Thursday, 13 August 2015

10 ways to find a winning short story concept

The Book Lounge in Cape Town's Roeland Street was packed last night at the launch of Incredible Journey, the 2015 Short Sharp Stories Award anthology curated by Joanne Hichens. Joanne, cultivator of sharp literary talent, interviewed the authors and discovered how they came by their story ideas on the prescribed theme, 'journeys'.

Mix up a few explosive ingredients. Young men, alcohol, a fast car on a Friday night: as Andrew Prior said of his story 'Terraplane Journey', 'with the right ingredients, things are  going to happen.' He acknowledged Stephen King's On Writing for teaching him the how of constructing a short story.

Mine the emotions of your past. In 'Pyramid of Light', Sean Mayne explored the paradox of having nostalgia for his apartheid-era army days while knowing, as he does now, that he was 'fighting on the wrong side'.

Hook into current issues. 'I was noticing the problem of homophobia in our society,' said Tebello Mzamo, who in 'My Room' followed the personal journey of a young gay man who moves from sleepy Lesotho to the Mother City.

Launch from a landscape that touches you. In his story 'Red Dust', Stephen Symons wrote about lives that intersect, with the unifying red dust of Africa figuratively covering them all. 'We as South Africans are all intimately connected to landscape,' he explained.

Choose a key symbol that draws characters together. In Bridget Pitt's 'The Infant Odysseus', it's a baby. 'An infant offers the possibility of engagement for people in a divided society,' she said.

Embellish a shocking or unusual tale you've heard. Dudumalingani Mqombothi, author of 'Memories we Lost', grew up in a village in the former Transkei where a family member had a mental illness and a sangoma (healer) claimed he could cure such conditions by baking the sufferer...

If a poem or true story haunts you, use it. Bongani Kona recalled reading a six-line poem entitled 'Requiem' in a poetry journal from a second-hand shop. 'I loved the way the final line of that poem echoed,' he said. That, and a report he read about two brothers who hadn't spoken in 25 years, combined to spark his story, 'At Your Requiem'.

Mix mythology with the modern. In 'Lift Club', Jumani Clarke used a car lift club journey to explore the classic idea of the soul's descent into the underworld.

Make notes, then distil them. Story award winner Andrew Salomon, an archaeologist, related how he started making notes of characters and conversations during his daily train trips to and from work. 'So much stuff happens in a carriage in a 24-minute journey; truth really is stranger than fiction,' he said. As for plot, 'it's much easier to note it down than to think it up.' To concentrate many quirky happenings into one train trip for his story 'Train 124', Andrew created a protagonist with a neuro-developmental disorder that causes one to focus intently on one's surroundings.

Don't force it. 'When a story doesn't work, allow something else to pop out,' said Joanne. Sean Mayne began with 'a guy with a body on a train' but abandoned it for the new idea that had appeared, inspired by his army days.

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