Short Story Masterclass

18th August 1995 at 01:00
Set time aside every day to enjoy writing the stories you want to write, says Scott Bradfield

The best part about being a short story writer is that there's very little chance anyone will try to corrupt you with money. Short stories are never sold in high six-figure paperback auctions; nobody will ever offer you a sizable advance for a short story you're thinking about writing (no matter how many serial-killers you've got in it); and in Hollywood, where producers work hard all day figuring out ways to turn down projects so they don't have to read them, short stories are considered too "small" for the "big" screen.

In fact, there's so little chance that any of us foolhardy short story writers will be corrupted by money, the thought doesn't even enter into our fantasy lives, and so pester us with a lot of silly, unfeasible distractions we don't have time for. This, of course, leaves us a lot more time for writing the short stories nobody wants to publish. The best advice I have for an aspiring short story writer is this: enjoy writing the stories you want to write. Because you may be the only person in the entire world who will ever read them.

I won't waste your time waxing poetic about the difficult "art" of stories. Suffice it to say that there is no room in them for any of the things that inflate so many successful (often Booker-winning) novels: endless expositional passages, gimmicky plot twists, and dense Jamesian interior monologues. The short story is art under a microscope - every blemish looks bigger than it is, every lapse of momentum seems oh so much more boring.

I'm a firm disbeliever in "plotting". Plots are for genre writers and hacks, people who want to reveal who really killed Roger Ackroyd, or explain exactly how the slime-beast from Andromeda can be annihilated by readjusting the new proton-valve just so. Plotting a story requires that you decide where you're going before you get there; it also requires that the destination of the story be more important than what happens along the way. When I read "plotted" stories, I usually enjoy the first few pages or so, but eventually I feel like I'm on a tour bus being taken to every single point of interest in town. Everything's so pre-planned there isn't time to get out and stretch my feet, or just wander off on my own trajectories. I'm being taken places; I'm not getting to know them.

In a story, don't worry about where you're going; pay attention to where you are. If you can make every scene moving and absorbing in itself, the over-all story will eventually emerge. Don't rush it.

I know I've already made a point about the brevity and concision of stories (as everybody does), but having said that, let me add that you shouldn't worry too much about blabbing a bit on the first draft. Over-write, over-describe, over-explore on your first trip through. Then, when you're finished, go back and cut mercilessly. You'll often find that the passages or sentences which gave you the most pleasure writing are the ones that have to go. Any passage in which you've invested vanity is usually detrimental to the story as a whole. Remember this brief metaphysical fact: You mean nothing. The story is all.

The short story shouldn't begin at the beginning, but rather somewhere just before the middle. Don't waste pages "setting up" a story, or giving us a lot of boring information about the protagonists. You can always tell it'll be a bad story if it begins with a guy getting out of bed, shutting off the alarm clock, and going to the window to watch smoggy traffic heading towards the M25. Writers who take a long time getting a story started are spinning their wheels because they're worrying about what should happen next. Readers sense this anxiety and, believe me, readers don't wait around. They have TVs to go to, remember. CD players and On-line.

The story begins at the moment some conflict or emotional intensity has already begun. It may be the way a husband and wife argue over breakfast, or the last moment a child saw its father, or the first moment a young girl meets her "dream man" - but it's a scene which sets the central character off in some direction. A short story is nothing more than a sense of momentum.

Narrative is not about information - how old someone is, how many times they've been married, where they went to school, or how unhappy the author is in Dulwich. Narrative is about things happening - the way people speak, the things they do, the objects they touch. Your characters don't need to be stunt pilots or anything crazy like that; but they do need to be headed somewhere. Don't make the mistake a lot of beginning writers make - which is to write stories about people who sit in their rooms all day reflecting on their meaningless lives. What you're doing, of course, is writing about how bored you are trying to write.

Back when I was still feeling pretty overpowered by the task of writing, and when it took me anywhere from six months to a year to complete a single story, I thought about writing a werewolf story for all the wrong reasons. Because it was a horror story, I thought it might have a market. And because I was working from an established tradition, I thought I could browse and borrow from every schlock novel I'd ever read, and every stupid movie I'd ever watched. For months I worried at this story and couldn't get it started. The problem was that I kept trying to write scenes that would lead me to the part of the story that interested me - these images I had of a man whose violent lupine dreams felt more real to him than his family, his office, or his job. Finally, out of sheer frustration with all the boring junk I was churning out, I cut to the chase. I wrote a scene in which my central character sat at breakfast, describing his dreams to his wife and child. Suddenly, my story had come to life, and when it took off there wasn't a werewolf in sight. By dispensing with the story I'd set out to write, I discovered scenes and characters I had never expected. I eventually called it "Dream of the Wolf" and, while it was rejected at the time, it's turned out to be one of my most reprinted (and one of my favourite) stories.

Which brings me to another primary belief: Get out of your own head, and put on somebody else's for a while. Your own head only screws you up in fiction. It's always trying to plan, regulate, organise, prevent you from making a fool out of yourself. Point of view is nothing more than an angle on the world, a way of seeing. When you're able to see the world from an angle other than your own, you're re-energizing your own senses, and the world around you begins to buzz with new particularity and voices. In order to imagine, you must learn to play.

Just as a story starts somewhere near the middle, it concludes a long time after it's over. Remember, a good story expresses the emotional life of a character, and this life doesn't start happening until well after something significant happens. In the same way that the emotional jolt often hits us months after a friend dies, or a relationship ends, stories don't end with an event. They end with the impact that event has on a character. Readers don't read stories to learn how to resolve the timeless battle of the sexes, or how to straighten out this whole Bosnian mess. They read to extend their knowledge of human experience, and in order to do this properly they want to feel some shared sense of emotion. Even though this emotional frisson may not last, it's the only beauty we writers have got. And if it's done well, it's enough.

Because short stories are, well, short, a lot of writers make the mistake of trying to write them in one sitting. This is the worst thing you can do as a writer, because one-sitting writers let themselves get carried away by all the wrong things - adrenalin, egomania and speed. Isak Dinesen once said she wrote a little bit every day - without hope and without despair. You can't get advice better than that. Set aside some period of time every day to work - 20 minutes, a half-hour, whatever. Hemingway (like many other good story writers) tried to end each day's work in the middle of an interesting scene, so that he wouldn't dread sitting down to work the next day. That advice is pretty good, too. The biggest battle you'll have as a writer is with yourself - just getting yourself started in the morning.

Ultimately, though, the only way to learn how to write short stories is to read them. For my money, the best story writers I can think of are Richard Yates, Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Tobias Wolff, John Collier, Kafka, and Turgenev. There are a number of genre writers, like Theodore Sturgeon or Raymond Chandler, from whom you can learn a lot as well. But of course these writers I've mentioned are important to me because they helped me make use of my own experience. You'll need to browse long and hard to find the writers who'll help you come to grips with yours. If you don't enjoy this sort of rigorous browsing in books, don't write.

If I've got to leave you with one paramount piece of advice, though, it's this: whenever you read any article telling you how to write, pay it respectful attention, and then toss it. When it comes to writing short stories, you're on your own.

Scott Bradfield is the author of two collections of stories, The Secret Life of Houses and Greetings from Earth: new and collected stories ( Picador). His novels include The History of Luminous Motion, What's Wrong with America and the forthcoming Animal Planet (all Picador). Burmah Castrol Staff Charity Group: annual short story competition run in association with Reader's Digest. 1,500-1,800 words, set theme nature conservation. Entry Pounds 4. Closing date September 29. Details: Burmah Castrol Staff Charity Group Short Story Competiton Box 1, Burmah Castrol Trading, Pipers Way, Swindon, Wiltshire SN3 1RE. Quartos 1995 Open Writing Competiton Max 1,000 words. No set theme, no children's. Entry Pounds 2.50 per story. Critiques provided if SAE sent. Closing date October 20. Details: Competition Organiser 1995, Quartos, BCM-Writer, London WC1N 3XX. (01559 371108). Raconteur: bi-monthly magazine short story competition run in association with The European. Entry Pounds 5. Closing date September 30. Details: Raconteur Magazine Story Competition, 44 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8LR. Useful publications: Acclaim, published bi-monthly by The New Writers Club, PO Box 101, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN4 8YD (01892 511322). Pounds 21 for six issues.

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