Suffragettes and Corsets

Her name kept coming up.  Her short stories appeared here and there in litmags I read.  You could say I became a fan.  Then this year she published her first novel.  And so I asked Lucy Ribchester, author of The Hourglass Factory, if she’d submit to a few questions for Circa. (One of the perks of being an editor is that you have an excuse to reach out to a stranger and ask them questions you’d really like to know the answers to.) She generously agreed.

The Hourglass Factory is a thriller set in Edwardian London.  It is a world of suffragettes, music halls, and corset fetishists.  And then there’s the mysterious disappearance of a tightly-laced trapeze artist.

Here is what Lucy had to say when I asked her about the difference between writing short stories and writing a novel:

I think because I grew up reading novels – particularly genre fiction novels – but only began reading short stories as an adult (aside from fairy tales which I never remember reading as a child, just miraculously becoming aware of at some point) it seemed more natural to try writing a novel first. I’m not saying writing a novel is easy – far from it. But trying to structure a short story with zero breathing room to establish characters, and having to bring out the kernel or climax of the story in such a short space of time, is murderous. That’s what I love about reading short stories but it’s also what makes them so bloody difficult to write. There have been (and continue to be) a lot of false starts. But luckily if you write a duff story that really isn’t salvageable, in the end you haven’t invested as much time in it as a novel. There has been a lot of trial and error though. And A LOT of reading other people’s stories, online, in anthologies and in single author collections. My favourite short story writers are Angela Carter, Ian Rankin, Anais Nin, Linda Cracknell and Sarah Hall, all for different reasons.

Click here for the rest of the interview with Lucy Ribchester.

So who reads lit mags anyway?

Well, obviously I do. But here’s a confession. Until I started writing and submitting short stories a few years ago, I didn’t. Not one. I barely knew of their existence. Granta and The Paris Review sat prominently displayed on the counter of my local independent bookstore and I might glance at their covers, even scan the list of contributors (most of whom I didn’t recognize)but it never would have occurred to me to purchase one of their issues. Not when they sold for roughly the same price as a trade paperback. I saved my money for novels, the odd short story collection, books with the imprint of a well-known publisher reassuringly stamped on the title page.

It’s been a sharp learning curve. Now I have a far greater appreciation for the role lit mags have played and continue to play as launching pads for new and unknown writers. Unknowns like John Updike and Raymond Carver. Or more recently Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem and Ha Jin.

Of course, with the internet there has been an explosion of lit mags of varying quality. Now anyone with a wordpress account and a dream can start one up (ahem!). And if you can’t get a story published in The Kenyon Review or The New Yorker, and you aren’t too particular, you can rack up those publication credits pretty quickly.

The lit mags I read fall into two camps. In the first, I’ll admit it, are the places I think might take something I’ve written. I call it research. Some are online and some are print. In the second, though, are the publications I read for solely pleasure, because every issue offers beautiful prose that shines with pure competence. I take subscriptions out on these, a couple a year, just what I can afford. At various times I have subscribed to One Story, Room and Tin House, among others. And yes, I do dream of the day these two camps will merge into one.

So aside from other writers looking for markets for their work, who’s reading them? Perhaps no one. I don’t know. When I mention a lit mag or journal I’ve read recently or one in which a story of mine has appeared to friends or family, I get a puzzled Good for you! There are the rumours that circulate on writer’s blogs and in the twitterverse: so-and-so’s story on x was noticed by a literary agent/small press/major publisher. Like winning the lottery, I’m sure it happens, but the chances of it happening to me or someone I know seem slim.

But perhaps lit mags’ main audience is simply other writers. And perhaps that is as it should be. Sure it would be great for the producers of lit mags to have increased subscription rates if they appealed to a more mainstream audience. Then they might in turn be able to pay their contributors more. But that is beside the point. Literary magazines offer the opportunity for writers at all stages of their craft to learn from each other.

That’s what I’m attempting to do in my Why It Works posts. Break down the stories published in online lit mags so I can learn from them.

So who reads lit mags? I do and, if you’re a writer, I hope you do, too.

My Mash Stories Experience

Well, I didn’t win.  Nor did I really expect to since there were some fantastic stories shortlisted alongside mine.  A particular favourite was Waves by Angela Petch.  But there were some peculiarities about my experience that I wanted to share.

Mash Stories runs a quarterly writing competition, challenging writers to compose a 500-word story based on three given prompts.  They also offer feedback on all submissions.  Always looking to improve, I duly checked the box to request feedback and a couple of weeks later I received a response.

The feedback I received was from several different judges.  Some positive, some suggesting ways to improve the story.  Some I agreed with and some I didn’t.  All very normal.  Since a couple of comments were repeated by different readers, I took their advice, since it seemed a place where I just wasn’t making the story clear enough.

And that, I thought, was that.  There was no indication that I had passed into a round of further reading.  I thought my story had been rejected.  So I took the notes, rewrote, expanded, and (I think) improved my story, thinking I could even submit it elsewhere eventually.

Imagine my surprise when I received an email informing me that my story had been shortlisted and would be published on their website.  News that would have had me euphoric a couple of weeks earlier but now that I had completely fallen out of love with the old version and had what I felt was a much stronger version on my hands, my feelings were decidedly mixed.  I wrote and asked if they would consider the newer version instead, since the changes made had been based on their own suggestions, but they made the decision to publish the original one.

I’m not blaming Mash for doing that.  They had accepted one story and couldn’t accept an altered version sight unseen.  But I feel there were two problems here.  If their first communication with me, the one that contained their feedback, had given me some indication that it was not simply a long and detailed rejection, I would not have started rewriting right away.  And if they are offering feedback, perhaps they should also be prepared for their writers to want to act on it and resubmit their story.  Currently there doesn’t seem to be an avenue for that.

Now I have a better version of the story than the one archived on their site that I’m just not sure what to do with.  I like it too much to leave it in a drawer.  Maybe a future flash fiction entry on this blog?

I love Mash Stories. They’re a great little competition and even if you have no plans to submit to them, just their writing prompts can be a sweet boost for your writing.  I would definitely consider submitting to them again in the future.  Though I might think twice about checking that free feedback button.