A short masterclass in short story writing
A dialogue with Shortfire Press
Let’s begin at the beginning – how do you start writing a short story? Is it important to have a strong sense of the plot and arc of the story to begin with? Can you give us a little about how the idea for ‘The Ordeal of Toby Trubshaw’ came about?
At the risk of demeaning my own credentials at the outset, I have to say I don’t consider myself to be a master of the short story. There are writers — Helen Simpson, Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Alice Munro — who write, solely or mainly, short stories. I consider myself a fan and a student of the genre. Having said that, I do think a lot of bunk is talked about short stories. I mean, I enjoy all these writers and I love Chekhov, but I feel there’s a way that the quote unquote literary short story has unfairly hogged the limelight. A short story is a great way to explore mood, a pregnant silence, a seemingly mundane scenario that’s somehow charged with significance. But I don’t see why that kind of short story is the only kind or necessarily the most valid. A short story is just short. Beyond that I think anything is possible. I also love genre pieces, horror, speculative fiction Saki, Poe, Lovecraft, John Collier, Wodehouse, the unclassifiable flights of Borges, etc. Okay, end of homily.
There are broadly two ways to approach any piece of writing, in my opinion. One is where you have an idea of where the whole thing is heading: “worldly roué meets young woman in Yalta; falls in love in spite of himself; faces an uncertain future,” — in the case of Lady with the Lapdog. The other is where you have a phrase, an image, maybe a single line that fascinates you and provokes you into elaborating it. Stephen King in On Writing talks about his writing process resembling archaeology: he’s scratching away earth that surrounds a skeleton which already exists and which could turn out to be virtually anything. No one could say that his work is short of storytelling, but he plots very little. Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing about her method: she just had a sense of an opening and then pursued it — like Theseus following the thread out of the labyrinth. I think this seems scary, but it can lead to an outcome that feels very natural, unforced and satisfying. The painter Francis Bacon said something that I’m fond of quoting to my students: “the hinges of form come about by chance seem to be more organic and to work more inevitably.” I really encourage people to follow this advice, and largely follow it myself.
Having said all this, some times an idea will appear whole, often in the form of a “what if?” For example, there’s a Martin Amis short story called “Career Move” about a world in which poets are well-paid and feted and blockbuster screenplays are treated as esoteric works of art. That’s a very funny conceit — and it obviously preceded the writing of the actual story.
Trubshaw was one of these. I know various people who have been kidnapped, and I know something about being a parent of tiny children. It struck me that, for a certain type of man, the privations of kidnap might be superior to being stuck at home with squalling children: because, after all, no one wants to hear your stories about that. And I thought that if I could pull off the idea that he actually preferred to be with his former captors than with his family — well, that seemed funny to me, and to possess a weird and unlikely truth.
I should say that it’s also possible to arrive at a less outre short story by the same route. Updike’s lovely Brother Grasshopper, for example; and the more I think of it, many of William Trevor’s short stories feel as though he has seen them whole from the outset. Of course, I could be wrong about this.
OK, so you have a cracking idea. What do you think are the most important considerations when actually tackling writing a short story?
This is a tough one. I mean, it’s going to vary from story to story. With Trubshaw, because the premise was, let’s face it, extremely unlikely, I needed to persuade the reader somehow that we were operating in a world where it was possible.
I think that it’s always about execution. If I told you that I was going to write a story about a man who wakes up and finds he has turned into a beetle, there’s a good chance you’d think it was a stupid idea. But Kafka has the power to make that not only a good story, but one that’s actually shaped the way we think about short stories.
So part of the answer is something about conviction, something about summoning the authority to say “One morning, when Gregor Samsa awoke…” and have the reader believe that a man has become a cockroach.
The other thing, and I say this tentatively, because I think that the short story has a tendency to prove people who pronounce on it foolish, is that the short story is usually about one thing. “The novel tells us everything, V.S. Pritchett said, “whereas the short story tells us only one thing and that, intensely.”
I think this is the great relief of the short story. I’ve had students working on novels who felt obliged to pad them out with irrelevant stuff to achieve what felt to them like a novelistic length.
And then, when you get to the end – how would you recommend editing? Did ‘Toby Trubshaw ‘change dramatically in its revised drafts? Can you tell us a little about that process?
Yes, I did edit a lot, and chucked stuff out. And there are stories I have written that haven’t seen the light of day because I never felt like I’d quite nailed them. I can’t explain editing in a nutshell. If you want to see what a big and fraught subject it can be, it’s worth looking at the way Raymond Carver’s short stories got perfected/massacred by his editor (depending on your taste) Gordon Lish. The original versions of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are available in Beginners. What I would say, though, is that beginning writers almost always underedit. I was very shocked when I saw my father-in-law pruning my shrubs. He just seemed to brutalize them and leave virtually nothing there. But he grew up on a farm and knows what he is doing. Short stories are the same: they generally thrive on very severe attention. But it’s an art, not a science, so some writers — maybe Lovecraft, for instance? — need a certain ornateness to achieve their effect.
Often short stories are as much about an understood hinterland, a series of shadows which lie under the surface of each story. The best stories seem to imply much more than they explicitly say. Is that tricky as a writer to achieve? And how do you go about approaching it?
All the best art has a kind of ineffable aura around it. I think that’s because the artist has tapped into something deep in themselves. I don’t you think you get there through explicit direction. I think we’ve all felt that moment in a movie when the story suddenly goes clunk because the hero picks up a little puppy and you feel as though a scriptwriter is grabbing your lapel and telling you “see, this character’s likeable!”
There are plenty of tips flying around about short story writing techniques. Do you have any rules you think it’s important to know? Even if just to break them?
You can think of any rule you like and it will have been broken not just in a short story, but in a short story by Chekhov. This point is well made in Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer.
We’ve talked a lot about rules and techniques, but is writing a short story as hard as people make it out to be?
At the risk of sounding glib, it’s easy to write a short story if you can keep your bum in the chair long enough. It’s hard to write a good one.
Which short stories would you recommend on a must-read list for any short story writer?
The short story isn’t a tree, it’s a forest, maybe a jungle, and that isn’t sufficiently recognized. I don’t want to recommend, say, “The Dead” by James Joyce and have some 17 year old kid turned off short fiction for life because it doesn’t speak to them. You write what you love to read, whether that’s science fiction, in all its guises, horror, or the so-called literary short story. This is going to seem harsh, but if you don’t care enough about short stories to have your own list of favourites already, why are you writing them?