Friday, 9 April 2010

Waterstone’s Launch ‘Perfectly Formed’ Short Story Competition

Waterstone’s Books Quarterly, in association with Pan Macmillan and the Arvon Foundation, has announced the launch of its inaugural short story competition, Perfectly Formed. They are looking for ‘the best unpublished writer in the country who can create a story that is small but... perfectly formed’. The competition is open to stories of 2,000 words or less by writers who are over 16 and haven’t had fiction ‘professionally published’ before. The story can be about any subject and in any genre.

The winning story will be published in the October issue of Books Quarterly. The winner will also be given a place on a week-long course at Arvon, as well as £200 of Pan Macmillan books of their choice. The three best runners-up will receive written feedback on their entries and £60 of Pan Macmillan books. Their work will also be published online.

Details of the competition are published in the current issue of the Books Quarterly (pictured), which I beleive you can pick up from any Waterstone's store in the UK.

The competition closing date is 1 July 2010.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

F Scott Fitzgerald: Characterisation

I’m currently re-reading The Great Gatsby. I’d forgotten how great it is! One of the reasons it’s such a great novel, of course, is that Gatsby himself is one of literature’s truly great characters. As John Mullan, Professor of English at UCL, has said, ‘nothing is … more important in our reading of novels than the sense that we are encountering real people in them’. And it’s not just Gatsby who is ‘real’. The whole novel is an F Scott Fitzgerald master- class in characterisation.

Here’s the first appearance in The Great Gatsby of a minor character, Myrtle Wilson:
Then I heard footsteps on a stairs, and in a moment the thickish figure blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of blue crêpe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering. She smiled slowly and, walking through her husband as if he were a ghost, shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. Then she wet her lips, and without turning around spoke to her husband in a soft, coarse voice:
‘Get some chairs, why don’t you, so somebody can sit down.’

Then, a few pages later, we’re introduced to Myrtle’s sister, another bit-part player:
The sister, Catherine, was a slender, wordly girl of about thirty, with a solid, sticky bob of red hair and, a complexion powdered milky white. Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature towards the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face. When she moved about there was an incessant clicking as innumerable pottery bracelets jingled up and down upon her arms. She came in with such a proprietary haste, and looked around so possessively at the furniture that I wondered if she lived there. But when I asked her she laughed immoderately, repeated my question aloud, and told me she lived with a girlfriend at a hotel.

Each character gets one paragraph. Each paragraph consists of less than 130 words. And yet in each case, Fitzgerald has created a living, breathing character we feel we know well enough to believe in.

The critic James Wood asserts (in his book How Fiction Works) that ‘there is nothing harder than the creation of fictional characters’. As writers, we all know that characters are built through a combination of appearance, action and speech – that’s basic craft. But the art is to show the reader exactly the right amount of appearance, action and speech in just the right proportions. Which is exactly what Fitzgerald does.