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Tessa Hadley on what makes a winning short story

Tessa ­Hadley, the award-winning short-story writer and ­professor of ­creative writing, is a judge on this year’s Sunday Times EFG short story award. She offers invaluable insight into what makes a short story standout from thousands of entries and make it onto the shortlist

  • Did you enjoy being a judge for the STEFG award? What was the best or most enlightening part of that experience?
    I enjoyed it very much. There were some really good stories – always such a relief, when you find the first one which genuinely excites you. And it’s so good to read without knowing who wrote the stories – no baggage of preconception, just you and the raw experience of the words on the page. You become very passionately partisan about your favourites – and then what a surprise, when your fellow-judges don’t necessarily agree! Arguing about the stories at the judges’ meetings was such a pleasure, it’s what bookish people love to do. Because stories are short you can really do them justice: read bits out aloud, quarrel over whether something works, swap interpretations, change each other’s minds. This definitely happened: the encounter with other readings changes perceptions. The thing I thought so original turns out to be over-familiar to others more experienced in that genre. What struck me as moving, somebody else found mawkish – and so on. Fascinating, disentangling this point of critical judgement where different tastes, different mind-worlds, intersect. But after much good discussion we were a happily consensual panel: it wasn’t difficult finding the stories we all loved.

    What were the biggest challenges you faced during that process? For example, was it hard to absorb so many worlds and fictional experiences in such quick succession?
    Yes, it’s a very unnatural way of reading: so many disparate stories one after another. Funnily enough, I don’t think it impairs critical judgement: one becomes very exacting. But it takes away the voluptuousness of reading, the slow pleasure of being alone with a good story, letting it sink in, letting all the details of expression reverberate. So it was good to come back to the longlist, and then the shortlist, and be able to do those stories justice at leisure, giving each one its own space, feeling each one’s distinctive character.

    What impressed you most in the entries you read? What makes a story stand out for you?
    Originality; some sort of spontaneity in the voice; intelligence in the thought; plainness and directness. Irony (writing without irony – like cooking without salt). One or two of the shortlisted stories are wonderfully funny too. I love the feeling, in a really good story, that the life in the story has outrun the writer’s control: it’s moving by itself, with sinuous inevitability, towards its conclusion; you feel the writer’s grateful surprise, almost, at what’s emerging under her fingers, on her page. (And yet a good story is always controlled too: as a river is contained between its banks.) And here’s another thing, rather difficult to express: a story should have some point. Not a point you can separate out from the story itself: point isn’t the same as argument. But it should show something, reveal something. A good story should feel as if it opens up for our perception something new, which matters.

    Are you able to tell whether a story is going to impress you in the opening sentences?
    No. Quite often a story will begin well and then not fulfil what it promises. A striking or subtle opening collapses into what’s obvious, or simply loses its way, doesn’t sustain its momentum. But if you don’t like the opening sentences, then that’s a bad sign. If a writer’s careless in the beginning, what hope for the rest?

    What made you put a story to the top of the pile and another to one side? Were there any common mistakes that kept cropping up, or any pet peeves that you can’t overlook?
    Trying to do too much in a small space. The story form is delicate – it can be vast in its implications or subject matter, yet all that has to rest on a small piece of machinery. It takes some subtle engineering. Simply piling up incidents, one after another, isn’t good in a novel of course, but it’s a catastrophe in a short story. And a story shouldn’t feel, either, as if puppets have been set dancing to the writer’s tune. And perhaps lack of clarity is the thing that most quickly makes me lose interest. Where are we? Who are these people? What’s going on? Apprentice writers sometimes imagine that surface difficulty equates to ‘difficulty’ of the other kind – i.e. intellectual depth, complexity. But a really complex story, one that’s perplexing and elusive and profound, is almost always devastatingly lucid on its surface.

    What advice would you give to writers who aren’t successfully longlisted for awards such as these? How to fortify against disappointment seems to be an essential skill as a writer.
    It’s hard – but you really should take no notice. Taste is so subjective. Even good readers can easily miss something, on a first reading. It may just be that a story wasn’t right for those particular readers: that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily failed. Send off your stories then forget about them.

    Does the experience of judging competitions and awards have any effect on your own writing? Does it spark new ideas or avenues for exploration, or make you think about new perspectives?
    To some extent, to save your own work, you have to keep all those voices at bay. You read with a different part of your mind; you keep the door shut on your own stories. The sort of alert critical attention you deploy, reading through a pile of stories, feels like a very different kind of energy to the slow dreaming private place that stories come from. But of course the truth is that the very best stories do seep through, in a good way. They excite you about the form, they stretch your sense of what can be done with it, how flexible it is.

    Were there any themes that kept cropping up in the stories you read for this award? Are there any topics you’d like to see writers out there covering more of or less…
    Too many dystopias, perhaps? But that’s just my taste. I usually find the absurdities and weirdnesses of contemporary reality far outstrip the fantastical worlds writers dream up. Reality is almost always more subtle and multifarious than any invented worlds. So writers often write better, more unexpectedly, when they’re trying to pin down its elusive truth on the page.

    Interview by Sophie Haydock