Diana Powell likes to think rejection led to the publication of her first short story collection, Trouble Crossing the Bridge, as well as her inclusion in this year’s Best (British) Short Stories. She uses the word ‘like’ intentionally. ‘All writers know that rejections are very much part of the submission process, but that doesn’t make them any easier to deal with. So any positive angle surrounding them is to be welcomed, if it offers hope for those struggling with self-doubt.’
Early in 2019, after a lean month or two, she decided on some positive action, which included reviewing her current submissions. Her story, The Cabinet of Immortal Wonders had been out for consideration with the same literary journal for several months. She felt it was a good one – it had been short-listed for the 2016 ‘Over the Edge New Writing Prize’, judged by Niamh Boyce, award-winning and best-selling author, but it had yet to appear in print. So she decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and email the editor in question about the story’s status.
‘When a story is under consideration, you can at least keep pretending that there’s a chance of publication, and remain hopeful, but she felt it was time to know, one way or another, what was happening with this particular piece.’ Sadly, the reply wasn’t one she wanted to hear. There were apologies for the long time the response had taken, but, no, the story wasn’t going to be taken up by them.
‘Confidence about her writing has been a problem for her. And usually such news would plunge her into the depths of depression and the old ‘there’s no point in carrying on, I’m going to give it all up’ frame of mind (We’re talking writing here!). And yes, she did feel miserable, but, this time, as part of her typical proactive attitude, she decided to ‘get back up on my bike’ straight away, and submit the story elsewhere that very same day.’
Diana approached ‘The Blue Nib’, an Irish journal, increasingly known for publishing well-written literary prose and poetry, and for encouraging emerging writers, which was, at that time, seeking submissions for their latest edition, Issue 37. Within twenty-four hours, she had had a reply, and it was a ‘yes’ – her fastest acceptance ever. But there was also considerable praise from fiction editor, Mimi Gladman – the kind of words that lift a writer’s spirits and confidence: ‘I really love this highly imaginative, beautifully dark and vividly drawn story.’
There were more kind words, too, when, a couple of months later, Diana submitted another story, The Woman Who Never Begs, for Issue 38. ‘Another fabulous piece. I love it!’
Somewhere between the two acceptances, the results were out for a competition she always entered, but with which she had had no success so far. It was the same again this time, without so much as an ‘honourable mention’. ‘It was disappointing, as it always was, but maybe more so this time, as the story ‘Whale Watching’, was one of her personal favourites, and so she had genuinely felt it had a chance. But, again, she was determined not to give up on it.
The Chipping Norton Literature Festival was running a short story competition, with a closing-date of just two days away. Diana just about managed to get her entry in on time!’
She was delighted when, a while later, she heard she’d made the shortlist. Like many writers, Diana is a great believer in shortlisting, longlisting, and yes, those honourable mentions. They show there’s something about the work to make it stand out above the crowd, and this, in itself, is considerable validation.’
Still, the thought remained…if it could get any further…
The competition was being judged by Nicholas Royle, accomplished author, editor and Reader at Manchester Writing School in Manchester Metropolitan University.
‘Did Diana have a chance?’
‘Whale Watching’ went on to win the top prize, and was praised by the judge as ‘masterful’, and – as the icing on the cake – he told Diana he would like to include it in the following year’s Best (British) Short Stories often regarded as the most highly esteemed short story anthology in the country, with the opportunity to showcase work to thousands.
The story features in the collection Diana had recently put together – a mix of both published and unpublished work – and was in the process of sending out for consideration. This was Trouble Crossing the Bridge, fifteen very different tales, in terms of voice, personality, setting, and plot but with a common theme. All the characters had been damaged by life in some way, and how they responded to these difficulties was at the heart of the stories – cutting off a mannequin’s hands out of jealousy; needing your husband to see Jesus in a tree; and, in ‘Whale Watching’, steadfastly believing you saw a famous actor tied to the side of a giant white whale, drifting out to sea.
‘A rather unusual, idiosyncratic mix!
Diana had about three independent presses asking for the whole collection at around that time, which was encouraging. Short stories are always something of a conundrum. People read them, lots of them, love them, but you will often hear a publisher declare that they simply don’t sell, and the number who will consider them is relatively small.
So Diana approached The Blue Nib with the collection. She had a reply back quite quickly, from Dave Kavanagh, the managing editor, asking to read the whole manuscript. Diana was over the moon when – again fairly quickly – she was told ‘yes’!
Diana says, ‘When you have faith in something you have created and find someone out there who shares that faith and is prepared to take a chance on your work – that is always a wonderful moment.’ What was even more exciting was that Blue Nib was looking to develop its book imprint, re-naming it Chaffinch Press, and this collection would be one of the first books it published.
Timing is always uncertain in publishing. There are so many variables involved. Dates become even more doubtful when an unprecedented pandemic is thrown into the mix, as it was in the case of Covid-19. Yet, finally, Trouble Crossing the Bridge was published in July, when some lockdown restrictions were lifted but, sadly, not enough to allow for a ‘real’ launch. But one advantage of a virtual event was that Diana could link up with Maria Straw-Cinar, who’s novel Girl was released by Chaffinch at the same time, and together they held a Zoom launch, which included introductions and questions by Reuters journalist, Jan Martin. and readings from the two authors. Feedback indicated the launch and the books were very well received!
A short time before the launch, Whale Watching received further recognition, when it was chosen as runner-up in the prestigious Society of Authors ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award.
‘Best of British’ was also delayed, and will now be published in October. Other authors featured alongside Diana include such giants of the short story world as David Constantine, K J Orr, Helen Mort and Irenosen Okojie. Diana says; ’I can’t help feeling incredibly honoured to be among them, and to see ‘Whale Watching’ in this amazing anthology.’
‘Some would say luck has played a part in Diana’s transition from frustrated writer, to a multiple awardee in a single year, and yes, that’s true. But, others would see that a combination of different writers, different readers/editors/publishers – different choices, lead to success.
Diana says that the rejections she had at the start of last year played their part in that success.
‘It’s something to remind myself of when the next one comes along – as it undoubtedly will – and I hope it will be a reminder for other writers, too, and help them along their path to publication.’