Hal’s Ladderwon the Mystery Women Crime Story competition in March 2011. The first sentence was provided: ‘Poor Hal. I knew him well – like a brother …’ The story had to be under 1000 words and crime. This was the first real monetary prize Sue won for a short story and it set her on the road she’s still walking. Find it here.
Sue Dawes’ flash fiction ‘The Undertaking’ has now been published in the Museum of Walking’s Winter Chill anthology. The idea for ‘The Undertaking’ came after Sue read a fascinating internet article about the life of a mortician, which then led to further research and the question: ‘What if?’ which is always a great place to start a story. It began as a much longer piece about a man who could only find love in death and was then reduced to flash fiction.The challenge was balancing the uncomfortable description of the studio and mortuary procedures, whilst leaving enough details of the crime for it to work.
‘Before the Fall’ is a short story by Sue Dawes about an old man whose pride gets in the way of his health. This story has had many forms, before finally finding a home in an anthology by Pure Slush Books, an independent Australian publisher.
Sue’s story ‘The out’, won second place in the April edition of the Writers’ Forum (out now). The judge described it as ‘a chilling tale of a woman torn by past loyalties and present dread.’ Originally shortlisted for a local crime competition, and with a year of drawer time, Sue rewrote it extensively before submitting. There’s a lot to be said for distancing yourself from a piece of writing in order to be able to look at your work critically. It also helps to have a judge that understands what you’ve tried to do.
Sue recently won second place in The ‘Writers’ Forum’ short story competition, which meant payment and publication (the two most important things for a writer after the actual slog of imagining and editing a story).
So what is her advice to get your story noticed?
The first paragraph has to set up at least one question to engage the reader and it has to sustain their interest. This could be (and usually is) a dilemma the character is faced with.
The reader needs to be grounded. Where are we? Make it concise and if possible simple, unless your character is a place, in which case it will have layers all of its own (think of the ‘house’ in Rebecca or the film: Monster House).
The character needs motivation and emotion. We need to know who’s speaking and any dialogue must be believable but reduced to as few words as possible because no one speaks in full sentences.
There has to be a structure (but not necessarily beginning/middle/end in that order).
Unpredictable is good but no story should have an unexpected twist that hasn’t had any build-up (foreshadowing is a must). There’s nothing worse than feeling conned at the end.
The dilemma the character faces must be resolved.
A good story should leave you thinking, even if it’s a ‘how did I not see that coming?’ Personally, these are Sue’s favourite.
The style should be all your own.
A proof reader is a good idea because it’s very difficult to spot your own mistakes. If you don’t have this (many people write in isolation) an alternative method is to print out your story in a weird font. It’s much easier to see any mistakes when the print looks unprofessional. Duplicate words can be caught out by reading aloud.
Similies are great but only in moderation (a bit like everything).
Sometimes it takes a few submissions to get your story placed and that enforced ‘drawer time’ when the story is out there, is always positive. Sue was lucky with this one but others she’s had published before, have been rejected and rewritten before acceptance by another publisher.