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Guest post by Helen Chambers - winner of the Fish Short Story Prize!



Petra asked me an age ago to write about winning the Fish Short Fiction prize, and it’s taken an embarrassingly long time. I’m an expert in procrastination, and anyway I couldn’t think what to write about. With my winner’s trip to Ireland imminent, I’ve found some focus and I’ve finally grasped that I’m writing this for fellow writers.

I think I won because (i) I took a risk and (ii) I was extremely lucky. The enormity of (ii) hit home a fortnight ago when I was sent the proofs for the book and was able to read everyone else’s work. They were all so good, and I wanted to rewrite and improve mine. But I had taken a risk which perhaps gave my story an edge.

Tilly Emerson, the main character in my short story, was a minor character in something else I’d written. When I came back to the original story to edit it, I realised how much more I liked Tilly than my main character. Old, grumpy and set in her ways, Tilly was eccentric and principled and fascinated me. I admired her despite her faults, though I suspect she’d give me short shrift if she met me. She’d been a gardener in her prime and I pictured her overgrown and gone-to-seed garden, abandoned in her grief at the untimely death of her partner. In fact, I could hear her voice and feel her dislike for her prickly stepdaughter (I don’t have stepchildren, but a quarter of a century as a teacher may have given me some insights!).

I loved writing about Tilly and wrote bits of her backstory for fun. Very little of it was written in Tilly’s voice – I was more interested in what the other characters thought of her. I showed this mishmash to a writing friend who told me I’d got something reasonable, once I’d cut a couple of thousand unnecessary words from it.

Two months later, I spotted the Fish competition and cut nearly three thousand words from my earlier draft. ‘Clippings’ came in at just under 5,000 words. The story is in small chunks, each one in a different time-period, with different narrators – risky. We are taught to be crystal clear about point of view (and advised to write about a relatively small passage of time). I used four distinct narrative voices – in fact, only one small section, two thirds through, is narrated by Tilly herself. I liked it that way.

I would normally baulk at paying for a critique, but I had a high opinion of the people at Fish, and wanted to know if I could get away with my multiple narrators and large time-span. It came back positive, and I put the story away and promptly forgot about it.

No one was more surprised or delighted than me to hear that Tilly’s story had won the Fish prize. The judge, Billy O’Callaghan, said in his roundup that: “I was a bit sceptical at first of the structure, but the story unfurls wonderfully…” My risk-taking had paid off!

So my advice: Keep writing, keep editing, keep reading, enter every competition you can, and take a few risks. If I can do it, anyone can!

With many thanks to Petra, who inspired me to write the very first story which eventually led to Tilly.


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