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'Inspiration,' she snorted.'That's nonsense! If I waited for inspiration, I'd never write another short story.'
'So, how do you come up with ideas?' I asked.
'I lock myself in a quiet room after breakfast and don't come out until I've written at least 1,000 words.'
I wonder why many people become so adamant when it comes to writing. Isn't writing for pleasure meant to be fun? My attitude to writing is simple. If it works for you...
Personally, I don't want to write anything without passion. To me grinding out a set number of words is a dull use of time.
Someone recently asked what were my hobbies. I mentioned writing and he asked, 'How much money do you make from that?' The answer is not a cent, but that's not the point. For over 40 years I wrote to put food on the table. I wrote articles, advertising copy, reports, news releases and a great deal of other commercially focused communications. These were the words others wanted me to say. Today, I write what I like. As my pen flies across the page, I'm exploring my ideas and hopefully giving others pleasure.
Short story writing is a form of daydreaming. You take an idea, look at it from an oblique angle, imagine how the action develops, i.e. how certain events affect the main and subsidiary characters and weave a story. Inspiration sounds rather grand. Generally, I find it's more the need to scratch an itch.
An idea will come in to my mind. It may be a phrase, a single word, a news item - any number of triggers. Once there, it will keep itching away like sand in an oyster. If the idea comes at night - and it often does, as the mind is more relaxed and thus receptive - I'll shape and reshape the thought into various word combinations. Finally, I'll get up and scribble down the words which may be the beginning of a short story, or several stanzas of a poem.
A sharp hook is vital to any short story. The first sentence must attract attention. That attention however needs to be swiftly converted into interest. The reader becomes curious. They trust you to lead them into your world.
Finding the right pace can be tough. You need to move your words along, particularly in a short story. Few adjectives and short sentences help, but the speed should smoothly accelerate, not jolt the reader.
I try to write one good line each day while I feel fresh. I find a few words generally lead to others and soon a page or several acceptable pages are written. Stories gradually develop. I have a general idea where a plot should go, but find if I come back to the story the next day, I'll take a fresh approach. It's almost like beginning another short story, because you try to seize the reader's attention again and once having seized it, never relax the grip.
Generally, dialogue is more interesting than description. The dialogue however needs to be tightly controlled. Most real life conversations meander. Dialogue in print can't afford that luxury. It has specific purposes, such as providing background, establishing the characters or indicating tension. Few of us can reason as logically as characters in a short story. We need to be realistic. Just how self aware and vocal would your fictional character be in real life?
Description should be used sparingly. A writer should keep asking, Is this necessary? Who needs elaborate details of weather, scenery, the character's physical appearance, clothes and so on? Do all these words advance the plot?
Of course some description is needed, but only as brief, vivid brushstrokes.
The best short stories are those where we feel the characters existed before and will exist after the story has ended. Mystery should remain about every fictional character. Take one of the most famous short story creations - Father Brown. What influences shaped the mind of this outwardly dull, but brilliantly intuitive man? We never know because Chesterton judges this is irrelevant to his stories. How slyly Father Brown slips onto the stage! We almost forget his presence until he speaks and then it is usually to make a seemingly trivial or irrelevant remark. We don't need pages of establishing dialogue. Chesterton tells just as much as we need to know. Although we know little about Father Brown, what we do know convinces us that this is a flesh and blood human who will stump on with his awkwardly large umbrella long after we have turned the last page.
Every writer should be two people: an author and an editor. The author is imaginative and expansive. The editor spends words like a miser. He or she demands tight sentences and clear meaning. Most sentences gather force and clarity if broken into a series of sentences. If meaning can be established by nouns, why bother with adjectives? I try to write taut prose, but am often surprised how much flab remains. If a word is resting on its oars, it loses its place. I was going to add 'in the boat', but they're wasted words. Where else do you have oars?
Writing is like cooking sauce: intense flavor comes from reduction.
As well as being rigorous in your own editing, it is important to run your work through the spellcheck on your word processing package. This assistance is erratic. My spellcheck doesn't recognize most people or placenames, suggesting silly alternatives. It does however ensure you don't send out misspelt words. I find its grammatical advice very rigid. It hates single word sentences for example. It also often suggests awkward or misleading sentence constructions. Every now and again, however it provides an excellent alternative. A poorly spelt story indicates sloppiness. It also puts unnecessary barriers between a writer and the reader.
Why write and if you write, why publish? This is how it works for me.
I think writing is a marvelous occupation. Many of our hopes or fears appear vast and unresolvable because they have never been clearly defined. As soon as you begin describing in print what you feel, you gain some power over the emotion. Not necessarily the solution, but at least you're resisting what seemed an overwhelming emotion. Nothing is solved, that isn't defined.
Some people therefore begin their writing careers by keeping a diary. It can be useful to look back six months after some entry and realize how a feared event never occurred.
If I were a psychologist however, I would encourage patients to go several steps beyond keeping a diary. I would encourage people to write short stories in which they play out their concerns. I would suggest the narrator describe events as though they were happening to another person. Distance them by changing the gender, age, and nationality of the individual in the story. Perhaps write the story as though they are a friend or foe of the individual. Make the principal character more flawed and therefore more interesting. As they wrote the story, I would suggest the writer/patient ask how can I make this story entertaining to others? If you were reading the story for the first time, what would hook your attention from the first line? What would keep them reading? A novel idea, crisp dialogue, sustained curiosity?
This approach has the benefit that one writes from personal knowledge. You care what happens to the person in the story. Because you care, the reader probably will as well.
If you write, should you publish?
Generally yes, because publishing demands you seek an audience. To gain that audience, you focus on what you believe others would like to read. That doesn't mean writing to the lowest common denominator. It means writing something you think an intelligent and receptive individual would find of interest. Publishing demands clarity of thought and ease of expression. It demands a logical progression of events or ideas and originality.
I like Milton's ideas on the value of publishing:
'I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd and unbreath'd that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.'
Writing for others as well as yourself can be extraordinarily difficult. Many people have the urge to write, but lack the courage to publish. Few of the many thousands of students enrolled in creative writing classes throughout the world ever write for an audience beyond their peers. Others, having published one or two pieces, decide it's all too difficult.
Writing is the litmus test of a good mind. The better the mind, the finer the writer. I like stories that offer ideas. Asimov's Law of Robotics for example develops several challenging ideas. If you create a robot, what role should it play if its human master is threatened, given that robots should never cause harm to a human? If the human master gives an instruction that is wicked, should the robot refuse that order? How can a robot be programmed to understand the often subtle nuances of morality? At the same time, short stories are not sermons. Your moral sense will come through in a story without belaboring the point. Stories generally have a viewpoint but need to convey it in a subtle and entertaining way.
What then do you need to become a writer? An idea, paper, pen and some basic communication skill. You don't need to be a professor of literature or the graduate of an expensive and extended writing course. Some find writing classes of value. They find reading their works aloud and being critiqued stimulating. Many professional writers would hate that experience. Clearly, there are writing skills one should learn, but those skills can be generally acquired from reading books and by constant practice.
What should you write? Basically, something you would like to read. If you're not drawn to a genre, there's no point in trying to write it. I like writing fantasy because it's where I can best explore novel ideas. It's important to find a comfortable genre or genres. It's also useful from time to time to take on an unusual genre, to avoid becoming stale.
Whatever you write, it's useful to read widely in that area.
The challenge is to sharpen your appreciation of what works today in that genre without being captive to the work of others.
It seems to me that many people so admire the works of accomplished short story writers such as Saki, O.Henry, Joyce, Hemingway, Carver, Fitzgerald and so on, that they become frozen in fear. They worry that whatever they write won't reach the heights of those masters. If it doesn't, who cares? A well-written story has its own integrity. You have produced something no other person has said or will ever say in quite the same way.
The wonderful thing is that someone perhaps thousands of miles from you, maybe years after your death will one day read and be touched by what you've written.