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A Short Guide to Writing a Short Story - Part 2
By Yvonne Granger
Posted on: 15 March 2012
According to Mr Rankin, you practise by writing short stories: The short story is a nice form. Its like a little jewel. You can hold the shape of it in your head you cant with a novel and theyre really good to read So when a short story competition was announced, I went in for it and won second prize, and then the next year I won a short story competition and thought: Oh, I can do this! So I moved away from poetry into short stories, and then that smoothed the way for a transition to the novel. Easy, eh? If you ask Mr Guthrie, he might disagree: I just kept making the same mistakes over and over again, because I didnt know I was making them. So I started reading everything I could on the art of writing from other writers, editors, and anybody who was prepared to talk about it. Taking from it what I thought made sense clarified what I was thinking. I then gave myself building blocks on which to write.
Disagreeing once again, Mr Rankin is wary of constructionism: I dont like the mechanistic thing I start a book with a vague theme and usually a murder. A compromise comes to us courtesy of Mr McIlvanney: The way I write is I process a lot of possibilities in my head first. I pre-edit the whole session, rather than each sentence, so it can take me hours to come to the first word, but then I can often write quite fast. If you can hold a whole session in your head alongside your short story, you might want to take Paul Johnstons advice: Nail the readers concentration to a specific point and place in time, and then control and move it forward. Theories aside, if you see no contradiction in these practices, it is because we have come full circle to Mr Guthries belief that if a scene doesnt move the story forward, if it makes no difference to the story when you remove it, then it should certainly not be there, in the same way that a word or a sentence shouldnt be there if it makes no difference.
What each of these writers is demanding, not least by demonstrating it, is acute self-consciousness. Stuart MacBride takes this to exemplary lengths: Ive heard that if you draw an unbroken, straight line with a red biro, itll stretch for one mile. I go through two of those every single time I do an edit: two miles worth of changes. I dont just fiddle about with a couple of bits in the book; its every single sentence, every single word, everything. I spend a phenomenal amount of time agonising over how everything hangs together, because I really believe it matters. And so do most readers, whether or not we are as aware of it as Craig Russell: When I worked as a copy writer, one of the things you had to do, particularly with a piece of direct mail, was make a connection before it was in the bin, so within 0.4 of a second. It requires discipline. You have to imagine that youre in a conversation because youre trying to get another persons attention, so even when I write fiction, I always have the reader in mind. What does that mean in practical terms? If you ask Denise Mina, the answer is simple: Ask yourself: What is the reader wondering about? Thats what Graham Greene always did. Whats the question in the readers mind? Its very hard to see things with fresh eyes, but its a seduction getting someone to listen to a story, and you have to let them know that they can trust you.
According to Ray Banks, this trust ought to cut both ways: Weve all got our scars, after all. In a lot of cases, theyre what make us interesting, dont you think? A definitive moral judgement on a character turns them from a human being to a chess piece, and I dont know about you, Len, but that kills the book for me. So I trust readers to make up their own minds. People might read for plot, but I definitely think they re-read for character. The consensus here is twofold: One, a writer who writes with compassion does so for a reader who creates a connection with every character. Two, we all do so by cutting our own copies of Ms Minas key to compassion: Everybody comes from something. Thats the big secret. So do both yourself and your reader a favour and represent unrepresented experiences of people who you wouldnt look at twice but who have a really vivid inner life. As you open up your characters to lock your readers into your stories, dont close them off from compassion: Counting on the audience to feel sorry for a character is always a sign that youre too tired and you need to go away and do something else. You stop thinking about the structure and the rhythm, and you start just making stuff happen. You become really events centred. Whats much more interesting is having pace thats about the internal life of the character, or having a conundrum that really drags you on, or implicating the audience. There are much more interesting places to go.
But where are they?
Find out next week, when Ernest Hemingway, J.G. Ballard, Chris Brookmyre, Allan Guthrie, Tony Black, Doug Johnstone, Helen FitzGerald, Louise Welsh, Ian Rankin, and William McIlvanney take you to and through the most interesting places of the writing process!