There I was, idly sitting at my desk, twiddling with my mouse, thinking about more marketing moves to help with the promotion of River of Judgement, when I stumbled upon a competition. A short story competition was to be held as part of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, in the lovely Yorkshire town of Harrogate.
‘Here,’ says I, ‘is my chance to mix it with the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride, Christopher Brookmyre, Jeffery Deaver and Joanne Harris.’
All that was asked of me was to write a short crime story between 2,000 and 5,000 words long, beginning with a first line provided by Stuart MacBride:
“In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it”
‘That,’ says I, ‘might be the start of it… but how the hell do I get from there to the end in under 5000 words?’ I’d never written a short story in my life! I don’t count those stories you get to write at school; I was never very good at English as a subject – either language or literature, but that is another, long, story.
Over a pint of ale (not Theakstons) in the village ale-house, my good friend, neighbour, and ex-journalist turned PR consultant, Ian, offered me a gem of advice. ‘Like a mini-skirt, David. Long enough to cover the essentials and short enough to hold your interest.’ (A very male point of view, I admit – but this is a Wicked place.)
The essentials? The plot. A crime would be a good start, and taking a lead from Aristotle: a beginning, middle and an end; the classic three-acts. Yes, I knew all that, but under 5000 words? ‘Come on... get real! And forget flash fiction, I’m not ready for that! I need help’, I (nearly) cried.
As luck would have it, I listen to a lot of talk radio during the day. That week there had been a series of afternoon plays, all adapted from Chekov short stories. ‘Hey, he’s famous, isn’t he? I heard myself say. ‘He wrote loads of short stories! Now what was that one I heard on Tuesday?’ I tried to remember the one that I missed the middle of because I was distracted by something. ‘A short skirt, wasn’t it?’ I mused.
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Why re-invent the wheel. If, according to Christopher Booker, there are only seven basic plots, then we must all borrow from someone, somewhere along the line. ‘Why can’t I borrow from the Master!’ And, isn’t the internet wonderful? Moments later, after recalling the title, I had downloaded a copy of Anton Chekov’s The Black Monk – a great story with a supernatural theme.
I read The Black Monk, re-read it, and leant back in my chair. ‘Cool, this guy can write short stories.’ So, being an engineer I deconstructed the plot. I worked out that it had nine plot points. Not listing these, but if you are not sure of how something should look, deconstruction is a technique I would recommend. Why do some people love taking things apart? I always took things apart as a kid, then put them pack together again. Lego is a great toy! But I digress. This post is about a virgin short story writer.
‘I love that essential theme. The Black Monk. Brilliant! An inevitable decay into madness, punctuated by a love story. I want to mirror that theme and structure in my crime story. Now what’s that line again?’
“In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it”.
Pen and paper. I love the old ways. I sat and (cheating here, with a calculator) divided my 5000 word challenge into nine sections. And, realising that simple is always best, I rounded each section to a maximum of 500 words (4500 is under 5000, so I figured I was OK with that). I wrote on my paper nine section titles which basically mirrored the plot points I had identified in Chekov’s story, and started writing. In two afternoons I had completed the story. With my good lady wife doing one editing run through, a few minor changes including ‘… This name doesn’t sound right,’ says she who (sometimes) must be obeyed.
‘Why?’ says I. I had no idea, but a women’s intuition should be listened to (sometimes)!
Some superfluous verbiage was cut out, the titles disposed of and the sections re-grouped into eight, and I had my first proper, non-school short story.
But was it good enough for the competition? Would it win me an audience with some of the great and the good in crime fiction? Would it win me a free entry to the Festival and a chance of being spotted by an Agent or Publisher?
I will never know! I never sent the story into the competition.
‘Why?’ echoed a voice from nowhere.
I liked it; my wife liked it; my mother-in-law liked it. Even one of my four sons liked it.
‘Only one,’ echoed the voice.
‘He was the only one either old enough or not studying for exams at the time. Now, quit with the echoes.’
I thought, ‘Hang on a cotton-picking minute… Am I not a publisher as well as an author? Have I not the courage of my own convictions? Do I really want to wait months for the announcement that my story might, or might not have won? Only to have wasted that time, if it had not. And what was I doing on this planet anyway? (Again, that is another, long, story!)
‘Be serious, a moment,’ I told myself. ‘There you were, sitting idly at your desk, twiddling your mouse, thinking about more marketing moves to help with the promotion of River of Judgement. Don’t you think…?’
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‘Of course!’ Inspiration. I’ve heard that short stories are a great way of showcasing a new writer’s work. ‘Why don’t I publish the short story alongside my novel?’ says I. ‘Marvellous,’ I replied.