Before we started The Rabbit Hole here at the Writers’ Co-op, I edited three anthologies called the Book a Break. They contained stories selected from submissions to a literary competition I ran, which attracted a fair bit of attention. I’ve now compiled all the stories into a bumper edition called 83 because, well, there are 83 stories in it. The aim now is to produce a Best of the Book a Break compilation. For that, the 83 stories will be whittled down to 40 or so, comprising those already commended plus 20 to 25 others, selected from the 58 other stories.
I could of course decide myself which stories to include. But as these things are subjective, I’d feel more serene if I had a few other opinions. So here’s your chance to be a literary judge. It’s very simple – all you need do is give a mark out of 5 to each of the 58 stories.
What do the judges get? A list of simple criteria to help them decide (see below), a free copy of the 83 stories, plenty of time to read them (the stories have a 2000 word limit, and the deadline is 31st April) and their name credited in the Best of the Book a Break compilation. The proceeds go to the Against Malaria Foundation.
Interested? Drop me a line via the contact page on this site.
5: Yes! Took me straight into its world and left me thinking about it afterwards.
4: Great story – characters, dialogue and narrative all very well done. Comic, dramatic or disturbing, it hit the mark.
3: Good story, nicely told, but lacking that extra bit that would make it sparkle.
2: A bit hit and miss but enjoyable all the same.
1: Mildly interesting, but didn’t really work for me.
I’ve recently read a few short stories by Katherine Mansfield: Germans at Meat, The Baron, The Luft Bad and other equally unknown titles which don’t figure in any ‘best of’ collection of her work. This is because they come from her very first collection, In a German Pension, published in 1911, when she was just 22. They were written during her stay in the Pension Müller, Bavaria, where her mother, suspecting she may have had a lesbian relationship, took her for ‘a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise.’
In a German Pension went through three editions, but then the publisher went bankrupt. Mansfield wasn’t disappointed by this; on the contrary, she no longer liked the stories, and when, after being recognised as one of the leading authors of her day, she was begged by another publisher to let him reprint them, she wrote, ‘I cannot have it reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough.’ This was despite the fact that she was sorely in need of the money it would have brought her.
Was she right? Yes, I dare say, by the high standards she set herself. The stories lack the depth and intensity of her later work – although, rereading that, I sometimes find it a little febrile, a little too intense. But it would have been a great shame if John Middleton Murry, her second husband, hadn’t included In a German Pension in the complete collection of her stories he edited after her death. They are superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures.
Reading it, I thought, ‘Wow! To be writing that so young!’ Writers often repudiate juvenilia, and with good reason, but I would have given my eye teeth to be able to write like that at 21. I thought back to my own beginning: I finished my first novel at 26, about a group of friends in the mid-1970s, driving round France and Spain in a restless search for meaningfulness and adventure. I’d repudiate it now, I guess, but it wasn’t entirely cringeworthy. It earned me an appointment with an agent, who said if she’d read it ten years earlier, she’d have snapped it up. But by then, there were lots of similar explorations of the prevailing counterculture, and it didn’t break new ground. She had her finger firmly on the zeitgeist, and advised me to write a family saga instead, but I never did. Perhaps I should have.
Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young? Mansfield is far from the only one whose talent was obvious so early. This New Yorker article sets the question in perspective, while for those who fear they may be past it already, there’s also ample evidence that it’s never too late to write a book.
Any thoughts on the matter? When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?
Not long ago, I did a Freebooksy promotion for Mystery Manor, fourth in the Magali Rousseau series. To do it, I enrolled the book in KDP Select, then ran a five-day promotion during which it was free. For the second day, I booked a slot with Freebooksy, who promoted the promotion to their email list.
Now, the question of whether a book should ever be offered free arouses a lot of debate, and it’s not my intention to go into that here (I will in a forthcoming post). Suffice to say that although I didn’t recoup what it cost for a slot on Freebooksy, the result in terms of purchases of the other books in the series was encouraging enough for me to think that it might be a good idea to do the same with The Rabbit Hole (RH).
There’s one problem. Freebooksy doesn’t have a ‘weird’ genre, nor even one for anthologies. They stick to highly mainstream genres like ‘mystery’, ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance.’ Similarly, there’s no ‘weird’ category on Amazon, where RH1 is in Fiction: anthologies and Fiction: fantasy: collections and anthologies, and RH2 is in Fiction: anthologies and Fiction: short stories.
Nor is there any BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) for ‘weird’. Draft2Digital, which incidentally does a great job if you’re going ‘wide’ (i.e. not giving Amazon exclusivity), uses the BISAC categories; RH there is in Fiction, anthologies (multiple authors) and I recently added it to Fiction: Absurdist. Whether that’s accurate is debatable, but authors as diverse as Sartre, Vonnegut, Murakami and Kafka have been classified as absurdist, so it could be said that it’s a very broad church. Besides, it doesn’t hurt to be in company like that. I could also add dark fantasy, humorous or alien contact, as each of those pertains to at least a couple of stories in the two volumes so far published. But with multiple authors, there are multiple themes and topics, and no single category covers them all.
For RH2 we defined different themes: weather, science and entertainment. But although these produced some excellent contributions, they don’t fit into a genre. Of course, it’s not because you do fit into one that you make your life any easier, because it’s then that the competition gets fierce. But for RH3, I’m thinking it’s worth a try.
So here’s the idea. When the call for submissions for RH3 goes out in January, it will be for a specific genre, one of three I’ve selected from the Freebooksy list: thriller, romance or horror. Many thanks, then, if you could fill in the poll below. To test this isea out, which of those genres would you like to see adopted in RH3?
Note that whatever genre is chosen, ‘weird’ remains the defining feature of The Rabbit Hole. So if, say, horror is the genre, a story about a psycho hacking people to pieces won’t make it. Because weird as that may be by the standards of normal behaviour, it doesn’t include the surreal, wondrous or out-of-this-world element that makes a story qualify as weird. Similarly, there are many ways for romance to be weird, but a kinky sex story might not be the best way to set about it. Not that we’re averse to sex, kinky or otherwise, but if that’s the only weirdness in the story, it’s not enough. Weird romance, of course, wouldn’t be the same as mainstream romance, so that would need to be made clear in the blurb, but at least it would fit somewhere into the genre. As for thriller, plenty of scope there, though I must admit that handling a thriller, weird or not, in a short story is quite a challenge. But hey, all writing is.
Over to you, then. And feel free to chip in with your own thoughts.
I turned up the radio as the DJ shared a story about a man who married his childhood crush in his seventies. His new bride had been married and widowed, the DJ said, but the man had never married before because he’d never wanted anyone else for as long as he could remember. I thought of King Edward VIII, who abdicated his throne for forbidden love. I thought of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Westley and Buttercup. Jim and Pam. These legendary romances, real and fictitious, swirled around in my brain as the DJ segued into a love song I don’t recall but no doubt sang along to.
It’s a safe bet that I wasn’t the only listener who was charmed by that story. This is why most epic main characters have a solitary love interest. Why sitcoms either center on a couple or have romantic storylines. Why love songs dominate the airways. We can’t get enough of it.
However the love story varies, we’re enthralled. Whether it’s the belly butterflies of instant attraction or the slow burn of affection that builds over time … whether the couple is comprised of twin souls or polar opposites … whether their love story is laced with drama or humor or both … we’re all rooting for our hero/heroine to find and keep that one true love.
Epic love stories are increasingly rare in the real world. These days, temporary relationships engineered to look good on social media are the norm. Mr. & Mrs. Right have been replaced by Mr. & Mrs. Right Now. If your current relationship has hit a rough patch, there’s an app that will simply point you to someone else – someone who takes a better couple-selfie or uses more clever hashtags. But deep down, I have to believe the people behind those posts want the MJ to their Peter Parker, the Edward Cullen to their Bella Swan. At the end of the day, there is no online-pic-worthy substitution for the genuine love of and dedication to another person. The discovery of one’s soul mate. The belief that, no matter what life throws our way, if we have loved and been loved, our life has real purpose.
The second volume of The Rabbit Hole is every bit as flumbiferous as the first. Which is just as Alice likes, because weirdness abounds and the warren never ends. Are you out for revenge? You’ll need the right app. Or perhaps you’ve done something foolish? Never mind – it can be undone. Would you like to be in a video game? That too can be arranged – at a cost.
All this and more in 29 stories to leave you pondering realms beyond our perception. Unless, perhaps, they’ve been there all along but we just weren’t looking the right way.
Contributing authors: Edward Ahern, Marie Anderson, Édgar Avilés, Curtis Bausse, E.F.S. Byrne, Steph Bianchini, Jon Black, Glenn Bruce, GD Deckard, Rhonda Eikamp, Brad Fiore, J.G. Follansbee, Steven Gepp, Boris Glikman, Geoff Habiger, Jill Hand, T.A. Henry, Jessica Joy, Simone Martel, Dennis Myers, David Rae, Alistair Rey, David Rogers, Barry Rosen, Kim Ross, JJ Steinfeld, Mack Stone, Stanley Webb, Tom Wolosz
+++I suppose that in one way, poets and painters have one specific thing in common. We sketch out the original work, then we work away at it until it is mostly finished. Finally comes the endless tweaking to get it just right. So if I mention that Julatine Sypent can be something of a perfectionist you can imagine that this latter part of the process takes some time. +++This isn’t something that ordinarily matters. A twee cottage isn’t going to get bored if you sit painting it for a full week. On the other hand when he moved to portraits, some sitters grew restive. Still it wasn’t as if Julatine hid this aspect of his personality. Nobody who hired him to paint them could claim that it came as a surprise. Everybody in society knew that if you wanted your likeness painted by Julatine, you emptied your diary for a full week. +++Yet outside the circle of well-heeled patrons of the arts Julatine’s foibles were not really known. Obviously this isn’t normally going to be a problem as those less well monetarily endowed aren’t the people who tend to commission him. Yet late one morning he was in the Silk Merchant’s Repose. This is one of the better taverns, the food is excellent and the company tends to be polite. Not only that, but the owner, Omartan, aspires to keep improving it. +++Julatine was dining alone and sitting at the table across from him was Bolfinch and the two Millan sisters, Winny and Saleni. If I remember aright Bolfinch was courting Winny and Saleni had come along as a chaperone. Or perhaps it was the other way about? Or perhaps he was courting both with nobody quite sure who was chaperoning whom? +++Still Julatine was immediately captivated by the scene and sketched it hastily on in a notepad. Then he summoned Omartan and offered to paint the scene for him, pointing out that such a vision of attractive young ladies, good food, and good fellowship would inevitably encourage people to come to his establishment. A price was agreed and then Julatine approached the three diners. With the prospect of a free lunch next day they agreed to return, and promised to wear the same outfits. +++Next morning found Julatine with easel in place and all his impedimenta around him. The diners took their seats and began eating. Julatine blocked everything out and after a mere three hours pronounced himself well pleased with the result. He instructed everybody to be back in their places next day at the usual time.
It has to be admitted that Winny and Saleni abandoned Bolfinch and fled home. This was to ensure that they had time to wash and try their clothes so they would be at their best tomorrow when Julatine had promised he would start painting in the detail. Bolfinch went late to work, and moaned to his colleagues about the problems caused when an artist gets involved in your courtship. +++Next day the trio were back in place. But unfortunately word had got round. Thus Silk Merchant’s Repose was crowded. Julatine was incensed, all those people standing in the way meant that the light was wrong. Indeed so crowded was it that when he reached out to put some more brown on his brush, he found himself painting with onion gravy he’d inadvertently acquired from the plate of a diner who had cleared himself a space by the simple expedient of pushing Julatine’s paints off the table. For Julatine this was the last straw. +++Omartan, the owner, knew nothing of this. He was working upstairs in his office. Now even there he could keep his finger on the pulse of affairs below him. A raised voice, angry shouting, the crash of crockery, would all have him downstairs in an instant. But all was quiet. It was only after a while he realised it was too quiet. He stood up and opened the door of his office. Instead of the low hum of conversation and diners concentrated mainly on eating, interspersed with the occasional scraping of a chair or perhaps the slightly louder tones of somebody ordering their meal, there were no sounds at all. +++Omartan made his way cautiously downstairs to discover his establishment empty save for Julatine and his three sitters. It appears that Julatine had noticed Chesit Quince amongst the spectators. So Julatine had paid him to empty the place and keep it empty. Given that Chesit can carry an anvil under one arm and has stopped runaway horse teams dead in their tracks, this he achieved with no difficulty at all. +++Omartan could take no more. He demanded that Julatine let customers in so he could continue to run his business. Julatine at this point got on his high horse, accused Omartan of being a gore-bellied gut-gripping hedgemott with no artistic sensitivities. He told him to finish his own painting, grabbed his assorted equipment and stormed out. +++That evening Ingenious Trool dropped in for a meal, heard the story, and offered to take the painting home and finish it. It was he who added the three diners in the background purely from his imagination. Thus one of them is Lancet and one of them is me. The third, a bearded gentleman apparently asking the clean shaven Lancet for a loan is Sinian Var, reputed to be the wealthiest usurer in Port Naain. Trool also painted the expression of the face of Bolfinch. (The latter admitted later that Trool had caught his emotions perfectly) He also added the cat, which folk felt was a stroke of genius. Omartan was overjoyed, paid Trool with a number of excellent free meals and everybody was happy. +++Save of course for Julatine, who when he heard his painting had been finished, had his lawyers (the Beenchkin partnership) sue Trool for stealing his painting. Beenchkin sent Trool a bill for one hundred alars to compensate their client. Trool had never possessed a tenth of that sum, so merely offered them the picture back in compensation. The Beenchkin clerk replied frostily that the picture was barely worth a hundred vintenars, never mind a hundred alars. They wanted their money. Unfortunately for them, this letter came into the hands of Julatine who was mortified to see the low value placed on his work. Outraged, he hired a lawyer from the Zare family to sue the Beenchkins. Finding themselves sued by their own client the Beenchkins countersued. +++At this point Julatine acted with real genius. He approached the court and pointed out that as he was suing lawyers he demanded a blind bench. This term needs some explaining. Because there is a fear amongst the laity that when lawyers are being sued by the laity, magistrates (also lawyers of a sort) might be intimidated into supporting their own kind rather than giving a fair hearing to the lay person who is paying for it all. Thus a ‘blind bench’ is empowered. Three magistrates sit, but they sit behind a screen so that nobody will ever know who gave judgement. Lawyers hate this. If you think magistrates can be capricious when the world is watching them, just imagine how they act when they have anonymity. Julatine was awarded his blind bench. Immediately Beenchkin and Zare both settled out of court, paying large sums to both Julatine and Trool on the understanding that nobody would ever talk about the incident ever again.
Should you wish to know more about Port Naain and Tallis Steelyard you might fancy reading Tallis Steelyard. Playing the game, and other stories.
As one reviewer commented, “Another great collection of short stories about Port Naain poet Tallis Steelyard. This is the second collection I’ve read, and I enjoyed it as much as the first one – if not more so. The individual stories are amusing, and a little quirky, and well suited for a quick read to disconnect from reality after a long day.
A couple of years back, giving an author feedback on a story I had rejected for the Book a Break anthology, one of the reasons I gave was that ‘it veered into sentimentality at the end.’ I wasn’t alone in this appraisal: Sherry Morris, the competition judge, said, ‘it all goes sentimental syrupy at the end. Indigestible.’ The author, whilst accepting my other remarks, wrote back to say that she actually quite liked sentimental stories.
This got me thinking. Were we talking about the same thing? We couldn’t be, I decided, but since I didn’t pursue the exchange, I can’t be totally sure. What I did instead was a little research, and found this excellent article, which gives a thorough analysis of sentimentality, and how the meaning of the word has changed over the years. It’s a long one, so if you’re in a hurry, I’ll summarise it as: it’s a lot more complex than we think.
My own conclusion is that (as with everything else) it all depends how it’s done. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with sentimentality. Decades ago I read Love Story, which was widely panned by critics as formulaic and manipulative, pulling just the right strings to get the hankies out. William Styron called it ‘a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.’ A snootiness which did nothing, I’m sure, to dent Erich Segal’s spirits – Love Story was in the New York Times bestseller list for 41 weeks. Though I know a mass readership doesn’t equate to quality, I always feel that anyone who sells that number has to be doing something right.
So why did Sherry and I react negatively to what we perceived as sentimentality? The difference between Love Story and the story I rejected was that Segal took the time to put all the pieces in place, get us cheering for the two main characters, before demolishing our hopes with Jenny’s death. In the face of a disapproving father, the love of a young couple ends in tragedy. Not a bad pitch, is it? Shakespeare’s log-lines haven’t survived but it’s widely thought he used it for Romeo and Juliet.
To get sentimentality right in a short story is hard. Crucial to its success is getting the reader’s emotions in the right place as early as possible. And I realise now that the keyword in my feedback to the author was not sentimentality but veered. In a story which up till then was mysterious, even scary, there was a sudden switch to two people trying to cope with the loss of a loved one. Edgar Allen Poe would have been appalled – it goes against the ‘unity of effect’ he insisted a short story must achieve: decide on what emotional response you want to elicit, stick to just one, and make sure that everything contributes to that end.
Poe’s strictures are seen these days as rigid. There are many successful short stories that don’t follow them. All the same, as a rule of thumb, the unity of effect isn’t a bad one. Where a novel can play with many different emotions, a short story is best dealing with just one. And there’s nothing at all wrong if that one is sentimental – just make sure you nail it right from the start.