Northern Short Story Festival 2019 in review by Andrew Tymms

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, (well, Yorkshire) there was a short fiction festival.

Legend has it that this festival took place in Leeds once a year on a weekend in early June, in a theatre known as The Carriageworks. It was the Northern Short Story Festival and people came from far and wide to experience its many delights.

Upon hearing about this momentous event, one writer decided to go along to find out what all the fuss was about…because he was Northern, short and had plenty of stories to tell.

It all began late one warm Friday evening with a Flash Fiction Slam in which writers read out their very best stories against the clock – each allowed only five minutes to tell their story.

The standard was impressively high and the prize was well worth winning – a bag of books, publication online and mentoring by an expert.

The following morning, everyone gathered bright and early for a flash fiction workshop with a difference: featuring the appliance of science.

Participants were encouraged to mix fiction with science – producing interesting and in some cases explosive results. Run by Tania Hershman, the workshop was filled with fantastic experiments – using articles from the New Scientist, clips from a scientific podcast and even postcards as the inspiration for fresh fiction. There was even time for a quick game of Word Cricket.

Now, I don’t know if you have ever played Word Cricket, but I would urge you to give it a go some time. You take your bat (sorry, pen) in hand, and swing (or rather, write) continuously, whilst the bowler (sorry, course leader) throws a series of curve balls (I mean, words) at you. This added fizz to an already bubbling literary mixture – providing extra ingredients and turning up the heat on our melting pots.

After that, there was a performance featuring pieces inspired by the songs of Joy Division, from the We Are Strangers anthology. Founder member Peter Hook (who was playing at a festival nearby) would have surely approved.

This was followed by an excellent Credible and Compelling Storytelling workshop with CG Menon in which writers learned how to make their stories more believable by combining fiction with fact.

There were plenty of practical exercises which demonstrated the importance of setting and character. The best moments though were those that involved conversations with other people in the group. The emphasis was firmly on collaboration rather than competition. Writers found it useful to have their efforts considered by fresh pairs of eyes, helping them realise the potential of their stories and develop them in ways that they hadn’t considered.

This was followed by an inspirational cultural call to arms in the form of readings of stories of uprising from a new compendium of protest fiction called Resist.

By this time, some of the participants had worked up quite a thirst – not just for fiction, but for a drink – so they headed to a local pub for a fiendishly difficult literary version of Blankety Blank, hosted by knowledgable poet Ian Harker. If only the scoring system had been more like the one on Pointless, some of them might have stood a better chance of winning.

If the focus of Saturday was on fiction, then Sunday was devoted to real life. Beginning things was a brilliant memoir writing workshop from Barney Bardsley. After considering a series of autobiographical extracts from established authors, participants were encouraged to mine their own past for inspiration – concentrating on specific events, atmosphere and relationships from their lives, to great effect.

Rounding things off in fine style was the Northern Short Story Festival Academy showcase – highlighting the very best in local talent with a selection of spellbinding stories.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there was one last activity – a creatives mixer – not, as you might think, a type of drink, but a social event. Upon arrival, attendees were given bingo sheets, and provided with an incentive to speak to others – to find out if they fulfilled any of the criteria of the boxes on the sheet. Some of the more interesting creatives in attendance satisfied more than one of these criteria!

If you listen carefully, you might just be able to hear the distant rumblings of preparations already taking place for next year’s festival. Maybe you missed out this year and are now reading this, kicking yourself for not being there. Well, don’t worry – there’s always next year. So, keep calm and carry on writing and make sure you attend next time.

Oh, and if rumours are to be believed, after the festival had finished, some of the writers continued their conversations in the pub. Friendships were made, tales were told and collaborative partnerships were established for the future. But that’s perhaps another story for another time…

Review by Andrew Tymms. All photos by Izzy Brittle.