I’ve always been a voracious reader. I learnt to read a little earlier than was usual, and after that it seemed I couldn’t get enough words inside me. As a child and teenager, my reading habits bordered on addictive, and maybe that’s why I loved short stories; as for most children, these came at first in the form of fairytale and myth.
Their brevity and the fact that they were a complete experience in themselves meant I could consume more stories in the amount of stolen time I had to read: under the desk at school while it was officially maths, beneath the bedclothes with a torch long after my parents thought I was asleep, even occasionally (though less successfully) in the shower. Following my mother around the supermarket. Sometimes I’d lose my mother, but never my place.
When it came to short stories, I guess you could say I was greedy.
Writer Ali Smith expresses this idea succinctly, and with a wry twist of logic:
“Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality.”
We don’t just consume short stories; they consume us. It’s an interesting idea. Even at five years old, I seemed to sense I would only have so long to read in my lifetime, so I’d better get to it.
Myth and fairytale beguiled me as a little girl, and they still beguile me now. I don’t think it was ever the happy endings I craved, but more the sense of magic and the uncanny. Now, I enjoy reflecting on the archetypes in myth and fairytale, that resonate through different centuries and cultures. I like to muse on their themes; themes that swim; primal, invertebrate, deep in our psyches. Love. Belonging. Loss. Yet before I ever knew the words archetype or symbol, I sensed the wicked witch was more than she appeared to be, and that forests were governed by different lore and logic to houses or towns.These are the treasures hidden in fairytales and myths. Upon entering these story-worlds, as a very young reader, I believe I first comprehended the power in words, the pull and expansiveness of story on my imagination.
The world didn’t stop at the end of my street.
As the wonderfully imaginative writer Neil Gaiman observes:
“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.”
I could visit other times, places, civilizations, and planets. I could be a princess, a witch, Thumbelina – all without leaving my backyard, and return home in time for dinner.
The myth of Persephone, first read when I was five, translated into a short story and included in the Childcraft Encyclopedia volume on stories and fables, has been whispering wisdom and insights to me all my life. What I related to in the story as a child is different to what I related to as a young, sexually adventurous woman in my twenties, and different again to how I relate to her story more than a decade later.
The theme of mother-daughter love drew me in as a child. The tantalizing sexual and psychological symbolism of the Underworld that Persephone is made to spend part of every year in fascinated me as a young woman. The idea that Persephone represents the sexual and psychologically integrated woman from a feminist perspective intrigues me now, and compels me to keep writing about her.
Like a set of Russian dolls, the other parts of me at different ages are still nestled inside me, and re-visiting stories that have companioned me through my life-journey is one powerful way of accessing these other selves. Changes of perspective in how and what we see in a story, are like sign-posts, or scars, marking the places of our own growth or change.
As a teenager, I continued to read fairytales, but also developed other tastes – for science fiction, mystery, the macabre and ghostly, the absurd. I devoured the short stories of Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allen Poe, and Roald Dahl. All of these authors approached the short story with their own style and signatures of their era. All of them taught me something about the qualities of short story writing.
Writer Andre Dubus professes that he loves short stories because “they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.” For certain styles and subjects of short stories, I think he’s right.
We live our lives day by day, and a short story is an apt framework to capture what happens to us or our lover or a neighbour in the commute to work, or late one night, or over a week. Short stories don’t just encapsulate how we live, but the way we recount how we live to others:
“A strange thing happened on the train to work today.”
“So, I met this guy last weekend at my local cafe when I accidentally spilt my take-away coffee over his shoes.”
These kinds of short stories are close relatives to the conversational anecdote. If they are good stories, they will inevitably play with the tension between the everyday and the profound, the trivial and the significant. The teller is not quite the same person they were before the story happened. And they will have that same potential for the reader or the listener.
Short stories don’t just encapsulate how we live, but the way we recount how we live to others.
In this series of posts, I’m going to be exploring the short story up close. I’ll be peering inside, prying the pages apart, savouring sentences upon my metaphorical tongue, and inviting you to do the same. How they differ from longer forms of story, such as novellas and novels, will also be touched upon. Writer Lorrie Moore makes apt comparisons between the short story and the novel:
“A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”
I’ll be exploring the writers of short stories who have inspired and informed my own writing, and I’ll be musing on what works and why. To do this, I’ll be calling on three different perspectives I have into the short story: as a life-long reader of them, a published writer of them, and most recently, a developmental editor of short stories by numerous other authors.
Over my four decades of reading life, the number of short stories I’ve read would have to be in the thousands; maybe even the tens of thousands. Two literary theorists whose work I admire greatly were enthusiasts of lists to bookmark various ideas: Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. So, here, I’ll list the authors of short stories that have inspired, intrigued or affected me:
- The brothers Grimm
- Ray Bradbury
- Roald Dahl
- Edgar Allen Poe
- Oscar Wilde
- Franz Kafka
- Anton Chekhov
- Patrick White
- Katherine Mansfield
- Angela Carter
- Jeanette Winterson
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Anais Nin
- Tobsha Learner
Some of these, such as Gilman and Kafka, are there for singular, stand-out stories. Most of the authors listed are there, because I’ve read many of their short stories, often returning to them again and again. Then there are the many anthologies I’ve read; attracted more to a genre or theme than a particular author’s voice. Ghost stories, Australian short stories (we’re pretty good at them as a nation) stories about the ocean, stories by women authors.
Try making a list of your own short fiction inspirations – just for fun, or to see who your influences are.
As a writer of short stories, I won first prize for a short story competition when I was eleven. I wrote a few decent short stories at high school, getting some published in the annual school magazine. Then, a long hiatus from any fiction-writing, where I took to copious journal-writing, poetry and snippets of memoir. I’d often had people say I had a gift for writing, but for a long time, I was too focused on pursuing my passion for theatre.
Since I started taking my writing more seriously just over four years ago, I’ve written twenty-two short stories (if I include flash fiction) and had seventeen publications, with a few other offers that didn’t eventuate. The first story I ever submitted for paid publication got accepted, the next one was also accepted, and currently my acceptance versus rejection rate is about 4:1. I think Ray Bradbury would be proud of me for having the courage to submit as soon as I started writing. I’m not one to let finished stories moulder away in a bottom desk drawer for years.
About two years ago, I started working as a developmental editor and have worked with numerous authors across different genres, editing some thirty short stories to date. My first editing project happened somewhat by accident, but was definitely fate in motion. I was asked by friend and writer Emmanuelle de Maupassant to critique one story for her new collection in progress. She liked how I approached it and asked me to work with her on the whole collection. It was a dream first editing project for me. Inspired by Eastern European and Russian superstitions and folklore, Cautionary Tales had macabre and erotic elements, and archetypes and symbols galore.
It’s extremely rewarding to see, through the developmental editing process, a story go from sketchy to stand-out.
Consider this post as an introduction to the series. From my own reading and writing of short stories, but also particularly from what I’ve gleaned through the drafting and editing process with other writers, I’ve compiled a list of seven elements I think are crucial to the writing of a compelling short story, and I’ll explore each element in more detail in a subsequent post.
1 First Impressions: Title, First sentence, First paragraph
2. Finding the Right Words: Imagery, Atmosphere & Metaphor
3. Character: Details, Depth & Dialogue
4. Narrative Gaps: Sleuthing in the Spaces
5. Developing Themes
6. Paring Back & Revision (What Stays, What Goes)
7. Final Words: Finding your Ending
As an editor, working with other authors, I’ve gained what I’d call a privileged perspective into the potential challenges and blind spots that can be seen to recur over a sample of writers. It’s extremely rewarding to see, through the developmental editing process, a story go from sketchy to stand-out. Every writer has their own strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes these will even vary over different stories from the same author. While one story may have a very strong, engaging opening, another from the same pen might splutter and dither around in the first few paragraphs, or seem to start in the wrong place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
These posts are intended as much to unravel my own fascination with the short story, to discover what I know about them, as to assist those writing them or wanting to write them. It’s my observation that some writers do need ongoing, considered feedback to help them identify (and strengthen) their weak spots. Other writers will have a gut instinct about what their weaknesses are, and take or leave advice accordingly. I tend to fall into the latter category. Whichever kind of writer you are, I invite you to take what resonates for you, and consider that what doesn’t resonate for you may be helpful for another writer.
Possible approaches to generating material for stories and for writing them are manifold. Any exercises I suggest are based on what has worked for me or other authors I’ve worked with, and occasionally what I’ve picked up or modified from a writing craft book or workshop. Take what you feel might work for you, or try something out of your comfort zone.
I’d also hope these posts will generate some vibrant dialogue, as I know many writers out there who enjoy the short story form, and, like me, would agree with writer Annie Prioux:
“I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story.”
Intensity. Brevity. Balance and word play. I love the qualities she singles out, and I’ll be discussing these qualities through the ensuing posts. I hope you’ll join me.