Thursday, June 27, 2013

A writer is someone who writes: 10 ideas about short stories

Laura Jean McKay, author of Holiday in Cambodia, shares her tips for writing.

1. Write.

People will tell you to read and, yes, do that. After you write. Write in a journal. Write for a job. Write letters, poems, scrips, scraps, conversations, memories, parodies, stories that you will never use, novels that people will never read. Write.

2. Circle

Have you ever watched a dog getting ready for sleep? How they circle in their bed, scratch at it, sniff, stare for a while, circle again and then finally settle? Writing is like that. And I call that period of uneasiness, those muddy first words at the start of a story, circling. It’s important, then you get down to business (the story, not sleeping!).

3. Don’t wait for your muse to call

Waiting for a tram to arrive or for a tax return isn’t considered romantic, but the notion of waiting for the muses to strike or for yourself to be discovered is. Writing is active, the romance is in working. Of course there are days when I feel far away from fiction. I can see all the stories as if through a window but can’t get to them. There’s a lot of advice that says put down the pen and try again when you’re inspired. No. Those are the days when you most need to write.

4. Read

Read short stories. (If you don’t know of any short story writers, you might start with ‘best of’ collections. Find a writer or a genre or a style that you like and go at it. I love the New Yorker fiction podcasts because they involve writers reading other writers, so you get two for one … for free).

5. Make mistakes

Some of the best science and art comes from making mistakes. Penicillin was an accident with a mouldy petri dish. Few of my stories ever turn out the way I expect them to. Mistakes are the mould that might change the world (!) – give yourself enough time to make them.

6. Contort

The actual writing of short stories needs to be a very flexible act. If a character isn’t working, I change the gender or age. Voice isn’t right, swap the point of view. Tone needs to be more immediate, change it to present tense. The utter delightful beauty of a short story is that you can do all of this without upsetting a giant plotline. The very important point is that you often need to do this to make your story work. You have the luxury of not being satisfied until it’s right. Raymond Carver says that there are many rewarding occupations other than being a writer, so if you’re not going to try for your story perhaps you should do something else.

7. Work your words

If non-fiction is an exercise in recreating the past (even if the past is used to predict what is to come), then fiction in an exercise in creating a future. No matter when or where your story is set you are creating a future in which your world exists. And you don’t have many words to do it in. Towards the final draft, every single word in a short story needs to be hard working, taut, there because it has fought for its place and no other combination will do. Somebody said that (I can’t remember who) but it’s true and something to strive for.

8. Edit

Edit, edit, edit, edit, edit. I have only ever over-edited one story. The rest needed it so bad. Do ten drafts. Do twenty. Rewrite it completely. Read your story out loud. If you really want to be traumatised, get someone else to read it aloud. I eventually get exhausted by a story and can’t see it anymore and that’s usually the time to show it to a reader, an editor or another writer. Take their feedback with salt, use what you need, then edit it again and again and … (goes on for some time about editing).

9. Do other things. After.

Reading, going for a swim (water is an excellent ideas conductor), talking to other humans, going to events, taking a weird job because you need the money and it will provide ‘inspiration’, studying, researching, drinking, eating … these are all important things to do. After you write. When I start to convince myself that I need these things first, then I’m not writing. That lame old joke is apt here: What is a writer? Someone who writes. And if you start your day with fiction – even half an hour – then the rest of the day will be spent there no matter what else you do.

10. Be hopeful

Be hopeful! Get your stories out. Submit and get rejected and accepted and almost accepted. If you really love short stories and short story writing, you’ll probably get good at it after a time (give it years). There are horrible rumours about short story collections not selling. The rumours are probably quite true, but not your concern while you’re writing. There are professional booksellers and publishers who worry about that. The good ones might publish you anyway. Your job is to write stories so great that people will have to read them.

Holiday in Cambodia is out now in print and ebook.

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