75. The Sunday Times Prize – tempting the muse with breadcrumbs

It’s worth £30,000 to the winner. At £5 a word for a 6,000 word story, the Sunday Times EFG Award is the richest prize in short story writing. Hilary Mantel was only a runner-up in a previous year’s competition. So you might say it’s hubris for a tyro writer to enter such a competition. And you might be right. But I’m doing it anyhow.

Partly, I’m doing it because I can. Last year, I would not have been eligible. Entrants must already have been published by an established house or magazine. This time last year I hadn’t reached that mark.

Partly, I’m doing it because there’s a story I’m struggling to tell, and the competition gives me a spur to doing it. Assuming (reasonably) that I don’t win, at least I will have written the story.

The idea responds to my plea for new stories about post-Brexit Britain. My first attempt at writing read so much like a rant that one of my writing friends didn’t even realise it was supposed to be a story.   So I tore the thing apart and started again. This time, I created a version with which I’m happier.

Land Girl is a tale of Margaret and Malina. Margaret is a British pensioner with traditional working class values, but also a strong streak of prejudice against the immigrants who she feels threaten her way of life. Malina is a Roma immigrant and Margaret’s carer, threatened by racist abuse. Margaret loves music and dance. Malina’s singing is beautiful. Finally, this brings them together. Allie, a community activist, is the catalyst for challenging Margaret’s attitude to immigration. The political rant is now buried in one small section and narrative is now foregrounded.

Alright as far as it goes – a tale of a decent person overcoming prejudice and recognising the humanity of a foreigner. But it’s not a winner. Friends’ comments have helped to improved and polished it (thanks Derek and Paula).  I’ve checked that there is a narrative spine that drives the story forward, and short ribs of added tension that add depth – a technique I described in an earlier post. I’ve looked for opportunities to create repeating motifs that reflect each other in the hall of mirrors. None of this is enough.

Cordoba

What else can I add?  I wonder.  I know I need another narrative axis at right angles to the first. A hall of mirrors may not only reflect, but also distort and change perspectives. I’m still searching for what that right angled theme may be.  My intuition is that it may be to do with music.  Or with land and maps. Nothing is gelling yet. You can’t always tempt the muse down with breadcrumbs.

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