callaghan | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Tips for Winning Short Stories

Billy O'Callaghan

Over the years I have facilitated many creative writing workshops, almost always with a focus on the short story. Mainly, this is because short stories are my true love. As a form, it has (in my opinion) everything: it boasts concision, relatability, an essence close to poetry and an impact that can insinuate or explode. For a beginning writer, the short story can look easy – the entirety of the thing, at least in terms of plot, can fit in your mind in a way that novels can’t, so its horizons are almost always in sight. And starting out, especially for those of us laden with insecurity and even thoughts of inadequacy, whether due to background, lack of education or any of a dozen other reasons for dread, length restrictions can be curiously comforting, and the idea of being able to finish what we start is exactly the kind of vital encouragement that keeps us moving forward.

Ireland today has an active – and even burgeoning – literary journal scene, the likes of The Stinging Fly, Banshee, Gorse, The Penny Dreadful and Crannóg being just the tip of an ever-growing iceberg. At the moment, I am acting as fiction editor of Southword, a beautiful twice-yearly print journal, published by the Munster Literature Centre, that has been running since 2001. And then there are all the contests, the free-to-enter ones like the Francis MacManus Award, the Molly Keane Award and the Hennessy Awards, and the plethora of prizes that ask entry fees. Just submitting to these markets would keep most writers busy for a fair portion of the year. But it is also important to remember that as buoyant as Ireland’s literary scene might be, it is still just a small splash in a very large ocean. And with the internet at our disposal, there’s no reason why writers shouldn’t stretch out a bit and see how far their voices will carry.

From early on, because what I was writing tended to fall well beyond the 2000 or 3000 word maximum length limit insisted on by most of the home-grown venues, I sent a lot of my stories to the States. And while a number of Irish places refused to consider simultaneous submissions (stories that are sent to different journals at the same time – the writer’s way of spreading the bet), the Americans understood that it’s a numbers game and were generally far more accommodating, under the fair-enough proviso that they would be informed as soon as the story was accepted elsewhere.

Submitting stories is not for the sensitive heart. Rejection is almost the default position. And, especially for writers just starting out, it can be not only disheartening but devastating. Which is why educating yourself on some realities does help. First of all, a good journal might receive a thousand stories for each issue and can only accept five or six, not all of which will necessarily come from the slush-pile. Many of the submissions will simply lack the requisite quality, and a portion of them will fail to comply with the journal’s submission guidelines, but plenty of good stories also fail to make the cut for reasons as arbitrary as the editor’s personal taste (assuming the work even gets to the editor); because the themes of the work may have already been touched on by a story in the previous issue; or because the journal has already met its quota of first (or third) person narratives for that issue. Good, well-written stories get overlooked all the time, which is why perseverance is essential, and why it is so necessary to spread your work far and wide. In such a hit-and-miss business, you can’t take no as the final word. I’ve had stories rejected out of hand that were then accepted by far more prestigious journals or went on to win good prizes. You simply can’t give up. If you’ve done your best in the writing, you are obliged to give the story every chance.

Short story writers who haven’t received tonnes of rejection are either setting their bar too low, or not submitting enough outside of their comfort zones. But it’s the reality. Forget networking. That gets some people so far, but who wants to get anywhere that way? Instead, spend the time reading and writing. Focus on improving. While only the certain few can win the Booker Prize, we all set our own bar in terms of what for us constitutes success. A step forward from where we stand is a step in the right direction. And I’ll repeat, there’s joy for the hard worker. It is easy to think that certain journals are beyond the reach of most of us, that only the right connections can open certain doors, and while there is undeniably an element of truth in this, there’s also little point in worrying about it. You have to keep hoping, keep dreaming and, most of all, keep trying. I don’t have an agent, but I’ve made it into plenty of good journals and magazines, into the likes of Ploughshares, The Saturday Evening Post and The Kenyon Review. So, it’s not impossible.

Though I submit work far less nowadays, for several years I set myself the goal of amassing a hundred rejections a year. That sounds a bit fatalistic but my thinking was that hitting such a number meant I’d put in a good and honest shift of work, and also that if I received that many refusals I was bound to get a few acceptances, too. I didn’t always make it to the hundred, but it wasn’t for the want of trying. Some years were better than others, but because I always had a few irons in the fire I always felt I had a chance. And that was enough to keep me going.

(c) Billy O’Callaghan

About The Boatman and Other Stories:

The breathtaking short story collection from the Costa-shortlisted Irish writer.

In these twelve quietly dazzling, carefully crafted stories, Billy O’Callaghan explores the resilience of the human heart and its ability to keep beating even in the wake of grief, trauma and lost love.

Spanning a century and two continents – from the muddy fields of Ireland to a hotel room in Paris, a dingy bar in Segovia to an aeroplane bound for Taipei – The Boatman follows an unforgettable cast of characters. Three gunshots on the Irish border define the course of a young man’s life; a writer clings fast to a star-crossed affair with a woman who has never been fully in his reach; a fisherman accustomed to hard labour rolls up his sleeves to dig a grave for his child; a pair of newly-weds embark on their first adventure, living wild on the deserted Beginish Island.

Ranging from the elegiac to the brutally confrontational, these densely layered tales reveal the quiet heroism and gentle dignity of ordinary life. O’Callaghan is a master celebrant of the smallness of the human flame against the dark: its strength, and its steady brightness.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Billy O’Callaghan is a novelist and short story writer and was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974.

His most recent novel, the critically acclaimed ‘My Coney Island Baby’, was published in 2019 by Jonathan Cape (and Harper in the U.S.), and has been translated into eight languages. Recent editions have appeared or are forthcoming from: Grasset (France), Ambo Anthos (Netherlands), btb Verlag (Germany), Paseka (Czech Republic), Jelenkor (Hungary), Ediciones Salamandra (Spain), L’Altra Editorial (Catalonia), and Guanda (Italy).
A new short story collection, ‘The Boatman, and Other Stories’, was published in January 2020 by Jonathan Cape (UK) and is forthcoming in April from Harper (US).

His work has earned him numerous awards, including two Bursary Awards for Literature from the Arts Council of Ireland and, in 2013, a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for the Short Story of the Year. The title story of his new collection, ‘The Boatman’, was a finalist for the Costa Short Story Award in 2017.

His short stories have appeared in more than 100 magazines and literary journals around the world, including: Agni, the Bellevue Literary Review, the Chattahoochee Review, the Fiddlehead, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Kenyon Review, the Kyoto Journal, the Los Angeles Review, the London Magazine, Narrative, Ploughshares, Salamander and the Saturday Evening Post.

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