Mark Newman has been shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award, highly commended in the New Writer Prose & Poetry Awards and Bristol Prize longlisted. His work has won competitions judged by Alison Moore, Tania Hershman and David Gaffney. He has been published in Firewords Quarterly, Fiction Desk and Paper Swans. He has eight stories in the Retreat West anthology Inside These Tangles, Beauty Lies. Click here to view his website.
Mark, thank you for this opportunity. First off, perhaps you could tell us why do you write short stories?
I like working within the confines of the short story. I don’t doubt myself as much. I tend to write freely and then edit, whereas with novels I over edit and lose any sense of what I’m trying to do. Short stories should always be little experiments, pushing you to try new tenses, narrators, styles. All writers should start this way.
Do you think short stories need to have a twist?
It can feel contrived. I think if the twist feels like it comes with a drum roll attached then it’s probably misplaced. The best twists are subtle; they throw off everything that has brought you to that point. It should make you want to re-read the story immediately to see how it feels in its new context. Static by Alison Moore is a nice example.
Who are your favourite short story writers and why?
I love Susan Hill, Daphne du Maurier and Alison Moore for the spare elegance of their writing. Jon McGregor: he pushes at the boundary of what the short story can do. Lucy Wood: her story Diving Belles is a favourite of mine; she uses magical realism and folklore very effectively. Kit de Waal and Krishan Coupland are new writers I’ve discovered through competitions who are worth keeping an eye out for.
If you could have dinner with one author from the past or present, who would it be?
Aside from the fact that my social interaction skills are zero, it would be Susan Hill. The first novel I read of hers when I was 19 changed how I looked at books. I read the opening chapter and thought ‘ah, words can do this’. Her writing is so beautiful, so precise; she makes the commonplace haunting. As I’ve said, I find the same thing in Daphne du Maurier and Alison Moore, and I’m endlessly trying to achieve it myself.
Do you think creative writing courses and retreats are helpful?
People can be snooty about them, and I tend to agree that there is an element of creative writing that can’t be taught, but any skill can be honed and improved. Editing needs to be learned; reading a wide range of authors will push you to try new things; it’s always nice to get insights into the ins and outs of the publishing world. If you choose your course or retreat wisely it can be hugely beneficial.
What do you think the perfect length of a short story is?
A story will tell you when it’s finished. You should never structure a story to fit a maximum word count of a competition. Listen to it and it will tell you how long it needs to be. When it’s done, it’s done.
Why do you think the short story is suddenly so popular?
We live in an age where the pace is relentlessly picking up. The pressure makes our attention spans smaller. I don’t read the same way I did when my job was less intense. It can be appealing to have the whole reading experience wrapped up in a small package.
You’ve won a number of awards – do you have a method for entering competitions?
I need a deadline, always have. My homework was always handed in at the last minute; or more often than not wasn’t handed in at all and was demanded by the end of the day. I’ve always found it easier to stick at it as the panic sets in when there is no longer any choice.
And what further advice would you give aspiring writers?
Don’t be afraid to write outside your comfort zone, you may learn a lot about yourself as a writer. The first step towards this is to read outside your comfort zone.