Please welcome to my blog my first-ever virtual guest, the very talented Teresa Stenson. Teresa has clocked up some impressive publication credits and competition placings with her short stories, including the WillesdenHerald and the Bridport Prize. But she joins me today to talk about The Guardian’s Summer Short Story Competition, an annual contest that has resulted in shortlistings for us both – Teresa last summer, myself in 2009. We thought it might be interesting / useful to discuss our experiences of this competition and the way we approached the stories we submitted.
Dan: Welcome to the blog, Teresa. Let’s start with something fairly basic. The most obvious difference between the 2009 competition and the subsequent years was the introduction of a theme. What was the theme in 2011 and how did it influence your writing? For instance, did you write Things Which Are Not True specifically for the competition, or was it a story you already had that just happened to fit the theme?
Teresa: It was a story I had that happened to fit. I’m not very good at writing to a prescribed theme, so if I’d sat down to “Write a story about a holiday” I wouldn’t have managed it. But I’d had this story, well – this scene – in my WIP folder since 2007 about a woman in an office job going on holiday and no one taking any notice and I knew I liked it, or her, and always felt there was something in it. And I wanted to send something to the competition. So it was a fairly practical process really, about 2 weeks before the deadline I looked through my folder and thought – okay, here’s an element of ‘
this could work. I developed it, added some words, and a sort-of ending. It actually
ended up being an 11th hour submission. I’m not sure if you’ll
remember but the deadline was the day we came back from our writing weekend in June
(Dan and I are part of a writing group who meet a couple of times a year) and I
spoke about how I had this story for The
Guardian but I wasn’t sure if it was good enough, if the ending was right,
and, my usual conundrum – if it was a ‘story’ or still just a scene. But I decided
to go with it and a few weeks later came the good news.
D: I do remember it. Sometimes it’s good to have that pressure of being right up against the deadline, although it’s not good for the blood pressure. When it’s not a simple matter of running out of time, do you have any particular way of knowing when a story is ready to send out?
T: I think there’s a time you have to stop editing and tweaking, and at that point, the story might not even be the best it can be – there just isn’t any more you can do for it right now. I always worry about taking the energy out of the writing. Sometimes you just need to leave it and see what it’s like in a few weeks. It might be saying things you don’t want it to say, but you’re too close to realise. This all sounds a bit odd. Really, I believe that you know when something is worth being published and read, it has a truth to it, not in a real-life-story way, it just feels like an honest part of you. Then it’s ready to go out.
D: What about the way the story came together? Did you ‘get’ the structure at the first attempt, or is it something that evolved over numerous drafts?
T: It’s not a story I pulled apart, re-drafted, or edited a lot. It’s in a fairly raw form, quite close to what it was in 2007. I think that’s down to the ‘voice’ of Coral, which is where it all began. Specifically it began with her saying ‘I’m just going on holiday for a lark, really’ and embedded in that one line came the idea of her keeping a list of ‘Words To Say’, and as soon as I had that, Coral was a person. I found it liberating, exciting and easy to write – and it made me laugh. I had fun with the idea of these intricate and developed and varied lists. It’s actually one of my ambitions, to write a story just out of lists.
D: Your Bridport story, “In a Seaside Café”, made effective use of lists. Jennifer Egan’s “To Do”, one of the ‘professional’ stories in the Guardian’s 2011 summer selection, is an even more extreme example. Egan chose to write an entire story in one list, so you’re obviously not the only writer who enjoys listing things. What is it about lists that appeals to you and what do you think they offer the fiction writer?
T: I think lists can give a real insight into a character. I work in a bar and one of my favourite things, when I’m clearing tables, is finding a screwed up piece of paper with a list on it. Even if it’s just food items I love it. As far as fiction writing goes, list-writing appeals to me because of its brevity, and how much can be delivered in a few words. The idea of successfully writing a whole story from lists is exciting because it’d be like putting together a jigsaw, layering something, which is how I approach writing anyway I think – I’m hardly ever a linear writer. It’s taken me a while to realise that.
D: Coral is a very believable character, and the voice of the story complements her personality perfectly. How do you go about ‘building’ your characters? Do you have a clear idea of what they’re like before you start writing, or start with a set of circumstances and think, “What kind of person would find themselves in this sort of situation?”, or do you have another way of approaching it?
T: In terms of story ideas, I don’t think I’m a ‘what if’ writer. There are a few ways I find my way into a story, but mostly it comes from an impulse, a feeling about something, and that can sometimes be something personal I’m feeling myself, or just something or someone I’ve noticed. In the past year or two I’ve used drawing in those early free-writing stages. I’m not an artist, in fact I really wish I could draw better, but I like to free-draw in my notebook and sometimes this will bring up an image, or a shape, and a story will come from it. I had a brief spell a few years ago trying certain exercises like interviewing my characters and building fact-files on them. It didn’t work, and it was really dull. But this particular story came from that opening line, and the rare thing happened where it brought the character along with it.
D: I was looking for similarities between our main characters and I came to the conclusion that, although very different in most ways, they’re both optimists. They’re both in circumstances they’re not happy with, but they believe things will change for the better, even if they have nothing at hand other than wilful self-delusion to bring about those changes. Do you think this optimism is something readers find easy to relate to / sympathise with?
T: Well, as a reader of your story, I can say I identified with your main character immediately. The 2nd person POV, which you do so well, transports you right there to that moment where your character wants to hold someone’s hand – I think we’ve all felt that. Your character is full of hope, and Coral is certainly that too. People have responded really well to Coral, when anyone talks to me about the story they talk about Coral. They want her to be okay, to have a good holiday. I find myself reassuring people, saying it’s all fine because she does meet a French man called Sebastian.
D: Finally, what does it mean to you to have a piece on The Guardian’s website, and to know it was chosen by well-respected, published authors? I’ve read comments on writing websites from people who think The Guardian are taking advantage of aspiring writers’ desire to be read by not offering payment for any of the stories they select. What do you make of that?
T: It hasn’t occurred to me to mind. Maybe it’s because I’m used to not getting paid – or getting paid very little – for writing. And, actually, the pay-offs for this comp are pretty good – predominantly, as you say, it’s huge exposure on a respected platform. When you enter, for free, you know the 1st placed story will be published in the Guardian and the 4 runners up will appear on the website. I’ve got so much from my experience that there is no way I could feel taken advantage of. One of the best, most meaningful outcomes, came when I tweeted one of the judges, Jon McGregor, a writer I read and admire, to have him reply and offer long, insightful emailed notes on my story and how to develop it. That made the whole thing very, I have to use the ‘m’ word again, meaningful. You’ll know this, it’s great being published, placed in competitions and so on, but often, this can just involve an email and a contributor’s copy – all wonderful – but to have a conversation with the judge, about your own writing, was above and beyond any competition experience I’ve had yet. And, just the other day a complete stranger tweeted me to say she had read and liked Things Which Are Not True, and that is something even better, reminds me what a great thing the internet is, how we’re all essentially on a level with each other, and how brilliant, but weird, it feels to be read by others.