Setting out my stall / Jane Fraser

Jane Fraser discusses the editing process behind Issue Thirteen of The Lonely Crowd.

When The Lonely Crowd’s creator and Editor, John Lavin, emailed me inviting me to guest-edit the short fiction for Issue Thirteen, I felt a range of emotions: surprise, fear, excitement, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I was being tasked to ensure that I followed in John’s – and previous guest-editors’ – footsteps and that my sensibility in selecting short stories was, as set out by John in his brief, ‘in keeping with the values and aesthetics of the magazine.’

I’d never performed this role before, so no pressure then! Over the years since the genesis of this quality literary magazine with its Welsh roots, I, along with hundreds of other writers of short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and creatives who tell stories through photography, had aspired to have work published in its pages. Such is its profile. And such is its story of success in living up to its mission statement to publish ‘the best’ in each of these genres and the superlatives that have been used by its critics subsequently to describe the range of work it reflects: ‘quality’, ‘exciting’ ‘diverse’, ‘emerging’, ‘established’ –  the list goes on.

John told me he had specific criteria in choosing a guest editor. Firstly, that person had to have been published previously by The Lonely Crowd. Tick. I could meet that one, having had my stories ‘Wasps’ and ‘Leave the Light on for Me’, published in editions 8 and 10 respectively. Secondly, that person was to be a ‘Welsh short story writer’ he admired. Tick to the first part of the call-out, I met the being Welsh bit, being based and writing in the Gower peninsula; but as to the second part, it came as a big shock and a good dollop of pleasure that he admired my writing.

So it was then the question of sensibility and best fit that worried me, and I knew then that it would be no easy ride to make sure I appreciated, and responded appropriately and sensitively to the submissions that would come my way, in accordance with The Lonely Crowd’s ethos. And then there was the prerogative of subjectivity and personal choice that comes with the job. How would I whittle down what I knew would be a considerable number of entries, and choose just fourteen for the final cut? Fourteen stories that would resonate to an informed and diverse readership.

I turned to those short fiction writers I have long admired to help me frame the call-out in the hope that this would give those who planned to submit their souls in words, a steer on what I’d be looking for as an editor. In doing so, I codified what I believe the short story to be and so offered some terms of reference to submitting writers, and a yardstick to myself as a reader and critic so I’d remain true to my beliefs.

As a reader and a writer, I’ve been influenced by two maestros: the Irish short story writer, Claire Keegan, and the American short story writer and academic, Lorrie Moore. Their words, better than mine, encapsulate what I believe the short story to be and I set out what I’d be looking for in the submissions guidelines. This is what was published on The Lonely Crowd website back in February, 2021, ahead of the submission period:

‘The short story begins after what happens, happens.’

Claire Keegan

So, I’ll welcome stories that begin when the drama is over and the emotional consequences begin. Stories that are about rising tension rather than high drama. I like quiet stories: suggestion rather than statement, real feeling rather than sentimentality. Stories about loss, because perhaps all stories are about loss as time is irreversibly passing and things can never be the same as they were once upon a time. (JF)

‘We read short stories to see – quickly – how other people manage, what they know, what they are saying, what, privately, they are thinking and doing.’ Lorrie Moore

So, I’ll be longing to find whole worlds glimpsed in stories of between 500 – 5,000 words. Lean creations. Lithe. No fat. Like arrows in flight.

And I’ll be hoping to find stories that will linger in my mind, long after I have finished reading.’

Looking back on this call to action, there is probably more I could have said. That I believe the short story to be a genre rather than a form, because it is open to so many forms and that is the joy. Or, as American short story writer, George Saunders encapsulates: ‘short stories are the deep, encoded crystallisations of all human knowledge…they are rarefied, dense meaning-machines.’ Or closer to home, as Welsh writer, Cynan Jones, puts it: ‘the short story seeks to imply rather than explain. To give the reader just enough to fire their own instinct to understand the World… a short story is about what it leaves behind.’

All well and good to have these academic and insightful assertions on what the short story is (and by omission, what it isn’t) but as a writer, I have found it a Herculean labour to realise these aims and produce a satisfactory, compressed and beautiful art-form. And so as a newbie editor I had sympathy, and empathy, with writers who put pen to paper. Brevity has nothing to do with ease of writing. The short story is not an apprenticeship to the novel. It’s a different beast. The short story writer has to ‘work the word’ and go on a deeper, but narrower mission than is necessary for longer narratives, drilling down, moving word by word, line by line, with no wastage. I recall once seeing this shape represented mathematically, in that the novel would be < (starting small and lighting out) with the short story being > (starting after what happens, happens, and the unfolding consequences).  All that, and at the same time having to leave space for the story to breathe and to allow the reader to be an integral part of the process of its realisation.

Almost two hundred submissions came into my inbox during a three-week submission period. Testament to the global reach of The Lonely Crowd, they came from Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Cyprus, Australia, New Zealand, USA and Mexico. They came in word counts ranging from one word more than 500 to one word less than 5,000. Most came with a message in the body-email that ‘hoped I was well during these times’, and most commented that they’d liked the ‘what I was looking for in a short story’ call-out, and hoped that their submission fitted the criteria. All wanted to be associated with a quality press.

The short-story writing world although global, yet sometimes seems small, and I didn’t want to be biased if I came across a name I knew. I was desperate to be impartial and not to be swayed by those writers who might have an impressive bio to the detriment of writers for whom this might be a first submission. On receipt of each submission, I downloaded the entry and renamed it anonymously in my own newly-created file for TLC. And then I started to read and make notes.

It has been a long, arduous, exciting, challenging, and very rewarding process. It has been a privilege to be trusted with what people feel compelled to write about. Though there was no set theme, for fiction and poetry in edition 13, themes emerged: COVID-19 and the global pandemic; war and conflict; trauma and PTSD; mental illness, dysfunctional relationships and domestic abuse; ‘mothering’; first love and first sexual encounters; sexuality and gender concerns; loss.  And of course, death by suicide and death by other causes. I was seeing the manifestation of what Lorrie Moore says is the stuff of the short story – the things that keep us awake in the middle of the night, the things that preoccupy our thoughts in the day. The themes veered towards the dark, which I hoped they would.  In fact, I was pulled-up by the fact that three of the stories were set in what writers called the ‘blue-black’ of twilight. There were also three stories that used the horse chestnut tree and / or conkers with varying degrees of success. What was conspicuous by absence, were stories about environmental crises. There was just one, but that one was a blinder!

As a first-time editor (though I have judged a haibun contest just the once and there were only twenty-five entries), I felt every story deserved to be read in its entirety. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust my own critical judgement and instinct to sometimes write-off a story after the first paragraph or the first page, but I felt that I owed the writer this time. They had felt stirred by something very important, something that needed to be said – to be corresponded – and had poured their heart into the doing of it. Perhaps this is naïve. But this was my process.

After reading each story once from beginning to end, I collated a list of sixty ‘maybes’. These were stories that would be read time and time again, though even at the early stages, there were some works that lingered long in the mind. Stories that would not go away. Even now, I have one particular story that rises to the fore, when I think of the whole batch I received. Whether readers would agree, I don’t know. That again, is the nature of this role, and the luxury of subjectivity. At this point, I had to become ruthless in terms of a writer’s control of the form, and also address how the fourteen stories would sit together as an anthology. I had to reject some stories, that although were good and would have otherwise made the cut, were too similar in theme with others that I deemed ‘better’.

Without wishing to sound negative, but rather that TLC readers and writers might share my considerations of the submissions, here might be a good place to include some of the observations I made, and conclusions I reached, as to what didn’t constitute a good short story. At least not for me!

  • Lack of surety about the vital importance of time in progressing the narrative in short fiction. Writers need to decide when the ‘now’ of the action is and write from that position, and keep it consistent. Many submissions fell down on the use of tenses.
  • Many of the submissions did not have a time frame for the unfolding narrative, in terms of duration. I was unclear when, and for how long.
  • Some (lots) of submissions would have been more suited to being developed as a novel in that there were lots of characters, complicated plot lines and perhaps too many themes and a too-long duration to be explored in a few thousand words. I tend to like short stories that are about one or two characters, and a particular emotion, that plays out over a relatively short period of time.
  • Weaker stories were recounts – often no more than a series of anecdotes/events that didn’t get to the ‘point’ of the short story. They were retellings rather than a showing of human loss or fallibility.
  • Lots of stories were too close in time and perspective to the inciting incident (the drama) rather than focusing on the consequences that played out for characters after the drama. The dramatic moment is a moment of transition, and it is the unfolding after that point that a writer of short fiction should focus on and that a reader is interested in. The writer must aim to reveal to the reader how as humans we succeed or fail or just about manage in drama’s aftermath.
  • Some writers used the short story as a vehicle for catharsis. The short story is an art form not merely catharsis, though catharsis is often the starting point. Sometimes as writers we start to write too close to the pain, rather than stepping back and letting time run. For it is only then we know how we feel and what the consequences are.
  • Many writers used too many words and too much emotion to translate a time of pain. I believe that at times of greatest loss there are often no words. Less is more. Rather than a hand held to the forehead and reaching for the smelling salts, we should pull back and say as little as possible as unaffectedly as possible. For more on this see Chekov and Keegan!

Readers will ultimately be the judges of whether the stories I chose for Issue Thirteen speak to them. I have selected stories that speak to me in terms of subject matter, execution and control of narrative, and feeling. I hope readers will find they all adhere to what I said I was looking for in the call-out.

In my final cut, you will read stories written in the first, third and rarely-used, but my much-favoured second person. There are stories written with the immediacy of the present tense and those that where the action is developed and completed in the past tense. Readers, I hope, will enjoy inclusions where the syntax in loose and languorous (often reflecting wide expansive landscapes and strengthening a sense of place) and inclusions where the syntax is less complex and punchy.  There are stories written in the style of magic realism and stories written in journalist / reportage style. Some stories are almost poetic.

Whatever the style, all the fourteen stories affected me, in that they conveyed an emotional truth in a way that was not overly-dramatic or sentimental, but full of deep and honest feeling.  Many of the stories used humour even in the midst of despair and tragedy which worked hard for me. For me, the best stories were created by writers who had surety about the handling of time’s passing in the narrative. Fiction is a temporal art and time moves the story on, and I hope the writers I have selected illustrate this on the page and in the effect of the story: they know when to make that incision in time – where to cut in and where to cut out, many doing what is advised by great short writers i.e. arriving late and leaving early. All the stories have informed my writing and I have learned greatly as a practising writer. For this I am so grateful and thank John for the opportunity.

The fourteen stories I have chosen for Issue Thirteen all, without exception, do not have endings that are ‘tied-up’ or have a clichéd ‘twist-in-the-tale’ conclusions. I believe that if fiction is a mirror of life, then the only tied up ending is death, and that would lead to a pretty uniform set of stories. I have selected stories that leave at a point in time that is perhaps only for the time being yet leave me satisfied as a reader.

I once asked the wonderful Welsh writer and academic, Dr Jon Gower, what made for a good short story ending when he introduced me to the genre on the MA at Swansea University. He stood in front of me in our small class, and he placed his hands on either side of an imaginary accordion. ‘Think of a good short story ending as compressing all the air out of this accordion, that feeling of exhalation, that satisfaction of breathing out. Completely.’

This essay originally appeared in Issue Thirteen of The Lonely Crowd.