Writing Short Stories with Cynan Jones

Write and edit a complete short story and learn essential fiction-writing techniques on Curtis Brown Creative’s brand new six-week online course, Writing Short Stories led by award-winning short story writer Cynan Jones. Cynan won the Betty Trask award for his novel The Long Dry and he won BBC National Short Story Award in 2017, for which he was on the 2019 judging panel . His short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies and in journals and magazines including Granta and the New Yorker.

We interviewed Cynan to find out more about his love of short fiction…

You won the BBC National Short Story Prize for your story The Edge of the Shoal in 2017 and now you’re on this year’s judging panel for the prize. How does it feel to come full circle? And what do you look for when reading short stories for competitions?

Judging the competition has certainly pointed out what an extraordinary thing it was to win. Ultimately, all a writer can do is write as strongly as he or she can, and work on a story until it’s the best possible piece they can produce. What happens to that story is a product of the work and attention put in. If nothing else, I know I’ve really worked hard to write strongly. In many ways then, it feels less of a circle and more of a starting point! What next? I’m always aiming to challenge myself.

The sense a writer has challenged him or herself is in the best stories too. You read great pieces and think, ‘How!? How did they write that?’ Such stories feel both totally impossible to write, but as if they couldn’t be written better.

When reading stories for competitions I look for that. Stories that take narrative risks and show the technical ability to make those risks pay off. That’s much rarer than you think.

What initially inspired you to start writing in short fiction?

I think several elements led me to shorter forms. Firstly, the thing of reading a story from start to finish in one sitting. I loved that as a reader and – as most of us are copyists when we first start writing – wanted to replicate that experience.

I also think that, even in my initial attempts at serious writing, the way my prose hit the page lent itself to shorter form. I aimed always to put a picture down as simply and powerfully as I could and relied on the reader to think and feel in response. That meant I didn’t write a great deal of explanation or back story, or direct a reader how to react. In itself, that makes for fewer words.

In retrospect, perhaps too there were constraints as to how long I could really dedicate to the process of writing when I first started. I usually had about three months for writing at the beginning of the year before the freelance work I did at the time really got going. Perhaps that made me feel I needed to write something I could start and finish in one block. (Which loops back to the first thing I mentioned here, about the immersive experience of starting and finishing something in one go.)

We’re thrilled to have you on board as the teacher of our brand-new Writing Short Stories course. What’s your favourite part of teaching?

Probably how teaching makes you dig into your own process and really work to understand it so you can pass what you know on.

Other than the help of the world-class authors I read, I taught myself to write. Because of that, it’s only since teaching that I’ve really dissected exactly what it is I do, and that’s helped me take things further.

Could you share your top three tips for writers who want to start writing short stories?

Read.

Work at the craft.

Don’t write to be published.

Read the full interview with Cynan over on the Curtis Brown Creative blog.

Curtis Brown Creative’s brand new Writing Short Stories course led by Cynan Jones is open now for enrolment. It starts on October 17th 2019.

Short Stops readers can get an exclusive 10% off by using code: SHORTSTOPSCBC

 

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ALL-FEMALE SHORTLIST FOR THIRTEENTH BBC NATIONAL SHORT STORY AWARD AS FORMER WINNER SARAH HALL IS NOMINATED FOR THIRD TIME

Sarah Hall, prize-winning novelist and short story writer, has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University for the third time for ‘Sudden Traveller’. She won the award in 2013 for ‘Mrs Fox’ and was shortlisted for the first time in 2010 for ‘Butcher’s Perfume’. Both stories appeared in her debut collection, The Beautiful Indifference.

Hall is joined on the shortlist by composer and debut novelist Kerry Andrew for ‘To Belong To’, Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner and debut novelist Ingrid Persaud for ‘The Sweet Sop’, rising talent Kiare Ladner for ‘Van Rensburg’s Card’ and creative writing lecturer and novelist Nell Stevens for ‘The Minutes’. The shortlist of five stories was announced this evening, Friday 14 September 2018, during BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.

Selected from nearly 800 entries (an increase of 28% on 2017), this year’s shortlist is the fifth all-female shortlist in the BBC National Short Story Award’s history. The shortlist is:

• ‘To Belong To’ by Kerry Andrew
• ‘Sudden Traveller’ by Sarah Hall
• ‘Van Rensburg’s Card’ by Kiare Ladner
• ‘The Sweet Sop’ by Ingrid Persaud
• ‘The Minutes’ by Nell Stevens


Now celebrating its thirteenth year, the Award is one of the most prestigious for a single short story, with the winning author receiving £15,000, and the four further shortlisted authors £600 each. The stories are also broadcast on air and the writers interviewed on Front Row, as part of BBC Radio 4’s short story season in September.

Simple acts of kindness and the meaning of home and community are key themes this year. Resilience and the impact of the political on the personal underpin a list unified by the power of each character’s voice to convey experience both private and universal. Loss, whether of life or community, and renewal are central themes with many of the stories inspired by world events: Brexit, immigration and urban gentrification. Diverse in tone and setting, whether it be Kerry Andrew’s remote Scottish Isle, Ingrid Persaud’s Trinidad, Kiare Ladner’s South African shopping mall or Nell Steven’s South London housing estate – this year’s shortlist is a powerful meditation on a world where displacement and loss are paramount but where renewal and hope are infinite.

From the gently unfurling landscape of a man’s renewal as he moves from suicidal despair to new hope saved by the beauty of the land and sea and the community that embraces him in Kerry Andrew’s ‘To Belong To’; to the experimental form of the pretentious world of hapless art student activists as they protest the demolition of a South London tower block with art in ‘The Minutes’ by Nell Stevens; to the unique voice of Ingrid Persaud’s ‘The Sweet Sop’ where the parent/child relationship is inverted as a young Trinidadian man is united with his absent father via the power of chocolate; to the haunting and tender evocation of loss as Sarah Hall creates a complete world in a moment as a woman nurses her child while her father and brother clear the cemetery ready to bury her mother in ‘Sudden Traveller’; to Kiare Ladner’s ‘Van Rensburg’s Card’, the poignant story of a grumpy widow, fuelled by sadness and loneliness who discovers a way back to life and an acceptance of the inevitability of change via a condolence card sent 18 months before – these are beautifully told stories that show what it is to be human amidst the politics of our age and artfully reveal the power of the short story to convey a world in just a few pages.

Stig Abell, Editor of the TLS and Chair of Judges for the BBC National Short Story Award 2018, says:

“We spent a long, hot summer immersed in stories, and then many happy hours debating their
merits. My fellow judges were fierce and forensic in their reading, and we ended up with a shortlist
of tales that – I think – are arresting, moving and sometimes surprising. It was a pleasure to bear
witness to this talent.”

Stig Abell is joined on this year’s judging panel by short story writer and 2016 BBC NSSA winner, K J Orr; Granta’s ’20 under 40’ novelist and one of last year’s shortlisted writers, Benjamin Markovits; returning judge; Di Speirs, Books Editor at BBC Radio; and multi award-winning poet, Sarah Howe.

The announcement of the winner will be broadcast live from the Award ceremony in Cambridge on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 2nd October 2018.