Mslexia, the magazine for women who write | www.mslexia.co.uk
From the Mslexia Workshops Collection
Short Story Competition Workshop 3 - Newspaper Stories
Devised by SARAH SALWAY
Flicking through my local newspaper, I noticed an article about a woman who was taken for a spin round Brands Hatch for her 106th birthday. Despite being driven at over 100 mph, she kept complaining it wasn't fast enough. It's a great story; one I cut out to keep in my files.
A powerful new version of a story can result from giving a voice to a silent participant.
When a story is taken from a news article, the facts are not normally in dispute. What becomes interesting, then, is the 'affected facts' – how they will affect other people. This is when the fiction writer's mantra 'What if?' comes into play. What if it was my father who was caught on CCTV coming out of a sex shop? What if the army veterans on a free coach trip ended up organising one last ambush along the way? What if the daredevil 106-year-old woman leaves a will laying out exactly what risks she wants her safety-conscious family to take?
A powerful new version of a story can result from giving a voice to a silent participant. Joyce Carol Oates did this with the teenager Connie in her story, 'Where are you going, where have you been?', which was based on a newspaper report about a young girl's murder.
When writer Kim Edwards read a news report about a protest against an abortion clinic, she was haunted by the children the protestors had brought with them to help make their point. ‘I kept thinking of… their small limbs and shiny hair, their tender skin pressed against the hot asphalt, the dip and weight of a car turning into the driveway.’
At first Edwards resisted turning it into fiction, concerned about entering a political minefield. Then, out driving one day, a first line popped into her head: 'You'd know me if you saw me’. She immediately stopped the car outside a library, and rushed in to write the opening pages of 'The story of my life'.
Edwards had found the story's voice – or the answer to the magic question, 'Who is telling the story?' She says: ‘Stories aren't about issues, they're about people... I'd urge any writer to embrace what's happening in the world – absolutely, don't look away – but also to know quite clearly going into the narrative whose story is needing to be told, and why.’
This different take on a story – an unexpected narrator, an unusual emphasis, a passion to tell a particular as opposed to an abstract truth – helps to keep a story fresh. And just as we ask the question 'Who is telling the story?’, we also need to ask 'Why?'. Why won't this story leave us alone? What image is in it, what message does it have, that keeps it turning over and over in our mind?
EXERCISE: Who is telling this story?
Arm yourself with scissors and cut out news stories that spark your interest until you have a pile. Local newspapers are great for this because they tend to concentrate on stories about individual people. Choose just one story and list all the different characters who aren't mentioned in the story. Does the 'have-a-go' hero have a wife? Or possibly a son who boasts about his father with unfortunate results? And what about the victim? Or the police officer who was robbed of his chance to save people? Is he jealous of the attention the hero is receiving? Keep thinking about all these ‘silent’ participants until you hear a voice, a first line, and then tell what happened from their point of view.
SARAH SALWAY is the author of three novels, and a collection of short stories, Leading the Dance (Speechbubble Books). The current Canterbury Laureate, her first poetry collection, You Do Not Need Another Self-Help Book, was published by Pindrop Press in March 2012 (www.pindroppress.com)
These workshops have been edited from Sarah Salway's original essay in Short Circuit: a guide to the art of the short story edited by Vanessa Gebbie (Salt, 2009) especially for the 2012 Mslexia Women's Short Story Competition, judged by Tessa Hadley.
Find out more
Plunder our selection of writing workshops for inspiration:
The Mslexia MA in Novel Writing – Character, led by Jenny Newman
...with life coach Bekki Hill
Explore the unconscious and turn your life into literature
Hayfields or horse-dung