On being unsure

I have just submitted a short story. It is one I wasn’t sure about. Spare and uncluttered with physical detail, without even names for the characters (apart from a third party). No explanation of why the main character is where she is. A far cry from the advice given to schoolchildren about short stories having a beginning middle and end, and the characters described in lush and grimsome detail with adverbs and adjectives as vivid as a spilled box of crayons. The one I submitted is practically naked. I left it for a couple of months to see if it would ‘mature’  by being left to its own devices. And somehow it had. A little dusting and out it went. It doesn’t always go like this.

Often the thing does not find it best form without a lot of re-casting. And sometimes I have to admit it doesn’t work, despite hours of trying. And sometimes a piece of work ‘reeks of the lamp’ in being done to death. Nothing is learned without trying of course.

On a creative writing weekend I was once taught by Margaret Wilkinson who gave the great piece of advice that short stories are mostly ‘all middle’. It is the point of them, the beingness of the story, to be there in the moment, yet somehow the feeling of the story lingers in the reader’s mind – forever, sometimes. A short story I believe can do this more so than even a novel, and is often compared to a poem for this resonant property. I rejoice in the variety of approaches. The short story is a place to stretch the approach to the prose form.

There is no shortage of advice on writing them. Writers have their favourite approaches.  Some swear by the immediacy of the first person  to place the reader right in there with the character. Some like lots of action and others an exotic setting or interesting language. No contrivance will work unless the writer gets the feeling of rising above the page (the story – not the transcendent writer). But one thing a story has to do is to complete an arc of narrative that takes the reader on a journey and kicks them off the bus – not necessarily where they expected to be.

There is artifice involved in filling in a blank page. Some terrain is needed for the writer to act and move upon it and some sense  of direction. I need some little germ of an idea – more an unvoiced thought – a feeling. Sometimes I find it useful to steal a personality – someone I have met, or an actor in a particular part. Some people plot, or work out scenes. I wonder about this for short stories – it can appear too contrived, but sometimes it can get the work going, even if it it just a first shot.

In starting a story, my advice is always to ‘go for it’ – get in there with the feeling you have for whatever’s bitten you. Write it – by hand or on a machine. But write and write. I have been known to write a load of stuff in a notebook and immediately rewrite on a computer, not necesarily looking at the handwritten stuff again – but some kind of mental download is needed.  Edit later – maybe a few weeks own the line. Editing is always needed. In my case anyway – seldom does the first attempt work without shaping. A wrong word or sentence can spoil the balance of an entire story. It is often best to look back at a piece with the objectivity of a few weeks.

Enough writing about writing.

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4 thoughts on “On being unsure

    1. You’re welcome. The whole series is a bit of a hidden gem, added to on a monthly-ish basis. I’d missed it too until I spotted the one on Alice Munro in November.

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