I’m still in the US, mentoring young writers long distance, by email. I recently responded to a fragment sent for possible inclusion in Fflam Pwy? Whose Flame is it, anyway? the anthology I’m editing for Disability Arts Cymru as part of the Cultural Olympiad, celebrating the 2012 London Paralympic and Olympic Games. As I anticipated in the previous post, editing and mentoring provokes reflection on form and process. I include parts of my email here, as it seemed pertinent to ‘revision notes’:
First: We need a story. Even with the most brilliant description and writing in the world, we need more than the observations to make our reading really satisfying and our writing successful.
This story doesn’t have to be a huge world-changing event – it can be a very small and simple discovery. Basically, by the end of the piece, SOMETHING MUST HAVE CHANGED – even if that’s our (the readers’) perception.
Second: A writer must have something to SAY – something to communicate to the world, otherwise we’re just examining our navels….
Apart from capturing the characters and this moment in time, what would you say you wanted to communicate in the fragment you sent? I had a sense something might be about to happen. I was expecting some revelation that would allow me to ‘see’ the characters in a new light – or even challenge my preconceptions as reader. I was waiting for an extra detail to turn the situation upside down – to subvert, surprise, reveal…
To really engage me as a reader, I need a plot, or something happening, or some action, or something promising to be revealed. There is a theory that we write and read in order to understand what it is to be human. When I think of the great short story writers I admire and the insight into humanity their work allows , this certainly seems to be the case: Grace Paley, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Elizabeth Bowen, Yiyun Li, Flann O’Brien, Angela Carter, Edgar Allen Poe, Italo Calvino… More recent writers include Jackie Kay, Helen Simpson, Claire Keegan, AM Holmes – the list could go and on… What they bring to me is a distilled moment from a life, which hints at the complexities in existence, in human interaction, in being.
On a prosaic level, we also need a beginning, a middle and an end…
As an exercise, see how short a story you can tell. Ernest Hemingway famously created a whole short story in six words:
FOR SALE. BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN.
In that, we have the whole world of the story and its tragedy – our minds are making up what might have happened: the baby died – or was adopted – or was a phantom pregnancy – or was stolen – or was….? My mind is alive with possibilities… and Hemingway suggests enough to get our imaginations and emotions activated (the pathos of those baby shoes), and then wisely leaves it to us to complete the story…
It has a beginning a middle and an end – but the end is ‘open’ and lets us make up what happened – but it still ends – and although we’re not told exactly what, we know something happened along the way – something fundamental, made of the stuff of life…
I hope that those thoughts are useful for thinking about the basics of story writing.
For writers reading their favourite stories, go to The Guardian’s short stories podcast: