In weekly parts, I’m helping you to write a story. This is a free tutorial with a specific aim; finding a practical way to write something that pleases you and readers. Some of this will sound back-to-front compared to what you’ve previously been taught; but this is how I see it, and so far I’ve had around 150 short stories published. Use the ‘Comments’ section to ask me any questions you need to know. The intention is to be more flexible than sitting beneath a macaroni drawing in an adult education centre one night a week.
First I want to get you thinking about the process.
1. The Aim
Bad stories get published; it’s a shock, but they appear regularly in magazines, paperbacks, small press. And good stories are often overlooked, by almost everyone except a few critics. The system is NOT a meritocracy – if an editor somewhere falls in love with a truly terrible book (and I can think of many examples), it will be published.
So the first question is; what do you hope to achieve? If you just want to sell something and make money, perhaps you should try an easier, more lucrative task, like almost anything else. I’ve worked out that on an hourly basis, many of my books and columns are produced way below minimum wage. If you want to try and produce a tightly contained, polished piece of work that lasts, you may have to accept that it will never see the light of day. The world is not waiting for you to finish your tale.
Still with us? Good. Let’s start by busting a couple of myths.
You don’t have to write about what you know. HRF Keating had written a decade’s worth of successful Inspector Ghote novels before he ever visited India, where the books are set. You can write what you don’t know.
And I want you to forget your feelings for now and concentrate on the story. Feelings, as Antonia Byatt recently noted, are ruining short stories. Detailed descriptions of emotional states don’t take the place of a good story well told.
More heresy; not everyone can write – it’s not something you simply learn and become passable at producing, like watercolours. There should be some obvious signs in you.
Are you interested in others? Curious about the world? Love books? Love words? Love a good story? Have you ever filled a notebook for the fun of it? Kept a diary? Written for no reason other than to put down an idea? Become fascinated by a writer? Or a book, a story – a sentence?
I’ve taught a few courses, but not too many because I don’t enjoy it. And I don’t enjoy it because the group always splits into the ones who try too hard, and the ones with natural ability. If it’s not fun, don’t do it because it will show in the writing. This is the problem with writing courses – everyone has a different ability, and the good are held back by the need to cater to the bad.
It’s important to be natural and have fun without being worthy. I can tell when someone has attended a writing course and is trying to write something profound and important. It’s the worst kind of writing there is. And I can spot a bad story in two paragraphs. Often the writer puts too much of his or her own opinions, background and character into the set-up. We’re not all the same and you can make no assumptions about the reader.
There are three factors in any art. The creator, the piece and the audience. No two factors work without the third.
However, in a short story you can afford to go crazy. You can make the main character hateful, alien to yourself. You can make the hero a bathmat if you want. But let’s leave post-modernism until later and stay with the basics.
What does a short story need to do?
Well, it really doesn’t have to do anything at all. Most of all, it doesn’t have to teach. So there go all those classes which talk about story arcs, hero’s journeys, three-act plots. A good story teaches almost by serendipity. Set out to teach, and you’ll kill what you write.
(All of these rules have exceptions – we’ll deal with those later too)
A short story can do many things, but first it needs to surprise and entertain.
What surprises us most? The truth. Someone once said that the details of other people’s real sex lives would horrify you. What if you’re writing a story set in space, or on another world? It still needs an element that rings true; recognisable human emotion. Don’t copy this from TV, make it something that touches you, something a person said that stuck, something you saw on the way to work. Can you tell the truth when you're writing a story where your hero is a bathmat? Yes, if it behaves like your worst relative.
Here’s an opening line from John Collier’s ‘The Devil George And Rosie’ It starts ‘There was a young man who was invariably spurned by the girls, not because he smelt at all bad but because he happened to be as ugly as a monkey.’ You want to read on, don’t you?
So, the aims. To entertain. To surprise. To reveal a truth. To touch the reader.
The secret – and I think it is a secret, because no-one talks about it, is to be so relaxed that you don’t care how the story turns out. It's not written in stone. No-one will laugh. You’ll write badly at the start – we all do. But it will hopefully get better.
So pick a single aim. Write it down now. Then continue to the next section.