I’ve just embarked on reading the e version of, The Story, Love, Loss and the Lives of Women, edited by Victoria Hislop. I know about the anthology because I’m lucky enough to be included in it. I’m very much looking forward to the hardback, which is out in September but in the meantime I’ve set myself the task, the very enjoyable task, of reading one story a day. So far I’ve read stories by, among others: Alice Walker, Doris Lessing, the incomparable Angela Carter, Carol Shields, Anne Enright… Each of the stories is very different of course but I’m struck but one major similarity and that is the simplicity and the clarity of the prose. There is very little here that is fancy. Angela Carter’s prose is astonishing, exotic, sensual, surreal, but in many ways she is the wonderful exception. In the main the telling of these stories is done with very little description; adjectives are at a premium, as in poetry they have to work for their place.
Short fiction is a very specific form, a very different form from that of the novel. Unlike the novel the short story is not discursive. A good short story is concise, it distils both story and language. But make no mistake, simple, clear and concise prose is as carefully made as anything complex or ornate.
My advice then, unless you have the talent of a Angela Carter, comes directly from my own learning, and it is to beware what is fancy: don’t try to show off (yes, we’ve all done it) but instead write what comes naturally to you, in your own style. Don’t try to sound like someone else or someone’s idea of what a writer should sound like. Don’t make the writing overly complicated or decorative, concentrate on telling the story.
I think one of the best ways to do this is to
write fast and free preferably in a notebook, without trying to censor what you’re writing, or to puzzle over clever words or metaphors etc. Take those that come naturally, and understand that often the first thing you write will be the best and the truest to your own voice. When you come to transcribe your writing then listen to what you’ve written, read it aloud, work with the rhythms of your sentence, change the word order maybe, make sure each sentence flows and there is nothing to stumble over, nothing that doesn’t fit.
While adjectives might be sparse and well chosen, verbs should be strong and muscular, after all they will keep the story moving. Adverbs are mostly a waste of time and often take away from the power of the verb, especially qualifiers like: fairly or actually – although people use them in speech so they won’t be out of place in dialogue
There seem to be a lot of ‘don’ts here. They are only meant as suggestions, but I think if you read enough good short stories – and if you want to write good short stories then you MUST READ them and read the best – I think you will see what I’m getting at when I say, keep it simple.
To prove my point here are three beginnings;
How I Finally Lost My Heart – Doris Lessing: ‘It would be easy to say I picked up a knife, slit open my side, took my heart out, and threw it away; but unfortunately it wasn’t as easy as that…’
The Watch Trick – Jennifer Egan – ‘Sonny drove his boat into the middle of the lake and cut the engine. They rocked in silence, the deep prickling hush of a Midwestern summer.
Atlantic Crossing – Jeanette Winterson – ‘I met Gabriel Angel in 1956. The year Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe. I was going home. Gabriel Angel was leaving home. We were both going to the same place. We were going to London.’
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