It's time to share your creativity with the world as M magazine pairs up with Kitab, the organiser of the upcoming Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, to choose a writer who will have his or her work published and win a Toshiba laptop. Recently, a man contacted me for advice. He had written many short stories, was working up to a novel but felt he should not run before he could walk. In many ways, he could not have been more wrong. Poetry apart, the short story can be the most difficult literary form of all. Every single word must count, every line carries weight. Although a novel should not be padded out, it can carry some slack. Descriptions can be longer and there may be numerous plot threads. See how many balls Charles Dickens keeps in the air together.
A novel may contain a small handful of characters in a closed setting - like those of Muriel Spark - or could contain teeming hordes, as in War And Peace. It may also be about the inner life of one person, something that is very difficult to achieve and requires great application by the reader. The short story must focus on very few characters. MR James's Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary generally have one person at the hub, to whom the supernatural things happen, and a few on the periphery, often including one who comes forward with information or explanation.
Place is a vital ingredient of all fiction. I rate it of equal importance with convincing characters. A novel may cross several continents, take us from country to country and back again, enter a dozen houses, go to sea, climb mountains, even enter the habitats of gods and fairies, and provided the author does not "drop any stitches", this all adds to the richness of the book. The short story, however, generally needs to stay in one place: a room, a house, a village, a town, or at most, a city. There is no space to travel to other countries, have scenes set in dozens of rooms, plus a castle, a beach and a mountain top. Writing a short story is about directing an intense, but narrow, light on a small area. It is about concentration and economy.
Virginia Woolf wrote about her characters as having "caves" behind them, areas which are sensed, hinted at, recognised by the reader, but never fully described. We all have such caves that house our pasts and our relationships. We all have innumerable fields of reference that are understood in a sort of shorthand. The best stories hint at these "caves", which exist behind the surface of the narrative. A character should have a past, other relationships, a network of social and emotional references. Indeed, they must have those things or they will be two dimensional and unconvincing.
This is why short stories can be difficult to bring off successfully. How do you create those caves, how do you make the reader fully aware of them and the fact that they have a bearing on what is going on, without doing more than hint obliquely? It is not easy. The novelist can try half a dozen ways of giving characters a past and an inner life within the space of a book, but the short story writer has only one shot at getting it right. There is no room for a leisurely approach. Yet a short story is superficial and unsatisfying if it simply describes one incident, in the present, in a single setting and then simply stops. Readers like to imagine what happened before the story began or after the last line has been written. There is no reason why they should not be able to do so with a short story if the author has given them enough material. Yet there is so little room for that to be done.
The unsaid is as important as the said, the spaces in between. The parts of conversations left unspoken are of great importance. The reader will read between the lines.
Be warned, then. Writing a successful short story takes a lot of skill and application. But if you can pull it off, there are few more satisfying ventures for a writer to undertake.
All submissions must be in by Friday February 19th at midday. Submissions should be no more than 2000 words and written in English. All short stories should be entitled Moving Messages as the Susan Hill short story is, but can be on any theme or subject. No employee or relative of an employee at either Abu Dhabi Media Company or The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair will be eligible to enter.
The judges' decision is final.
The story must be the author's original work.
The winner will have his or her short story published in the magazine and win a Toshiba laptop courtesy of KITAB, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The runner-up will also have his or her story published and win Dhs1,000 worth of book tokens supplied by Jashanmal Book Shops.
Please email entries to email@example.com or post entries with your name, address and mobile phone number clearly marked to:
Helena Frith Powell
The National Newspaper
Abu Dhabi Media Company
PO Box 111 434
Or deliver to Abu Dhabi Media Company on 15th street, mark clearly for attention of Helena Frith Powell, M Magazine The National Newspaper and call 024145319 for it to be collected.
By Susan Hill Some people have tunes but it is lines that run like moving messages through my head. Whatever else I am saying or doing often has no bearing on this inner, verbal life.
'Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?' It rode with me up the escalator and my footsteps tapped it out in a rhythm along the street. My mother had a similar problem with hymns. 'I am a little world made cunningly.' I wondered if Velma had ever suffered from poetic tinnitus. It might provide an opening. The restaurant was chrome and black and angular and a shock to the system. The table was square, the plates were square and the water came in a square glass but the bread rolls were round and soft, like my life now, lived among hills like breasts and tender bales of fabric.
They had tortured flowers with wire stays and straitjacketed them in thin metal tubes. The table napkins were origami. "Didi!" Her kiss scratched my cheek, dry as a quill. 'Goodness,' I said. I have not been Didi for 34 years. I had painted Velma in my mind and the picture had been a good likeness. She was blade-thin, wore cream, smoked. 'You look so wholesome,' she said. 'London is foul.' The menus were startling, scarlet boards lettered in spikes of black.
'Shall I order for us both?' They say we do not see ourselves as others see us but I saw perfectly how Velma saw me and I was not having it. 'Crab,' I said, speaking directly to the waiter, 'then turbot with buttered spinach. Pommes dauphinoise.' 'Six gull's eggs and a tiny green salad.' Velma lit a cigarette. 'You used to smoke Black Russian,' I said. It had been a matter of wonder among the rest of us.
'I'd have known you,' I said. I meant, you look your age and more, look harder, smarter, slicker, dryer. Look like this restaurant. Yet oddly, still the same. They can do this sort of thing with computers now. Digital ageing. The hills like breasts and the soft folds of fabric and pillows of fabric have had an effect on me, too. 'Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?' 'Known you anywhere,' I said.
The crab tasted of seaside holidays and flaked sweetly between my teeth. 'Extraordinary.' I wondered what, but she said it while looking round at two men who were walking into the restaurant. In fact, I was not sure that she had meant to speak to me at all and I buttered a soft, plump roll to fill in time. It is not every day I eat in a cutting-edge London restaurant with square plates. 'I am a little world made cunningly' the moving message read, neon-green on black. 'I need intellectual discipline,' I said, though how could she have understood?
'Fierce words. Analysis.' That was probably the reason for the tinnitus. In a train, when you are facing the moving message about not leaving personal belongings behind you, it is possible to raise a newspaper to shut it out, but I have found no similar way of dealing with the lines inside my head. I should have asked my mother what she did about the hymns, whether she simply let Wesley flow reassuringly, upliftingly on.
'Aren't gull's eggs very dry?' I said. I caught Velma's expression as I lifted a forkful of steaming, buttery spinach and potatoes to my mouth. I was everything she could patronise. I laid the forkful of food down uneaten on the square plate. At home, I eat square boxes of soup and too much butter and live among full-breasted hills and bales of soft fabric. The turbot was glutinous and very white on the black plate.
Velma patted cigarette ash into the broken shells of her gulls' eggs. 'I daresay you've made a lot of money too,' I said. We ought to begin the conversation about the past now, the one we had almost begun on the telephone. 'No, don't tell me now, let's meet-' She had rung up the magazine that featured my quilts among the soft-breasted hills, and briskly obtained my number. 'Do you remember Douglas Merton? He became a Bishop. Do you remember Georgina Lee? She's a prison governor. And a Dame,' I said.
'Imagine!' A small scarlet card was flourished, the spiked lettering in silver this time, making the puddings quite hard to decipher. When I looked up, squinting, from the parfaits and coulis and tartes, I saw that Velma was crying. They were discreet tears and quite silent, caught trembling in the spider legs of mascara. 'Oh dear. What can I do? I must be able to do something. What can I order? Shall I order you brandy?' I said.
'Dear Didi...' Cream, thin, hard, dry, smart, weeping Velma. 'Practical Didi.' So then I did order brandy, which came with my softly mounded, smooth, shining, rose-red mousse, stuck with horizontal chocolate quills, like a chic hat on a plate. 'I've no idea really,' I said, 'what you do.' 'Recruitment,' Velma finished her brandy in one impressive swallow. 'Until I sold the company.' To one side of the rose-red hat was a small sphere of glistening, rose-pink ice.
'But mainly,' she said, 'I'm a mistress.' Do you remember Velma Prescott? She's a mistress now. Imagine. But the spider-legs of mascara had released the tears, which slid down her porcelain cheekbones until I wanted to cry with her. 'I think brandy makes it worse,' I said. My ice tasted unexpectedly of lavender. 'I am a little world, made cunningly.' 'Has he left you or something?' Almost an hour later, nervy after three tiny pewter-coloured cups of bitter coffee, I had learned that he had not. I had learned almost everything.
After the restaurant we had walked a long way and then sat down on a backless bench in a churchyard, though if I had been wearing such a suit as Velma's I would never have done that. But Velma was immersed in trying to stop herself crying, rather as one can be in trying to stop a nosebleed. I had no helpful suggestions, so I looked at the tombstones. ('At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow Your trumpets Angells.')
I welcomed the moving messages now, feeling a desperate need for the bracing sustenance of words. 'It was seeing you,' Velma said, 'in that magazine.' The tears seemed to have dried. That view. There you sat, all that wonderful coloured stuff tumbling off your lap. I haven't slept properly since.' 'Winter in the country can be quite testing.' I said. Two buses roared past the churchyard, rows of faces peering down at us, round white Os, such as children draw.
'We got buses a lot in those days,' I said. 'I still do.' I stared. 'The underground is filthy.' I stared. 'Well what did you think - the Bentley and the chauffeur?' Like sudden sunlight, the old Velma shone out. Looking at her next to me on the green backless bench I decided that she had probably not, after all, had a facelift. We were 54. Flesh and skin and hair betray us. ('Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?' She made a vow then to embrace the old disciplines. The words.)
We had been incongruous unexpected friends from our first day, without anything but English literature and 23 other students in common. 'I don't think I could accommodate my life to someone else,' I said, 'on their terms. Not even for all the accounts in Knightsbridge shops.' She had told me everything about it, before my edible millinery had arrived. She had a taxi account, a dress account, a hair account, even a flower account.
'Wives can wear slippers and velour leisure suits.' She had said, 'Mistresses can't. Their hair must always be immaculate, make-up applied and the flowers must never have dead petals. And although I suppose an unavoidable major illness might be forgiven, colds are out.' 'Wherever,' I said, 'is the benefit?' We both looked at the word money as it ran past us, a silent, moving message. A thin little wind had got up and scattered bits of paper about the churchyard.
'I can't tackle London often,' I said. 'You need your wits about you.' Still, I was sharpening up now. I did not want to leave. I was not missing the soft-breasted hills and the fabrics in any way. 'It is just uncreative,' Velma said. 'There is nothing to show for it.' 'I am a little world made cunningly.' 'As a matter of fact,' I said to Velma, 'I have been thinking of a higher degree. There is nothing furthering to the cause of human endeavour in quilts.'
A plastic cup had fetched up against my ankle. Perhaps I meant it. The texts were there, I knew most of the words, and I'd been saving them up on the moving messages. 'But you looked so right,' Velma said, 'in the magazine. Dear Didi.' She wanted me in my place. I saw that. She was older again and there were no marks at all on her cream suit from the green backless bench. 'Dear Didi.' I felt confused emotions. Angry. Patronised. Dissatisfied.
I kicked the plastic cup hard across the path. The green country that led towards the soft-breasted hills looked queer and different from the windows of the train. Strange, unfamiliar, unnerving. I did not know if I liked it any more. But when I thought of the angular restaurant and the dark churchyard I did not like those either. 'I am a little world made cunningly.' It was raining when I got back and the cloud was low about the soft-breasted hills.
'At the round earth's imagin'd corners.' Velma would be dressed up in taupe and pearls, made-up, among the immaculate flowers. 'Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?' 'There is nothing to show for it,' Velma had said. 'It is just - uncreative.' I let myself into the house and stood among the bales of fabric in the last grey light. 'Blow Your trumpets, Angells.' I watched the moving messages for some time. I was grateful for them. They might mean nothing and lead nowhere. But Velma did not have them. I was sure of that.
So I supposed I was to be envied. Copyright Susan Hill. This story appears in a collection of Susan Hill's short stories, titled The Boy Who Taught The Beekeeper To Read.