With a whopping £10,000 for the winner, The Manchester Fiction Prize is a short story writer’s dream come true. I ask the chair of the judging panel Nicholas Royle what he loves about the short story and what winning or being short listed can do for a writer’s career.
In terms of prose writing, short stories seem to lag in popularity behind their cousin the novel. What do short stories offer that novels don’t?
Brevity. It’s my favourite form and that’s partly because it’s short. It offers a unique opportunity to a fiction writer to be more experimental, adventurous, take more risks and also be subtle. The writer can worry less and have a go at something that they wouldn’t in a novel. If you take a risk in a short story then if it’s unsuccessful you haven’t wasted hours and hours of the reader’s time just to disappoint them. That’s why it’s my favourite form. One of the most important things in fiction is balancing saying too much or too little, and in a short story, it’s easier to get away with not saying very much. So you can write a story and almost deliberately obscure what the idea behind the story is; bury it under the text and take the risk that it will come to the surface. Short stories that do this are the best, allowing keen eyed readers to find the subtlety.
Should people view writing short stories as an aim in itself or good testing grounds for novel writing?
A lot of people talk about writing short stories as a place to cut your teeth before writing a novel as if it’s some sort of apprentice scheme. I think that’s one reason why the short story struggles a bit in its popular appeal, because there’s an awful lot of people writing short stories because they regard it as something to knock out in an afternoon, rather than as something to spend some time on, to take very seriously. I love it when there are writers who just write short stories.
I was asked that in a job interview and I couldn’t remember the names of any short story writers, not even my friends who were short story writers. I started to sweat and the interviewer suggested Alice Munro. I thought for a moment about whether to hold back my thoughts but I decided against that. I said I had just read my first Alice Munro collection and that I admired it, but I didn’t particularly like it. One reason for that is that her stories are so long, 30-40 pages, which is not to my particular taste. She has a lovely style, but she consistently writes about family relationships, which isn’t terribly interesting to me. I’m attracted to exciting ideas-led stories. The short story writers I love are Kafka, Borges, and then in the contemporary, Alison Moore, M John Harrison, Shelley Jackson. Also Shirley Jackson and JG Ballard. There are so many of them.
As you’re judging the Manchester Fiction Prize, is what you’re looking for ideas based?
Not necessarily. It would be great if the entrants were taking risks, which doesn’t mean that they have to write anything wacky or zany. Judging this competition for the last few years, what grabs me about any particular story is more that the writer can write, and that they have something to say. That will become apparent on the first page and then I read on to see if they can sustain the writing and my interest. Can they get us to the end of the story without anti-climax or disappointment? Which doesn’t mean it’s got to be a series of car chases or endless excitement, but there’s got to be some sort of intellectual stimulation or some kind of appeal to the reader’s curiosity. And it doesn’t necessarily have to have a great payoff or a twist ending but it’s got to go somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re slightly puzzled when you get there, in fact that can often be really good, but it’s got to go somewhere.
On a three judge panel, how do you decide who wins?
I’ll read a third of the stories, Claire Dean reads a third and Christopher Burns reads a third, and then we recommend a certain number of stories to each other which we all read, which is our long list. We work it down to a shortlist together.
Has there ever been a time you’ve disagreed?
I’ve been the chair every year and there was a year in particular where there was a story I wanted to win but the others didn’t and I was politely reminded that it was a democratic process. Sometimes there will be a story I’ll want shortlisted and the others don’t, and we have to persuade each other on the merits of the story. We’ve never resorted to violence.
Is there a particular genre or subject that you don’t want to see in the competition or doesn’t do very well?
I don’t think so. There’s nothing that’s excluded on the basis of genre because you could have someone who could write in a genre and do really well and someone who writes in the genre poorly, and we’ll be interested in the one that’s writing well and not in the one that does it badly. It’s as simple as that. The judging panels are different every time, I’m the only constant, and we’ve never had a case of one genre being particularly popular one year and another the next. We’re not really concerned with what genre a story is, or whether it’s in a genre at all, only that it’s good.
What does the winner of the Manchester Fiction Prize get?
There’s prize money of £10,000 though in one year we split it between two people because the entries were so good. I know for a fact, people who have been long listed or shortlisted have been really happy with it. Obviously the winner gets more out of it, as it’s an enormous amount of money to win, £10,000 for a short story, which is why the entry fee is set at the level it is. More importantly, whenever you send a submission to an editor and it says they’ve been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize, it makes them sit up. A winner gets a lot in terms of money, but the shortlisted writers and even the long listed writers get something that helps them in their career.
What’s your top tip for writing a prize winning short story?
Revising and proofreading. Make it the best short story you can write. Take it seriously and be professional.
Nicholas Royle is a writer of novels including First Novel published by Jonathan Cape in 2013 and short stories, editor of The Best British Short Stories, publisher at Nightjar Press, and Senior Lecturer in Fiction Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Anyone hoping to win the Manchester Fiction Prize 2014 will need to submit online by 5pm Friday 29th August to be in with a chance of winning £10,000.
Justine Chamberlain is joint editor in chief at Humanity Hallows, and a poet and creative writing student at MMU. She blogs at justinechamberlain.blogspot.co.uk and tweets @JustinesWriting. She plans to take over the world by 2025.