SHOWDOWN AT THE SCOTIA
It's a notoriously hard nut to crack, the short story. How do you corral life into a couple of thousand words, ensuring that you have a recognisable structure and real characters? Somehow it's easier with shorter forms like flash fiction, where everything's compressed, or longer forms like the novel, which gives you room to breathe.
So as I took my place with my fellow judges at the final of the Scotia short story competition last night, I knew they might not have high expectations of the standard of stories we were to hear. Drew Campbell, president of Scottish PEN, is a novelist (Dead Letter House) and writer with extensive experience of analysing other people's work through his various stints as writer in residence and now, reader in residence for East Renfrewshire libraries. Dave Manderson is a novelist (Lost Bodies) and short story writer who teaches creative writing at the University of the West of Scotland. 'The marking,' he sighed, 'takes forever.' Between them they've read hundreds of thousands of words by hopeful writers.
But I could see their faces relaxing as the first reader began. Ray Evans, the Scotia's current poet laureate, launched into a misanthropic, subtly written tale of a megalomaniac artist who may be about to change the political climate forever.
'Well, that's set the benchmark really high,' Dave said.
The Scotia, of course, is one of the iconic literary pubs. James Kelman and Billy Connolly set up a writers' group which ran short story competitions and even published a couple of collections. The tradition was carried on by Brendan McLaughlin, but had dwindled away when Mary Rafferty took over as manager. She has restored the group, which meets on the second Monday of the month, and it now features some of the finest new writing in Scotland. Recently Kelman himself was in with some friends when the group was on. He dispatched a pal to see what it was like.
'Same sort of shite as when you were running it,' reported his mate.
We took that as a compliment.
Even as exacting a writer as Scotland's lone Booker winner would not have been disappointed last night. We heard stories of children whose lives were buffeted around by adults, a foray into the darker side of the property market, and a delicious confection on competitive duck feeding by Linda McLaughlin, whose writing is always beautifully crafted and pitch perfect.
'Charming,' pronounced Drew.
There were, though, three outstanding stories. Paddy Hughes is a newcomer to the Scotia, a young Liverpudlian whose work crackles with energy and invention. His story, Steady Hands, encapsulated the life of a hitman into the moments before he pulls the trigger. John Savage's Meeting Danny Boy was a darkly humorous story of Christmas Eve in the high rise home of two alcoholics. John is a previous Scotia poet laureate so it was no surprise that his first attempt at the short story was so powerful. The evening's finale was One Hot Day by another Scotia stalwart, Mo Blake of the Read Raw collective. A vivacious young woman, a stuffed-shirt young man who wants to become a priest, a walk in the country, in her hands became high-spirited, subversive comedy with a serious edge.
From left, John Savage, Mo Blake and
We had our prizewinners and it was only left to decide the order. The structural sophistication of Paddy Hughes's story, which took a complicated back story and wove it together with the drama of watching a hitman about to commit a murder,
was technically superb and we were unanimous in selecting it as the winner, unusual in my experience of judging competitions, when people's personal tastes often clash. How, though, do you separate two brilliant stories, John's hugely powerful with a playful edge, Mo's hugely playful with a powerful edge? In the end we decided to award two equal second prizes, which sent Mary, the manager, scurrying off to get new envelopes and divvy up the cash equally.
Paddy's story featured a murderous father, who had stabbed his mother and was now dead. But Paddy's dad was very much live and proud! 'And Mum's fine too,' he said.
Pictures by Mary Rafferty
Interestingly, Paddy had tightened up his work since the heats, when he'd gone over his time limit and been halted by the rattling spoons of Ray Evans, our timekeeper. The previous ending had lessened the impact of the story and we discussed how useful it is to read your work aloud and to sense fluctuations in the energy of those in the room.
'Sometimes it's when you sense that, that you realise what your story's really about,' commented Drew.
Modern writers have to be prepared to read their work aloud, something which is excruciatingly difficult the first time you do it. The Scotia competitions and the open mic policy at its monthly meetings offer writers the chance to practise this necessary skill in a safe environment, where people understand how terrifying an experience it can be to expose yourself in that way. So come along, all you writers aspiring to be Scotland's second Booker winner or simply to get published. Find out if you're hard enough.