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Sam and Charlie: Questions for the talented Mr Fish

/by Sam Kandej and Rachel Marsh/

The Talented Mr Fish

Our very own Sam got in touch with Mr Fish at Fiction on the Web to ask about his take on writing and the short story. Charlie Fish is a popular short story writer and screenwriter. His short stories have been published in several countries and inspired dozens of short film adaptations. Since 1996, he has edited Fiction on the Web, the longest-running short story site on the web. Every single story on Fiction on the Web is hand-picked and carefully edited by Charlie Fish. He was born in Mount Kisco, New York in 1980; and now lives in south London with his wife and daughters.

Sam Kandej: Nothing in this world is more enjoyable than having a few words with the writer whom you love and admire. Today, I have got the honor of spending a few minutes with Mr. Charlie Fish. How do you do Mr. Fish?

Charlie Fish: Very well, thank you.

Sam: Let us start with the short story itself. Are you in love with writing short stories?

Charlie: Actually, I often find the process of writing laborious and frustrating, especially when starting something new. What ends up on the page seems to fall short of the images in my head. I have to persist and write myself into the story until I reach that golden territory where the ideas and characters take on a life of their own. Not all stories get there, but when they do – that’s when I fall in love.

The great thing about short stories is that if I write one that’s no good, I can discard it and write a new one. Each time I have to discard a story I learn something new. Writing a novel is considerably more challenging – persisting past the doubt and frustration is a much longer slog.

Sam:  Do you remember the very first time you told yourself “I must become a writer”? What made you say that?

Charlie: I’ve written stories all my life, but for many years it never occurred to me to think of myself as a writer. I assumed I had to get a desk job with a decent salary. But then it occurred to me the only difference between being a rat-racer who dabbled with writing – and a writer – was declaring myself as such. I didn’t have to make money, or win awards, I just had to write, and put myself out there and tell people I was a writer until they started believing me.

As soon as I started calling myself a writer, I paid more attention to my craft and my writing has been getting better ever since.

Sam: And do you remember the first short story you read?

Charlie: The first? No. But there are several short stories I read in my youth that left a lasting impression – some of which I am revisiting now as I read them again to my three-year-old daughter. Like The Sneetches by Dr Seuss or The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

Sam: How many short stories have you written?

Charlie: More than 50, of which there are maybe 15 that I consider worthy of general consumption.

Sam: Which one is the most popular?

Charlie: “Death by Scrabble”. It was first published in 2005, and since then I get at least an email a week from someone asking to reprint it, or adapt it into a film, or use it for a speech competition. It’s been translated into French, Spanish, Dutch, Polish, Flemish, Hebrew, Turkish, Chinese, Telugu, Gurani – and that’s just the ones I can remember. If you search “Death by Scrabble” on YouTube you’ll find nearly 100 short films inspired by the story. It features in standard textbooks for English comprehension in three countries.

There is no way I could have predicted how much of a chord that story would strike with people – and probably no way I’ll match its success again. But that won’t stop me from trying!

Sam: Is it your own favorite story too?

Charlie: I’m immensely proud of “Death by Scrabble”, but my latest favourite story is probably “Remission”, which I wrote last year for a horror anthology called BLEED, published to raise money for The Children’s Cancer Society. I poured a lot of raw emotional honesty into the story – it’s a science fiction space tale, but also a metaphor for the loneliness of dealing with a serious illness. My baby daughter was very ill when I wrote it, and I think the story was infused with some of the trauma and desperate hopefulness I was feeling.

(She’s happy and well now!)

Sam: Typically, How much time do you spend on reading short stories, and how much time do you spend on writing?

Charlie: Not enough time writing! Never enough time. But I read a lot of short stories – I usually get about a dozen submissions a week for my website, Fiction on the Web. I read them all during my lunch breaks at work, and choose the ones I want to publish. At home, at the moment, I’m reading Gardner Dozois’ Best of the Best anthology of science fiction short stories, which is thoroughly enlightening.

Sam: I’m really interested to know more about your writing habits. Do you have any unusual habits for writing short stories?

Charlie: My favourite writing environment is sitting in the bar of the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton with my laptop and a beer. No kids, no “To Do” list, and a very poor Internet connection. Perfect.

Sam: What do you do in your free time when you don’t feel like writing and reading?

Charlie: For the last couple of years I’ve been pretty obsessed with board games. Not the old school ones I grew up with, but the new wave that’s sparked a growing subculture. I recently attended the world’s largest board gaming convention in Essen, Germany, along with 150,000 other people. I had a blast. If “board games” to you means Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble, you’re missing out. Try Carcassonne, or Ticket to Ride, or King of Tokyo, or any of the other thousands of amazing games published in the last twenty years.

Sam: Have you ever been jealous of a writer?

Charlie: Envious, yes. One of my heroes is Terry Rossio, the screenwriter responsible for Aladdin, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. I wrote to him once to thank him for an inspiring series of columns he’s published online (at wordplayer.com), and he invited me to a house party. I dropped everything and flew to LA to go. It wasn’t his palatial house that I was envious of, or his two hot tubs, but the fact that this man had the ear of Hollywood. He could write a screenplay and it would get taken seriously, get made for millions of dollars, and get shown to a packed audience at my local cinema 5000 miles away. I want that!

Sam: I have noticed that you are a humorous writer. You even mix horror and humor together. Is it a way to attract more readers? Or do you do that because you love humorous stories?

Charlie: I don’t really think of myself as a humorous writer. I’m no Douglas Adams. But humour is an excellent tool to charm readers and get their defences down. The louder they’re laughing, the more open and vulnerable they are when you hit them with the real emotion of the piece.

Sam: In your opinion, what would life be like if all politicians, presidents, kings, and prime ministers were short story writers?

Charlie: A lot of politicians are writers, which makes sense because they spend most of their lives making stuff up and manipulating people anyway. Perhaps if they all wrote fiction they’d have a keener sense of the ironies inherent in their day jobs, which could only be a good thing.

Sam: If I were a Short Story Genie, what three wishes would you make?

Charlie: Discipline, flair and courage.

Sam: You have a great website called Fiction on the Web. Why did you create it? And how many writers cooperate with you in order to keep this website up?

Charlie: Fiction on the Web gives me an opportunity to showcase amazing short stories, encourage fledgling authors, and contribute to the wider community of writers. No-one helps me with the site, it’s a labour of love.

Sam: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to write more short stories? Are you going to publish any new books?

Charlie: I’m intending to self-publish a collection of my best short stories from the last 15 years. Keep an eye out at fictionontheweb.co.uk for the announcement.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing – working on the collection for the next 15 years.

Sam: Thank you so much dear Mr. Fish for taking the time and answering my questions. I look forward to reading more of your short stories.

Charlie: Thank you Sam for such interesting questions!

If you follow an author online or in print and would like to interview him/her for ShortbreadStories, get in touch with Rachel at rachel@shortbreadstories.com, and we’ll try to get you that interview.

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Re-blogged from: Shortbread Stories’s Blog › Sam and Charlie: Questions for the talented Mr Fish | Shortbread

Writing Challenge: Random Subjects

Brother and sister Shortbreaders, Tobias Haglund and Maria Burén, created a semi-competition amongst themeselves. They asked each other to write a story about a random subject chosen from the dictionary, then they uploaded the work to the site. The subject was ‘Cancellation’.

We thought this was such a great idea, and one we hope you might want to do for your first Writing Circle challenge. (Oh, and by the way, ShortbreadStories is starting Writing Circles, and you can read about it here.)

 Thanks to   for bringing such a great idea to ShortbreadStories.

Cancellation by Tobias

Cancellation by Mari

Re-blogged from: Shortbread Stories’s Blog › Writing Challenge: Random Subjects | Shortbread 

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Running Out of Ink

/by Amy Kinmond/

Fresh out of Uni clutching my new English Degree in my hand, I stared at the world lost as I realised, ‘I am an adult now. What the hell am I going to do?’

With so few jobs going I, like most students, took the first job I could get – in a call centre.

During the coming months, with increasing writers block and the weight of everyday life bearing down on me, I felt I was losing my identity.  A bit extreme I know, but I had always been a creative type and when you’re in Uni you dream about the future. I never realised how easily those dreams can be crushed once you find out what the real world is all about.

I needed to get creative again – I needed to do something.  Writing was flowing, albeit merely a trickle, but it wasn’t enough.  When I was in University I had been the Junior Editor of the New Writing Dundee anthology for two years and had thought I had found my calling.  But once graduation came around I had to take the first job I could, as I had no funds to move to where my dream job may lie.  Now, after working full time for over a year, I could afford to move but my previous editorial experience was no longer recent enough to get an internship.  It was a Catch 22.

Later, when I was editing an old story to submit to an online publication, I got an idea. I realised how I could gain more editorial experience and get my creative spirit back – I could start up my own online publication.

At first I didn’t take the idea seriously, it was just a fun notion at the back of my mind.  I would imagine what the website would look like and what kind of stories were on it, but in the same way as I imagined how I would spend my lottery winnings.  However, when I mentioned it to a friend they convinced me I could do it – I had the necessary skills from previous experience and was lucky enough to have helpful contacts in both the virtual and the real world that could help get it off the ground.

So I set to it, rummaging the internet looking at similar websites; seeing how they were laid out, their target audience and their general impression.  I brought someone in to design the website to my specifications and did some research to find a server host and deal on a domain.

It has been hard going, and as always problems arose on the way delaying progress.  There were times I thought the site would never see the light of day, but now in the final stages of building the site, I can see my idea taking form.  I have created an environment where writers can showcase their work.  It may not be the only site of its kind, and it may be small to start with.  It also doesn’t aim to create the kind of reading and writing community that ShortbreadStories does, but I still feel it will bring something to readers, who will hopefully look forward to a monthly publication bringing them a range of fresh stories, and to writers, who will have another place to potentially showcase their work for their Writing CV.

Will this method work at building my skills and experience?  Will the online magazine be a hit or shoved to the back of the virtual rack?  As we are still in prelaunch mode, there are many questions yet to answer, but I know this has already been an uplifting experience for me and no matter how it turns out I can still look back in years to come and say, “I did that.”

I would advise anyone stuck in a rut like I was that if you don’t have a shovel, it can sometimes be more fun and a better experience to make your own tools to get to where you want to be.  As for the website – watch this space!

If you would like to submit a story for the first issue of ‘Running out of Ink’, please email your story of 2500 words or less to submit@runningoutofink.com. Or if you want to know more, feel free to send an email to info@runningoutofink.com.

Getting Your Book to Move: The Book Trailer

/By Anne-Marie Bottoms/

It’s the first week of public voting for the Self-Publish or Perish competition, and there’s one aspect of the prize that should be discussed – the book trailer.

A book trailer is a relatively new concept in publishing, but using moving pictures as a way to market publications is becoming more common. It allows potential readers to see the essence of the novel in a short, understandable and entertaining way. It is, essentially, an advertisement for your book.

As for the self-published author, you have spent a good deal of time and effort into creating your book, and simply you want it to reach as many readers as possible.  A 30-90 second book trailer can help you achieve that. 

However, like much of the self-publishing world, not every writer is also a filmmaker, which is why it is best to hire a professional when implementing a book trailer as part of your marketing strategy.

Below is a list of things you should consider when commissioning a book trailer:
Affordability

A good filmmaker should, before drafting an estimate, discuss your audio/visual needs for the trailer and your book’s key themes, which may be transferable to the way in which you hope to entice buyers. A videographer should ask the following questions: 

  • Will the visuals include the book’s cover art alone, or do you want filmed sequences? 
  • Will your trailer use a voiceover in which passages from the book are read?
  • If yes, will the voiceover be performed by an actor via a talent pool, or will you opt to use your own voice? 
  • Will you use royalty free music or license contracted compositions?
  • Do you want a 30 second spot, 90 second spot, or something even longer?

A good videographer will guide you through all these questions, and then use the information you provide to offer options that suit different budget levels. A book trailer need not be expensive to be effective.
Versatility

A trailer should interest as many potential readers as possible and be versatile enough to translate to various audiences. Considering the 30-90 seconds you’ll have to get your message across, a trailer will need to be tightly organized yet versatile enough to grab as large and diversified audience as you possibly can.

In order to achieve this, you’ll want to consider asking the following questions when planning a book trailer with your videographer:

  • What content from novel speaks to a great many?
  • What ideas are universal?

In addition to the trailer itself being versatile, the filmmaker you choose should be versatile, too. Look for a filmmaker who produces different types of films, a filmmaker who is just at ease with filming fictional stories as they are with factual reporting. 

Innovative

In this day and age, short attention span reigns, so make the most out of those 30-90 seconds. Stand out by grasping the viewers’ attention and keeping hold of it throughout the duration of the trailer. The following are aspects you should consider when discussing your book trailer with your videographer: 

  • Carefully think through how you will anchor your viewer from the first second right through to the end of the piece. (Make sure your filmmaker shows you a story board before shooting.)
  • Play with the relationship between audio and visual. 
  • Play with timing of information release.
  • Play with the amount of information you release to the viewer. 
  • Make the potential reader not only want more – and buy the book – but also propel them to click, post, and share that trailer with others on social media.

Finally, make sure your filmmaker can provide you with a product in various formats so that you can upload and distribute the book trailer to a multitude of platforms.

In the end, you want your book to catch the attention of potential readers, you want your book to move and to be seen…and read.

Anne-Marie runs August Pictures with her husband Gary. August Pictures is donating the book trailer portion of the Self-Publish or Perish prize. They offer affordable, versatile and innovative promotional videos for a wide variety of organisations – from green energy companies, to theatres, to publishing authors. You get the picture.  Get August Pictures to move it for you and get your book seen…and read.

Whither the Short Story or Wither the Short Story

/by David Appleby/

Whither the short story?

The Irish Times recently asked if 2012 was the year of the short story, announcing that short story collections are ‘blossoming all over the place.’ The British publishing house, Bloomsbury, is offering a short story collection each month for the first five months of the year. They cite a ‘perceptible growth in enthusiasm for short stories’ and explain that attention spans have been compromised by the internet and ‘the appeal of a story is perfectly crafted to the length of a commute, a lunch break, the last minutes of the day before switching off the light.’ As a writer of short stories this last strikes me as more fitting to the reading of a magazine article, or a Sunday supplement feature than a short story: in fact it’s insulting to any short story that breathes.

But with all the fanfare in Ireland, Great Britain, and the USA – which issues several ‘best of’ collections on a yearly basis, thus locking in our celebration – a whiff of disquiet hangs in the air over the short story form. There is an ongoing conversation that the short story form is undergoing something of a sea change: the form itself is taking on strange cargo, and the short story is not what it used to be.

What of that? What then did the short story form ‘used to be’?

***

Sean O’Faolain, in distinguishing the short story from the tale, reminded us that we know it’s a short story because it’s, ahem…short. And Frank O’Connor in his classic study of the short story – still something of the last word on the subject here in the USA – concluded that the short story has as its core value a specific and recurring central theme: that of human loneliness. That matters here in the US, this homage paid to loneliness, for it sets loose those small ripples of behavior which often go unexplained in the short story. In the existential eyes of Andre Malraux, the American short story places a fundamental emphasis on the act, not on analysis or explanation. It came as no surprise to me that among his several chosen examples of this central theme, Frank O’Connor used, as a prime example of that depiction of human loneliness, a short story by the American writer, J.D. Salinger to underscore his point. He of course went on to also include the Irish and British masters of the form to buttress his claim.

As to characters? Well, a short story should not have more than four, we had been told, but preferably two or three, though two works best. So Mr. O’Connor stated. (Or was that Mr. O’Faolain speaking?)

Those of us on intimate terms with the short story form know that unlike the novel, which John Fowles called ‘a hypothesis and first cousin to the lie’, we feel the short story, so centered on the act and on the behavior of the two or three characters, carries a ring of truth and that it is these acts which are, in Sartre’s words, ‘complete in themselves, acts which it is necessary to grasp completely with all the obscure powers of our soul’. What elevates the short story then is not characterization – leave that to the novel where characterization really matters – in the short story, like jazz, it is often what’s suggested by the characters’ behaviour that counts. The short story form has sought to discourage iron-clad answers or irrefutable explanations. It has always left much to the reader’s imagination. It has asked the reader to round his or her mouth around the essential ‘why’?

By and large, this is the capsule version of what the short story ‘used to be’.

***

Wither the short story?

A month ago a panel gathered in Dublin to debate Frank O’ Connor’s classic study. Some found objections to his study: ‘too prescriptive’, ‘too limiting’. Some of the assembled writers at the Irish Writer’s Center felt that O’Connor’s study had little relevance to their writing. Perhaps there is a feeling that ‘The Lonely Voice’ is out of date? If so, perhaps the reason for that is the current rage for brevity.

A perception exists that what ‘used to be’ the short story form is being cannibalized by the increasingly popular short-short story of 1200 to 2500 words. And add to that the near frenzied growth of those shorter forms of ‘Flash Fiction.’ Though neither are new – Borges and Kafka were writing in these forms long ago – the brevity of each form can be frightening to the resistant reader, the literary critic, and even the short story writer who is accustomed to the easily identifiable beginning, middle, and end in the more traditional short story form – the perceived, ‘used to be’ short story of 3500 words or more. (Think here, Alice Munro or William Trevor, among many others.) Imagine the howl of these ‘purists’ of the form as they encounter the ‘six word story’ gaining strength as it vies for its place in the ‘withering’ short story form. (An unverifiable, unsubstantiated origin of the six word short story relates the ‘urban legend’ that tells how Ernest Hemingway challenged a group of fellow writers that he could write a story using only six words. They accepted his bet and he allegedly picked up a napkin and wrote: ‘For Sale: Baby’s shoes. Never worn.’ Papa, the legend concludes, gathered up his winnings and left the table.)

An additional concern over a ‘new form’ can be found in the increasing number of short stories that are ‘connected’ to form a novel, yet at the same time are short stories that may be read as individual stories in a collection, hop-scotching across the table of contents and reading in any order of choice. Hardly new, and purists may take heart here: Dublin City Libraries has chosen a book of connected stories for their ‘One Book: One City program’. The book? James Joyce’s Dubliners.

***

The short story – whither or wither – always has been and continues to be a viable and essential art form. And in the English speaking world it is safe to say that every year is the ‘year of the short story.’ Additional proof required? Just trawl through Shortbread’s many hundreds of short stories from writers throughout the English speaking world who utilize every short story form extant, and you will be amazed and uplifted as I am by the variety and vitality of the short stories found on these pages.

Why do you read/write short stories?

The 22nd of December was National Short Story Day, so we asked Shortbreaders ‘Why do you read/write short stories?’ We received some terrific responses, and we’ve included the top three below:

Kirstin McKenzie
I write and read short stories because like life, they have no real beginnings or endings.

Deanna Westwood
I like reading short stories for the same reason I like looking through people’s windows when they’ve left the curtains open after dusk. I don’t want to move in, I just want a quick peek at other lives before I move on.

Andy Bottomley
Why do I write short stories?

Now there’s a good question, a question I may not have addressed if someone hadn’t asked it.

Do I do it for money? What do you think?
Do I do it for fame? Ditto, although some form of recognition has it reassuring confirmatory benefits.
Do I do it because I can? I think some would have questions about that!

No, I think the reason is both complex and yet simple.

I write because I want to.
I write because through it I enter new, exciting and sometimes dark worlds. I go to places my mind ain’t ever been before.
I write because it enables me to discover more about who I am.
I write because I can view the world through different eyes, and maybe see a different point of view. Which can be quite surprising!

Writing is a passport that allows one to enter a country where there are a million scenarios and just one question asked a billion ways…. What if?

National Short Story Day

Today is National Short Story Day, so ShortbreadStories would like to ask all its Shortbreaders, ‘Why do you write/read short stories?’ Send us your answer to fiona@shortbreadstories.com, and we’ll put some of the best responses on the site.

Go to ShortbreadStories post.

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