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Opinion: Want to use this time to write a short story? Here are some top tips

We have some tips from author Vincent Woods to inspire you.

Image: Shutterstock/simona pilolla 2

THE RTÉ SHORT Story Competition is a yearly chance to flex your writing muscles.

This year, 4,000 people entered the competition, which was established in 1986 to honour writer Francis MacManus. Liz Nugent, Nuala O’Connor, Molly McCloskey, John MacKenna and Danielle McLaughlin — one of this year’s judges — are previous prizewinners or shortlisted entrants, and the competition continues to be a fertile source of new writing talent.

The number of entries this year, 4,073, broke last year’s record of 2,300 entries, with lockdown a factor in the high numbers. “The competition opened as usual for hard copy/postal entries only in February,” said Sarah Binchy, producer of the RTÉ Short Story Competition series. “Then lockdown happened and we quickly extended the competition to online entries also, via the Submittable website. That made it that bit easier for people to enter, no matter where they were in the world, and we’ve been gratified to see entries coming in not just from all counties of Ireland but from Irish writers in all four corners of the globe. And of course, many people were at home with time on their hands, people who might have always thought about writing something for this competition but never had time till now.

“As to whether lockdown will emerge as a theme, overt or subliminal, in the stories in the shortlist, we’ll have to wait and see. Undoubtedly, our submission window coincided with an exceptionally strange and anxious period in our country’s history; it’ll be really interesting to see how, if at all, that’s reflected in our final shortlist.

“I produce Sunday Miscellany as well as this series, and in the same period, our Miscellany submissions doubled, then tripled.”

If you want to get started early for this competition – or any of the other short story competitions out there, writer and broadcaster Vincent Woods, one of this year’s judges, has some advice.

Start with the word, though the word might well be a person, colour, curse, twist of place or sudden stab of memory.

You are writing for an audience, for an avid, listening audience so treat them with respect, never lose sight of them. Don’t condescend, don’t show off, keep a surprise or two up your sleeve and choose carefully where you place it or them.

A memorable short story is like a memorable piece of music or song, a short story written for radio even more so – it should sing to the listener, hold them, make a world that alters our world for a brief time, takes us away and delivers us back a little altered and grateful for the journey.

Much has been written about the art of the short story and the particular place of the short story within Irish literary tradition and there’s no point me in rehashing the words and insights of great artists like Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin or John McGahern, pillars all of a structure that can weight very heavily on a literary landscape handed on to new generations of writers.

Cólm Tóibín made it fresh and original from the get-go, writers like Danielle McLaughlin (fellow judge of this year’s RTÉ Francis MacManus short story competition), Kevin Barry, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and an emerging voice like that of Niamh Campbell prove that those new generations can be fearless in shaping their own voices, aware of the past but not in thrall to it and rightly determined to reflect the world of now.

Writing is hard work. You can’t just dash off a semi-formed semi-story with sketches of characters and a struggle of ideas fighting and failing to get to the surface.

If you want to create a single powerful short story you have to be prepared to read, listen, observe, write, discard, listen again, read more, write more, edit yourself ruthlessly, think of your audience, forget them, think of your characters, honour them, write with clarity, purpose, an unsparing eye and (if you can manage it) humanity, wit and originality.

Simple enough then! No small order to achieve even a measure of all that in less than two thousand words.

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If you want to write for radio, listen to radio. Listen to short stories on RTÉ, BBC radio, podcast platforms, wherever you can find well-written stories well read. Listen back to previous winners of the Francis MacManus short story competition, listen closely and read the texts if you can get hold of them.

Ask yourself why a particular story works for the listener and reader, is it different or more effective on the air than on the page, how does the writer convey character in a few strokes, in a turn of phrase or a few lines of dialogue, what lies under a deceptively simple narrative drive or smooth exterior – what is the engine of this story and what is the energy that drives it?

Unpick structure – though no amount of unpicking will take you to the marrow of a great story; understanding why a piece of writing works only goes so far, there’s always an elusive, intangible extra quality that remains beyond the grasp of reader or listener.

People often talk about ‘radio magic’ or ‘radio gold’ – clichés of a kind – but you know it when you hear it. As a writer you’re seeking to spin gold out of dust and the debris of our human existence and that’s a delicate and demanding operation. Each word has to glow and the complete story might dazzle us.

Vincent Woods, along with Danielle McLaughlin and Madeleine Keane, is a judge of this year’s RTÉ Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus. The 2020 shortlist will be announced in early September and the top prizes awarded at a virtual ceremony later that month. All 10 stories on the shortlist will be broadcast in a series of new writing on RTÉ Radio 1 in early October, and the three winning stories will be published on TheJournal.ie. Next year’s competition will open for submissions in spring 2021. For more visit the website.  

About the author:

Vincent Woods

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