Tracy Fells has won awards for both fiction and drama. Her short stories are published in national magazines, online and in anthologies. Competition success includes short-listings for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Fish Short Story and Flash Fiction Prizes. Tracy is currently seeking representation for her debut novel She shares a blog at The Literary Pig and tweets as @theliterarypig.
Hello Tracy. Thank you for speaking to The Short Story.
Let’s dive straight in. Your short stories often concern family. Do your own familial experiences influence you work?
This had never occurred to me! The simple answer is no. Well, I don’t purposely plan to include my own experiences but… Many of my short stories contain magic realism or fantasy so I often set them in recognisable family situations to ground the story in reality.
Your short stories have been published in a variety of places. Do you have a system that helps you achieve this success?
I’m a control freak and obsessive list maker so every short story is recorded in a notebook detailing where it’s been submitted and what the outcome is. I also have a spreadsheet tracking all upcoming competition and short story submission deadlines. There are a lot of great sites on the internet where you can find short story opportunities: Thresholds, Paul McVeigh, Tania Hershman’s Short Stops. Also listings in Writing Magazine, Mslexia etc. I follow all of these and note down anything I want to go for. I purposely tick things off the list, so if I’m successful then I try not to go back. Moving forward and submitting to new markets is part of my system. It also helps to keep writing! I’m close to running out of short stories to submit simply because I’ve not been writing enough new stories …
Do you belong to a reading or writing group? If yes, how helpful do you think they are to your writing and would you advise others to join one?
I belong to West Sussex Writers (was Secretary for 3 years), which is one of the largest writing groups in the UK. When I first started writing I joined this group to meet other writers. It made such a difference to meet others in the same boat. I’ve made lots of great friends there and would encourage any writer to get out and interact with other writers – if only to share the rejection sagas. Writers are the most friendly and supportive group of people I’ve ever met. You will get help and advice whenever you need it and can make some really good contacts. Everyone shares opportunities so you can often learn about openings which you may have missed.
How many drafts do you usually do of you short stories before submitting them to competitions?
It’s embarrassing to admit but I do very few drafts for short stories. A tutor on my MA course (Creative Writing) always urges eight drafts of any piece before submission. I don’t start writing until the short story is fully formed in my head. When I do write then the first draft is quite clean. It then goes through a second draft and my proofreader (my poor hubby). Then I’ll likely do a final third draft where I print out the short story and read it aloud. In the last 2 years I’ve started to workshop and share my work with other writers and this has shown I do need to work more on my editing. So I really should be doing more than three drafts! However, some of my most successful short stories had little editing and redrafting – maybe this is a sign of knowing when something works.
When writing a short story, what do you usually begin with – an idea, a character, a place, a mood?
All of these can trigger the idea for a short story or become its starting point. Or sometimes it’s a title or phrase that stimulates the start of a story. I’ve even heard snippets of dialogue in my head. A character may just turn up and start talking. The most important thing for me with a story is the ‘feel’ of it or rather the emotion I want to stir in the reader. Sometimes the germ of the idea has to rest for a while (years even) before a story emerges in all its glory ready to be written. I’m terrified this process will one day stop working …
What are the three most important considerations when writing a short story?
Narrative arc: I’m a traditionalist and believe a short story must have a complete story arc. The reader must feel a sense of satisfaction at the end of the story. If a question/hook is set up in the opening then it must be answered before the story’s concluded.
Theme: I also believe a really good short story has a theme. A good tip is to define the premise of your story in one sentence. What is it really about?
Character(s): A brilliant plot idea or storyline is nothing without believable characters. You don’t always have to like them but the reader must care what happens to them, otherwise why bother? A truly memorable short story lingers long after reading, but what actually sticks in your mind is the character or the character’s voice not the plot.
You often have a hint of magic or the supernatural in your short stories (for example the recently published ‘Monsters’ and ‘Ancient Wing’), is there a particular reason for this?
Like many writers, I write what I particularly enjoy reading. I love how you can wrap a lot of hidden layers and meanings in a fairytale or magical realism story and that what’s I enjoy writing. I’m not a huge fan of gritty, doom and gloom writing. I want the reader to be entertained but also to be uplifted if possible.
‘Ancient Wing’ was also a modern retelling of an old Saxon myth. Reading folk stories, legends and myths from around the world can help kick-start new story ideas. If you step outside the realist box you can also let your imagination soar. That is the fun bit.
If you were to recommend just one short story to read, what would it be and why?
On my desk I have a pile of short story collections/anthologies to read for my dissertation … perhaps I could answer this after finishing them? Currently, a favourite writer is Penelope Lively. There’s not much about the human psyche that she doesn’t understand. I highly recommend her collection ‘Pack of Cards’. It has one short tory which has haunted me for years: ‘The Darkness Out There’. A sweet old lady recounts the time when a German bomber crashed into local woods during WWII. By the end of the story you realise that age and a demure demeanour are no guarantees of humanity. A simple but sinister short story that will make you think about the true nature of evil.
The short story has undergone a number of changes over the last hundred or so years, what other changes do you foresee?
In the immediate future I think the short story will continue to get shorter. The vogue for longer stories, up to and over 10,000 words for example, has waned. Flash fiction is incredibly popular and rightly so. You can push the boundaries and experiment with flash stories and I think readers enjoy that too. In a few years’ time the trend may reverse again; readers may tire of 140 character stories (which are usually no more than a punchline) and long to get into longer stories with more depth. As long as people continue to enjoy reading short stories, whatever their length, genre or themes then short stories are here to stay.
Finally, what sage advice can you give to aspiring writers hoping to get their short stories published?
This is simple, I know, but many writers start projects and never finish them. You can only submit a finished short story
So finish it.