Tag Archives: Short Stories

Shibboleth and Other Stories

Shibboleth and other stories coverMargaret River Press is an independent press operating between the Margaret River wine-growing area and the Centre for Stories in Perth, Western Australia. Each year the press publishes a small number of literary fiction and creative non-fiction titles. Margaret River Press also conducts an annual nation-wide short story competition, publishing the winners and short-listed entries in a digital and paperback anthology.

While the anthology is always a good read, this year’s collection – Shibboleth and Other Stories – is particularly impressive. Perhaps more than most years, the 2016 anthology embodies a small number of distinct themes, although several stories cross thematic categories. This sense of similar themes resonating back and forth among stories creates a sense of cohesion across the collection.

The responsibilities, successes and failures of parenthood are highlighted in at least half the stories, from the perspectives of parents (prospective, thwarted, actual, willing and reluctant) and children (in childhood, adolescence and adulthood). Several stories centre on tensions, fractures, slow disappointments and hard-won triumphs in romantic relationships, specifically marriage. A quarter of the stories are concerned with aging and the loss or distortion of memories, while at the other end of the age spectrum a few explore life-changing moments in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

The winning story, ‘Shibboleth’ by Jo Riccioni, is part of a tradition in Australian short story writing that borders on ekphrasis: a well-known work by a real-world visual artist provides the organising motif for the fictive narrative. In this instance, Doris Salcedo’s installation Shibboleth at the Tate Modern is used to structure a story about two people at once terminally interdependent and irrevocably ruptured. Tension crackles in Riccioni’s deft manipulation of phrasing, and the intimate third-person narration brings the reader viscerally inside the protagonist’s jangled emotions.

Continuing the theme of famous visual artists influencing the relationships of ordinary people, runner-up Magdalena McGuire’s ‘It Used To Be A Boyd’ introduces two women at very different stages in their lives and marriages. This story casts a spell from its offbeat opening lines: ‘Most people only get married once or twice. Eight times if they’re decadent. But I get married once a week.’ The life-affirming (while slightly alarming) vitality of the Antipodean painters, including Boyd and Perceval, underpins this vivid and uplifting gem of a story.

Interestingly, this story finds a partial mirror later in the anthology, with ‘The Memory Mirror’ by Georgina Luck. In McGuire’s story, the protagonist is a female carer at an aged care home, whose act of kindness toward an elderly woman with dementia unexpectedly strengthens the carer herself. In Luck’s story, two young male paramedics attend an elderly man with dementia. The protagonist’s life is enriched as he witnesses his colleague’s sensitive, creative handling of a fraught situation.

Among other stories in the collection that deal with aging, memory loss and the grief of mental and physical deterioration are ‘Theo’ by Phil Sparrow, winner of the Southwest Prize; the poetic ‘All the Devil’s Weed Plants’ by Mikaela Castledine; and ‘Flight’ by Penny Gibson. Each of these understated works uses the minutely-observed details of everyday life to construct a shell of normality over a welling mood of quiet despair.

The third prize winner, ‘Slacklining’ by Catherine Moffat, is described by the anthology’s editor as demonstrating a ‘quintessential Australianness’. While that’s a problematic assertion, the story powerfully evokes a very specific setting – time, place, class, ethic mix, architecture, subculture – that Australians will recognise. The humour is masterfully wry, as the protagonist’s husband and friends blithely pursue their own enthusiasms and preoccupations, oblivious to the protagonist grappling alone with the implications of her unplanned pregnancy.

Other stories focussed on pregnancy and parenthood include Rachelle Rechichi’s ‘Composition’, Helen Renwick’s ‘The Treasure Box’, and Melanie Cheng’s ‘White Sparrow’. ‘Let’s Pretend’, by Mirandi Riwoe, provides an excellent example of relego: the revelation at the end compels a re-reading of the whole story, with a new and darker understanding of what is occurring and has occurred before the story opens. Laura Elvery’s ‘Acrobat’ puts the reader in the shoes of a woman who has chosen not to have children, marvelling uneasily at another woman’s commercial exploitation of her five year-old daughter. Sue Robertson’s ‘Before They Had Teeth’ compellingly portrays a young couple struggling with bereavement, the mother uncertain what she hopes to achieve through a pilgrammage to another culture’s burial site for babies. Wes Lee’s highly inventive ‘Thirsty’ is by turns enchanting and wrenching, as the father of a disabled son strives ‘To make people laugh. To see them, take care of their needs’.

From the other side of the parent-child relationship come two ‘waiting’ stories. In Emily Paull’s ‘The Sea Also Waits’, a young man waits for his mother to come up from a free-dive in the evening ocean. In Kate Glenister’s ‘A House’, a young woman waits for the paralysis of grief to pass, desperately conjuring memories from the fabric of her dead mother’s house.

Kathy George’s story ‘Teacher’, based on true events, compassionately explores a young man’s anxious need to individuate from his parents, and the wisdom that eventually leads him to benefit from his mother’s life experience. A less supportive mother-child relationship is depicted in Catherine Noske’s ‘Brown Snake’, with Maya’s mother and aunt unable to protect her from loss of innocence, or empower her towards a happier life. Similarly, in Leslie Thiele’s ‘The Boat’, childhood abandonment leaves Victor psychologically incomplete, vulnerable to an invisible but fundamental self-doubt that finally surfaces through a ‘mid-life crisis’. The protagonist in Michelle Wright’s ‘Photographs of the Missing’, a pre-teen girl, tracks her teenage cousin Jacko’s deterioration into mental illness and wonders who she should tell, seeing his mother is ‘folded tight with bitterness’ and ‘it would cause her too much grief’.

Many of the stories mentioned above implicate the protagonist’s romantic relationships within the central tension. Others place these relationships front and centre. Chloe Wilson’s ‘The Drydown’ and Susan McCreery’s ‘Night Shift’ explicitly examine the reciprocal impacts of low self-confidence and an undermining partner on the female protagonist’s well-being. Conversely, Julie Kearney’s ‘A Fork In the Path’ features a male protagonist so undermined by his wife, who sees him as ‘timid’ and ‘a pathetic wimp’, that he almost fails to muster the courage to respond to a desperate plea for help.

‘Le Farfalle’, by Cassie Hamer, brings a touch of magic realism to an acutely-located moment of first love: young Joe, ‘dago’ child of Italian immigrants who is barely tolerated by his schoolmates in 1950s Australia, bonds with fresh-off-the-boat Francesca over Joe’s grandfather’s butterfly collection.

Shibboleth and Other Stories will reward readers and students of the short story form. It is available here: http://www.margaretriverpress.com/shop/new-releases/shibboleth-and-other-stories-ed-laurie-steed/


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Filed under Competitions and Publishing Opportunities, Published fiction


Often when we talk about the “rewriting” stage of a manuscript, we’re really talking about editing and polishing. We take the material we’ve written and shuffle it around, cut some bits, expand others, add a scene, correct the punctuation, and so on. This is all very easy to do with a word processor.

But there can be great value in actually “rewriting” the manuscript: turning to a blank page (or opening a new document) and starting again from scratch. Most of us probably wouldn’t do this with a complete nrewritingovel manuscript (though some do, and I have). However, it may be the best approach to a scene, chapter, or short story that just isn’t working. Sometimes, the more you tinker with the draft, the worse it gets. You’re better off starting over.

One approach to rewriting is to change something quite fundamental, and see what happens. Here are a few examples:

The protagonist

Particularly in a short story, it’s easy to make too early and easy a decision about who the main character is. Perhaps, if the story is based on events that happened in your life, you’ve unconsciously selected the “you” character as the protagonist. If the story’s not working, try rewriting it with another character in the leading role – and/or from another character’s point of view.

The point of view

If you’ve written the story in first person, what happens if you change the point of view to limited third person, or omniscient third person? I once rewrote the draft of a novel from limited third person into a first person/quasi second person narrative stance, with the narrator an omniscient being observing and addressing the protagonist (a little like Death in The Book Thief, except that Death commentates on Liesel’s activities rather than speaking directly to her). I ended up changing back to limited third person, but the voice had changed for the better. My limited third person approach had been too limited. Once I allowed a few more insights into the character and her situation to shine through (insights I’d gained courtesy of my first person narrator), the text became much more lively and less opaque.

The framing device

Is this story being told by one character to another, late one night in a pub? Is it a dramatic monologue? Is it being narrated as a first-person reminiscence? Whatever the frame, if the story’s not working, a “reframe” might provide a useful starting point for a “rewrite”.

Mood and tone

Is this a serious piece, that might work better as a comic one? Or vice versa? Is the overall mood sombre or cheery? See what happens if you try for a mood or tone that contrasts with the one you’ve established in the first version. Can you, by taking a radically different approach, achieve more light and shade?


What about the language – is it generally formal, with longish and well-constructed sentences, or is it colloquial and chatty? What about the pace? Voice will of course depend heavily on the choices you’ve made above – protagonist, point of point, frame, mood and tone. But even if these remain the same as in the first version, can you rewrite using a very different voice? Try not to reuse phrases from the original.

The idea of rewriting from scratch is to free your creativity to give you something fresh and new, rather than feeling constrained by what’s already on the page. At the end of the day you’ll probably meld the two versions into something that’s stronger than either. And then it’s time for editing and polishing!

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Filed under Writing Process

Some treasures require digging

pirate treasure mapI’m tutoring Short Story at uni this semester, and encountering some interesting issues in the classroom. As my students read published short stories and one another’s work, I often hear the complaint that part of a story is “confusing”, that something “jars” or a particular sentence seems “random”. Closer inspection will reveal the seemingly random sentence as a vital clue to the meaning of the whole piece, so-called confusion as a question you must read on to answer, and allegedly jarring notes as moments of modulation. In other words the students protest against complexity, mystery, paradox, contradiction and multiplicity of meaning – everything that, from my point of view, makes a story compelling.

These young readers seem to expect instant understanding of a text: they want to glean everything that’s there from a quick skim. They don’t want to stop and think, or (heaven forbid) re-read anything. One student told me yesterday he likes stories to unfold like films – smoothly, consistently, with events happening one after another. I was reminded of an interview with Lee Childs, in which he said his readers don’t have to do anything but strap themselves in for the ride.

On the other hand, the same student said he also enjoys stories which force him to the dictionary to look up words he doesn’t know. So while these folks may not be exactly open to literary challenges, I’ll lever at the chinks. Hopefully they’ll have gained a new perspective by the end of semester: all the short stories for class study are complex works that reward close reading, re-reading, and contemplation.

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Filed under Stylistics

Great links

If you haven’t checked out Fish Publishing’s “Links” page, do – there are lots of interesting and useful links here.


A lovely link for short story writers, readers and advocates is


There’s an extensive list of short story competitions, high-quality short stories to read, writing tips, and lots of other goodies.

If you find useful sites you think others might not be aware of, please feel free to put them in a Comment and/or let me know so I can post them.

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Filed under Useful resources