Monday 23 March 2009


You may or may not be interested to know the provenance of the short story that has come second in the Fish Short Story Competition, The Return of the Baker Edwin Tregear.

The story was written about two years ago, after researching a mining accident that took place in a tin mine in Cornwall, in 1919.

It was entered for the Fish Historical short story competition in 2007. (too quickly)

It bombed.

It was entered for the Willesden Herald Competition in 2007. (too quickly, and not listening to the message...)

It bombed.

I could not stand back to 'see' that story. It was the first piece of researched historical fiction I had attempted.

So, I got a professional critique done. Plenty of things pointed out. Too many characters, overladen with detail in places. 'A novel packed into too small a package'.

Willesden Herald published a list of things wrong with their entries. The nicest ththing they could have done.

I used that list to reappraise the story together with feedback from the critique, and over a few months, I rewrote the story completely. I changed it from a third person narration to first person, forcing the main character to talk directly to me and to the reader. I dropped my 'favourite' character completely, deleting a whole 'sub plot'. (kill your darlings). I introduced one very minor but important character, device-wise. I changed the ending radically, to underpin the theme.

I entered it for Fish Historical Short Story competition again, mid 2008.

A few months later, Fish cancelled their Historical short story competition, offering entry fee back or the chance to sling your work into the main short story maelstrom and let it take its chances alongside 1500 (in the end) entries.

I left it in the running. And got on with things.

It wins a nice prize.


Moral of the story, if there is one:

Don't think because you have won a few prizes, that you always write super stories.
Don't forget you can get things badly wrong, and that you are always learning.
Don't be too proud to ask for good, professional comment, and pay for it.
Don't be too proud to listen, and try to stand right back and disentangle yourself from the emotional tugs of some characters.
Don't be afraid to change a piece of work completely radically. How you see it is one thing. Others will see it totally fresh. Try to see how they will read it.

Do give yourself time, to put distance between you and your work.
Do rewrite well, thoroughly.

And do go on loving the story, and trying to get it as right as you can.


The Willesden Herald article: How NOT to Win Short Story Competitions can be found HERE.



Tim Jones-Yelvington said...

Yes, but did your story include ankles in Asia?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Not a single one.

Susannah Rickards said...

Sound morals - Lots of the BASS authors comment at the back that they rewrote and rewrote their winning stories over a number of years.

Pure Fiction said...

Hi, just wanted to say thanks for the post.
It's easy to think that some people just pop out a perfect short-story or poem with little or effort when in fact, as you've revealed here, there's a lot of work involved. I'm now going off to attack some of my latest poems, hack them to pieces, and rebuild them.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi there, purefiction - funny isnt it! It's not 'done' to say that writing can be a real slog. It seems the in thing to say 'oh just knocked out that prizewinner in twenty minutes'. Or, 'never had to learn to write - I was born with a metaphor in one hand.'

Sure, one CAN write well, fast...but thats the odd little flash probably. And not very often!!!

Ossian said...

Thanks for being generous enough to share your experiences. As for that blatherskeit's list of faults, he sounds the most insufferable windbag. That's one fault he's not noticed.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi Os

what a brilliant word 'blatherskeit' is. And tis a brilliant list. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Thanks for such an honest and reassuring post Vanessa.

Ossian said...

Sorry, it seems I've spelled it wrong though, it should be "blatherskite". Thanks.