Saturday, February 28, 2009

Constructing the Short Story (Fiction: Part Two) From The Broadkill Review Vol. 1, No. 2 March 2007


The first flaw the novice makes in writing a short story is in wanting to write a short story about (fill in the blank). The idea for a setting, or a scene, or an event, may seem particularly significant for a variety of what are generally rather personal reasons. Often this is an idea that has taken hold with the vague notion that “someone ought to write a story about it (whatever “it” is).”

That’s not enough. The work comes, as with anything of value, after you spend some time with it, develop ideas about plot threads, characters, how they mesh, and how events unfold. About how this unfolding effects or changes which of the characters, and why. How this alters the character who is, surprise, the protagonist, or the person whom the story is about, and, vicariously, the reader.

Why do you want to write this particular story? “Because it is important.“ “Important to whom?” I ask. “Important to me,” the green writer will reply. That’s good, for if it isn’t really important to you, don’t start. Not, at least, with your first attempt at fiction. Those who are experienced writers know that they can get interested, occasionally, in a story which is not initially interesting to them, but that approach is just a waste of time for the novice.

Understand that the most important rule for writing a short story, other than Edgar Allan Poe’s three rules lined out in the previous issue of The Broadkill Review, is to learn to stop thinking about the story and let it begin to write itself.

Do not make the mistake of bringing your rational and analytical powers to bear on the story as it evolves. Far too many short stories die still-born because the writer is thinking like an editor before he or she even gets started. The time for editorial review is after the story is finished, not one second before!

If you have done your job correctly,the thing which is so important that it has motivated you to want to share it with others as a short story will guide the development of plot and help flesh out characters for you. Now there is nothing mysterious about this. It is just that most apprentice “fictioneers” have yet to learn to trust that their subconscious will have made some connection with the material, too. It is the subconscious which provides inspiration, not the conscious.

The effect of this learning to trust all of your mind’s fabulous creativity is that you need not struggle to name a character. Someone in the story will undoubtedly call to your character by name in dialogue. And you should stick with that name, because it will be the most important name that character can have for what he or she does.

(Nearly everyone has at one time or another in their childhood wished that they had been named something else. Names, after all, dictate much our sense of ourselves — and names will dictate much of the characters’ senses of themselves as well — ask anyone named “Darryl” or “Esme” or “Petunia” or “Dick.” My name is “James Brown,” after all.)

At any rate, you cannot begin, the first time this sort of serendipitous thing happens to you, to understand the enormous complexity and richness to which this can lead.

A minor character in my short story, “Feria,” wound up named “Dory,” short, I guessed, for “Doreen” or some such. I didn’t analyze it, but trusted my subconscious. It helped to shape her character, and then, when the first draft was finished, I realized that the importance of her character is that she throws the protagonist a life-ring, euphemistically speaking, and the “dory = lifeboat” connection was something with which I was quite happy. No one seems to have noticed, and it probably wouldn’t matter to anyone but me anyway; nonetheless, I think it makes the text richer.

The axiom of all good writers is “write what you know.” This does not mean that you should write it down “exactly as it happened in real life.” Hemingway, I think it was, once said something to the effect that the writer’s job was to “make it truer than true, realer than real.” This means, specifically, that reality and what you know should be the starting point for your story, and not the ending point.

So when a new writer says, “I have trouble finishing a story,” or “I have trouble with making my characters do what I want,” or “I can’t seem to keep going,” or any number of similar complaints, I’m fairly certain that the person making the statement is over-thinking whatever the situation is with which they are having trouble. What they really have trouble doing is letting go of their own sense of themselves as the creator of the story, thinking, of course, that anything which they create they must remain in absolute control of, and that, of course, is nearly impossible. (Even God, I am told, allows for free will.)

So let your characters breathe on their own, and they will begin to think and act on their own, and not always in ways which you expect. (Not consciously, at least. Your subconscious will be taking care of this all by itself and offering your conscious mind its creative efforts.)

Just at the point when you find yourself thinking, “Oh no. My character would never say something like that!” you should smack yourself in the face with a cold wet rag, tell yourself to stop thinking, and start writing it down exactly as it begins to come to you because, even if you (or your conscious mind) don’t understand how or why the character says or does something, if you trust your subconscious, creative mind, you will eventually learn exactly why he or she or they say or do exactly what you don’t think they ever could.

Just shut up and get out of the way. The story will tell itself.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Constructing a Short Story (Fiction: Part One) from The Broadkill Review Vol. 1, No. 1 January, 2007

For eight years I taught a creative writing workshop in advanced fiction at Georgetown University’s School for Summer and Continuing Education. Over the course of that time several important ideas framed themselves as principles for the writer of short fiction. Let me start by saying that I owe much of this approach to Edgar Allan Poe, who is rightfully recognized as America’s first literary theorist. Poe, you see, edited, over his lifetime, several literary magazines, and it was in the course of these jobs that he codified his three rules for the writer of the short story. I ground each of my workshops in his three principles.

First, Poe said, the short story must be short. This was undoubtedly a response to writers like Melville and Hawthorne, whose “short stories” read to him like mini-novels, and are, in fact, recognized as such today, although we know them as “novellas.” Poe believed that this new form, “the short story,” should be about the length that could be read at one sitting. Secondly, Poe believed that the short story must not try to do too much. The story writer, he felt, should strive to achieve a single emotional effect in the reader. Anything more complex or layered should take a novel to achieve.

Any writing, no matter how beautiful or emotionally significant to the author, which does not promote that end, should be stricken. (This does not mean that you should erase what you have written by any means. Just move it out of that particular short story.)

Thirdly, the short story must not be so short as to fail to achieve the second objective, and the writer must be careful not to sacrifice what must be told in order to achieve for the sake of brevity alone.

I believe that in a workshop of creative writers, the individual must not dissemble when speaking of their intent, for how can the workshop assess the result without knowing what was intended? (Let me assert here that confusion is not an emotional effect.) This takes a self- discipline which every novice writer should master.
No matter how important or significant a point in the a story is to you, the author, if it does not move the story itself forward, it should be eliminated. Remember always that writing is the first interactive medium, that the reader must be encouraged to invest of themselves in the story which you are trying to tell.
Pushing the reader away with highly stilted or artificial prose cannot serve the purpose of the writer who seeks to engage the reader in what John Gardner calls “the waking dream.” That is the sense that almost everyone who has been engrossed in a good book has experienced, where the synapses are making connections with the experiential part of the brain without your having to be consciously aware of it. Where the story “becomes” real for the reader.

John Updike wrote in one of his short stories of the face of a young woman reading on the bus “who had just emerged from a work of fiction,” an image which suggests (to me at least) the face of a competitive diver who has just come to the surface of a pool after a dive from the 10 meter platform.

As readers, we emerge from the fictive world created by the author, and it is a feeling which we like. Whether endorphins are released by this state and reward us for becoming absorbed in other peoples’ lives is irrelevant to the satisfaction we feel when we have had that experience.

Gardner argues that to forcibly evict the reader from that state of mind, that space they inhabit, is a direct violation of the unwritten contract the writer has established with the reader. This is connected with Poe’s Second Rule, insofar as to push the reader away from the text effectively prevents the story’s evoking any emotional effect in the reader whatsoever.

The contractual understanding is where the reader, having invested in reading the beginning of the story, now feels a sense of trust in the writer. It is this trust in the writer which the writer must not undercut or devalue. It affects the reader like a slap in the face. And why should anyone continue to read someone who assaults them in this way? The answer is, they shouldn’t, and most readers won’t. They’ll just put down the story or novel and go on to read something else, or, worse yet, stop reading and turn on the television.

So remember Poe’s three rules as you write, and Gardner’s admonition against pushing the reader away from the text.

Happy Birthday to...

February 27 - John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968) (right)

February 27 - N. Scott Momaday (1934 - ) (middle)

February 27 - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1882) (top)

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