Saturday, 2 February 2008

Short Stories 'R' Not Us!

Oh my goodness. Blog already written in draft, I log on to Blogger to realise that I'm about to post my 100th blog. Should have done something special. Oh well, I suspect this is all quite self-referential enough without starting to congratulate myself for having so much to say for the last three and a half months!

So I'll just say - SOOO many thanks to all of you who visit and especially to those who comment - it's great to talk to you!

Anyway, on with the blog...

I wrote here last week about my sudden rise to fame (ahem…) on BBC Radio Kent and wondered how the whole Writers’ Room experiment would come to fruition. Well, now I know. I got an email this week from Dominic King, the host of the show on which The Writers’ Room is a tiny feature, asking if it would be OK if I wrote up what seemed like the most promising listener idea into a proper short story.
Of course, I said.
No problem, I said.
Delighted, I said…
…and sent the email

Except… I don’t write short stories.
At all.
Not for the last sixteen years, at least.
I did once upon a time. Like most beginning writers I was under the mistaken impression that short stories, being short, were easier than novels or other more extended forms. Which is not a particularly logical thing to think when taking anything but word-count into consideration. It’s like saying that it must be easier to win an Olympic 100 metres than a marathon.
Of course a marathon requires more stamina but no less training or basic athletic ability.

I was, as people are prone to do when looking at any creative endeavour, confusing effort with talent.
I have no basic talent for brevity. Testament is not a short book. Shorter than it was before I put my editing hat on and deleted 75% of the lovingly-bestowed but annoying-to-read adverbs, pruned sentences which basically reiterated what I’d said in the previous line only with different words and cut whole chapters which, though beautiful, did not add much to the story, but still not short. (Arguably, one of the beautiful but value-added-less chapters remains, but I left it there so that readers would have a few pages of lovely meaninglessness to recover from what had just happened. And, in my defence, there are a few lines which move the plot forward. )

But I digress.
Brevity. It is not me. For a few years a decade or so ago, I had a column in the local diocesan newspaper (ie one that’s given out free to all churchgoers in an attempt to make everybody feel that they’re part of the diocese instead of being all parochial. And, obviously, I use the word parochial there literally…) I had 500 words to say something ‘relevant, to the point and witty to the person in the pew’ as my original brief said.
For the first couple of years I invariably wrote 1500 words and had to exercise my frequently-called-upon skills in precis to get it down to 500. After a while it gradually shifted down to around 750 but I never produced a piece which I didn’t have to hack mercilessly until it said the one thing which I was supposed to be saying instead of digressing, musing and just, frankly, embellishing.

Anyway, short stories. As you will have gathered from the foregoing, they are not my natural habitat as a writer. Nor, as a matter of fact, as a reader, though I always feel that is something of a deficiency in me.

So what am I to make of the fact that I must produce a short story which, when read aloud (as they are going to tape me doing, before adding music and fx) is no longer than 5 minutes? Mr King reckons that this is ‘about 882 words’. I make it closer to 550/600 as I’m sure that, in my short story writing days all those years ago, when I was trying to write to the BBC’s short story slot (15 mins) I never got above 1650 words. I don’t read aloud particularly slowly, probably the opposite in fact.

I’m due back on the show on the 18th of Feb to talk about the suggestions people have made about where the story should go and, then, they’re giving me a week or two to write the story before going back and recording it.

Just as the synopsis for Testament seemed to take longer to write than the whole blasted book had, I suspect I shall be writing and re-writing this short story for days and days. I’d start writing it now but it would be just my luck for a brilliant suggestion to come in on the day before I have to do the round-up of submissions, so I’m possessing my soul in patience. But there is already one particularly good suggestion which I’m letting quietly stew away in the back of my brain…


David Isaak said...

I like reading short stories. Can't write one to save my life.

Some of our fellow Macmillanites also seem to be novels-only folks. But a couple of them--notably Matt and Aliya--dash off short stories and publish them all the time, all most like they shed them. This, to me, is admirable, but also baffling.

(Here's a link to Aliya's latest.

Tells a whole story and develops three realistic characters in less than five pages. How does a person do that?)

Aliya Whiteley said...

Hi Alis!

Don't go into detail about what people look like. Don't have a character arc: have a few dots, randomly placed, to give the illusion of arcness or arcity or whatever. And don't set the action in a time span longer than three days. I just made all that up. Does that help?

You are crackers to have agreed to this. But I think I told you that already. Ooh! And don't repeat anything.

Alis said...

Thanks,Aliya, that's really helpful! Ta v. much.