Monday 25 July 2011

Stories: how short is short?

Over the years I've been writing, the UK short-story magazine market's dried up and Flash has emerged. The remaining outlets/competitions often have word-limits of about 2000. My drafts come out shorter than they used to. I've not written a 3000 word story for years - what's the point if no-one takes them and hence they're not read? If you're famous or you publish short-story collections maybe you're ok, but I'm maxing out at about 2500 words nowadays.

I know my experiences are far from universal. For example, the Missouri Review's guidelines say "While there are no length restrictions, novella-length manuscripts (i.e., 30,000 words or more) or “flash fiction” manuscripts (i.e., 2,000 words or less) must be truly exceptional to be published". Eh? 2000 word Flash?? I think even 1500 is too long for Flash. The Bridport Prize Flash limit's 250 words. Their word limit for stories is 5000. They have no minimum, but the Wells festival competition does - they want stories in the 1800-2200 range. Short story limits can be less than that though - I entered a story competition recently (not advertised as Flash) where the maximum was 1200 words.

E-magazines don't have the cost of paper to worry about, so you might think that they'd have longer stories. There used to be a feeling that online pieces have to be short to suit online reading habits. I suspect these habits are changing, but E-magazines haven't yet had the time to establish themselves as prestige sites, so the best stories whatever their length tend not to go online (or if they do, they're under-appreciated. In the US, though magazines like TriQuarterly have become online-only, online magazines aren't not considered for the O. Henry prize. They're beginning to be recognized by the Pushcart Anthology).

Of course, I'll continue to write stories without regard to word-count, but however much I claim to let my pieces reach their natural length, I have to worry about word-count when I send pieces off, and it wouldn't surprise me if market forces have affected my notion of what "natural" is.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Arranging poetry readings

So you've done your launch - what's next? If you're trying to arrange a poetry reading in order to raise your profile or sell books, several options are available. There's little point going it alone. The options below try to tap into existing publicity systems, which can help a lot.

Poetry venues

If a nearby town has a venue running a series of readings, you can try open-mics to gain experience. You'll struggle to get an evening to yourself unless you've published a few books.


You could take advantage of some skill or interest of yours other than writing - if you work in a big establishment (a hospital for example), you might try to arrange a lunchtime meeting in your workplace. Publicity shouldn't be a problem.

Writers Circles

There are Writers Groups in most cities (poetry groups are fewer). They tend to plan their programmes a year ahead and are used to having known authors, so don't expect them to welcome you in unreservedly. Unless you're famous you'll probably need to do more than just read - you could run a workshop or judge a competition. They often pay, but you might prefer to appear for free, telling them that you'll bring some books for sale. They'll handle the publicity.


Nowadays there are many Arts festivals and Writers/Poets festivals. Unless you've published several books you're unlikely to appear in the main programme. Some festivals (e.g. Kings Lynn) have fringe events, which might be more suitable. You'll have a better chance if you team up with others. Festivals have bookstalls, which can be useful, but the biggest advantage is that they'll handle the publicity. It will help if you've previously attended the festival (or other festivals). The festivals needn't be Arts-centred - organisers of festivals about Food, Cromwell, Gardening, etc might welcome the chance to offer something a little different. Contact the organisers as early as possible.


Publicity-wise it helps to have a reason for doing a reading - an anniversary, launch of a new group, etc. As a venue try a library or a bookshop - they'll both help with advertising (publicity will otherwise be a problem) and might offer their services free. If your town has a venue often used for poetry readings, you could try that. Again, teaming up will help improve the size of your audience. If you have a publisher you could find out if any fellow-authors live nearby. If you know a musician, you could ask them to do a half-time stint. The more performers there are, the more friends they'll bring, especially if nibbles are available.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Short-list or short straw?

Two disappointments this week. I was runner-up in the purple moose poetry pamphlet competition and on the short-list (but not a prizewinner) in the Frome short story competition. Oh well. Better to have loved and lost I suppose, but sometimes I think I'd rather go unnoticed than appear on a short-list only to have hopes dashed.

The disadvantages aren't just psychological. Sometimes in competitions the short-listed pieces are published. When (as in the Bristol short story competition or the Templar poetry pamphlet competition) the result is a well produced book, that's good news, but some other competitions just produce a pamphlet or put the pieces online. I think I'd rather send a good poem somewhere else than have it appear on the web. I've already sent my Frome entry elsewhere.

For some competitions (the Bridport Prizes and the Forward Poetry awards, for example) being on the short-list is a reward in its own right, something to mention on a book cover. Publishing "long-lists" dozens of entries long has become fashionable. I suppose they increase interest generally, but they don't interest me. There are publicity merits of being on the Frank O'Connor short story book award long-list, but prospective buyers might not realise that "All eligible titles constitute the long-list, which is read by the jury".