I saw this event advertised some months back and followed the promo on social media. When the programme was announced I knew that many events, especially the workshops, would sell out quickly so I booked up the sessions I wanted via the early booking facility. I could only afford to go for one day and I found it hard to decide which day but in the end I plumped for Saturday. It is the first time the festival has been run and, as a short story aficionado, I wanted to learn as much as possible but also support the event, organisers and contributors.
I headed into London and made my way from Victoria station to Waterstones Piccadily on a shiny, black No 38 Routemaster, clutching a sandwich for the bus (breakfast) and one for lunch.
My first event was a workshop with Clare Wigfall, the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award. What attracted me to Clare’s event was that she likes to use characters that aren’t based on herself and says that she rarely writes from her own experience, preferring to jump around in time and place with them. Given that I am doing this in my WIP I wanted to see what I could learn.
The workshop was on idea and character development. We chose a photograph and then invented a character around someone in the image. Mine was (I discovered at the end) set near the Israel/Palestine border, taken in 2007, with the boys looking over Bethlehem.
I have done this exercise before but always enjoy it. Clare mentioned how photographs and short stories have a lot in common: both are snapshots in time, and with both we don’t know what has happened before or after the frame. One piece of advice she gave was to really take time to think about your stories and characters, and not put pressure on yourself, that thinking is as much part of the process as the actual writing.
The next event was The Short Story Gatekeepers with (from left to right in the photograph below, Ruby Cowling, author, the first on the left) Di Speirs from BBC radio, Jen Hamilton Emery from Salt Publishing, Vanessa Gebbie as Chair, Claire Shanahan from Booktrust, Carrie Kania from Conville & Walsh,and Jacques Testard from the White Review. Proceedings kicked off with a reading from Ruby who has recently won the White Review Short Story prize. If ever you wanted an example of a unique voice, Ruby had it in her reading.
Discussion started with what puts the panel off a submission. Cue discussion of spelling, syntax, grammar, clichés, and entry / submission requirements. The nugget here was that editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading your work so the writer has to give them reasons to read right to the end. They all mentioned how many entries always come in on the deadline day, suggesting either that we writers take huge care to get things right or are a nation of last minuters! What came across from the panel was how enthusiastic they all are about the short story. They agreed that it is helpful for writers to enter competitions and awards, that these can open doors and attract attention.
The third event was Stories from the Heart, and the panel and readers included (from left to right in the photograph below) Roshi Fernando, Mary Costello, Anita Sethi as chair, and Jacob Ross.
As soon as Roshi started talking about her collection, Homesick, and how all the stories are about people trying to find their identity, I knew I’d have to take a copy home with me.
The authors discussed their writing process, something I can listen to for hours. Some set out to achieve something specific with their writing (Jacob Ross said that he likes to challenge our moral compass) whilst Mary Costello says that she likes to let the stories emerge and gets no peace until she’s written them.
My last event was with Claire Keegan. She was talking to Paul McVeigh about her writing, doing a Q&A and a reading. For me this was the absolute highlight of the day. I hadn’t previously heard of Claire but when she started reading from her remarkable story, Foster, I found myself intermittently making sharp intakes of breath, laughing, glugging down lumps in my throat and nodding a lot. I sometimes find that readings don’t do much for me but I’m pretty sure that Claire’s blew the entire audience away. It is quite a personal thing to say [but a) it’s meant positively, and b) writing and reading one’s work is personal] but Claire’s voice, accent and intonation all gave the excerpt extraordinary life. When Paul introduced her, he said that Foster was the story that switched him back on to writing again after a long break. This was enough to arouse my curiosity. I love it when things touch us so deeply that we are propelled into action.
Some of the things that Clare said about writing made me hold my breath. I won’t include them all here. In text, they might seem ordinary but at the time they felt extraordinary and still do when I read my notes back. I was interested to hear that she always stays in the present with her characters and never knows what’s going to happen to them but that she gets to the point where she ‘feels an ending coming on’. She describes her writing as ‘physical prose’, saying that she likes to be her characters. She said she that all good stories are about pain and loss, or about someone wanting something. She said that desire enters the body through the eyes. Her advice when writing characters different to oneself, is to lock onto the set of desires influencing the person.
Paul McVeigh, the Festival Director, introduced all the events in the main area. The whole day he was running around, greeting people, making sure they were okay, and bringing out the best in them.
This was the first London Short Story Festival and what a stonking success it was. The spacious, multi-floor Waterstones venue worked well. It is, of course, a perfect and natural combo: bookshop and writing event. I can also highly recommend the banana loaf with chocolate chips.
If this year’s festival was anything to go by, I’m looking forward to next year’s event already.
Vicky Newham © 2014