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About this book

Short story publishing is flourishing in the twenty-first century and is no longer seen as a poor relation of the novel. But what is a short story? And how do you write one? Robert Graham takes you through everything you need to know, from how a writer works to crafting and editing your own fiction.

This heavily revised edition features new chapters by contemporary fiction writers. Stressing the importance of reading broadly and deeply, the book includes a wide range of prompts and writing exercises. It teaches you how to read as a writer and write like somebody who has read. You will learn the elements of craft you need to produce short stories, and one of the key writer’s disciplines: reflecting on your own work. Whether you are a student or an experienced author, this book will teach you how to write short stories – and reflect on the creative processes involved.

The book features chapters from writer-teachers James Friel, Rodge Glass, Ursula Hurley, Heather Leach, Helen Newall, Jenny Newman, James Rice and Tom Vowler.

Table of Contents

How a Writer Works

Frontmatter

1. How a Writer Works

Abstract
Many people believe that our creative practice divides into two categories, however we label those categories. It has been suggested that producing great writing was 99 per cent perspiration and 1 per cent inspiration, but this is the division of creativity we’re talking about: between the work that the imagination produces and the labour that goes into producing the finished whole. Oscar Wilde argued that genius was an infinite capacity for detail, which, like the inspiration/perspiration proverb, suggests that the balance lies firmly on the side of effort. Most informed opinion, however, indicates a more even split between inspiration and perspiration – that creativity involves both stages. The process is one of having an idea and then fashioning it into shape. In writing fiction, the first stage is the imagining. This comes from the same place as your dreams: the unconscious mind.
Robert Graham

2. Writers’ Habits

Abstract
In the forthcoming chapters, I’m going to be looking at some essential disciplines – notebooks and journals, reading as a writer, reflection, etc. – but first I want to examine writers’ habits. The distinction between a discipline and a habit may be too subtle; perhaps what I mean by habits are just disciplines that I want to be emphatic about. You can decide. The fundamental writers’ habits are reading and writing, so let’s start there. Stephen King’s opinion on the importance of reading and writing is often quoted, which is probably a good enough reason to quote it again: ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
Robert Graham

3. Making Notes

Abstract
Why do 100-metre sprinters train? In part to keep fit, but perhaps mainly so that they are prepared for the events in which they will compete. Same deal with concert pianists: they practise in order to perfect their technique, to keep their fingers supple, to learn to keep in time, and it’s all preparation for the occasions when they will perform. Every time you sit down to write fiction you are giving a performance. If you want to perform to the best of your ability, you need to practise, practise, practise – which is certainly part of what writers use notebooks for. John Fowles says, ‘I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers.
Robert Graham

4. Keeping Journals

Abstract
The habit of keeping a writer’s journal is another key writer’s discipline. Apart from anything else, it is where you assemble the resources that will become your fiction. In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Conner says that ‘a writer with good material is one who never lets a useful nugget slip away … A titbit doesn’t have to be earth shattering to be worth saving. It only has to be useful. Being faced with beginning to keep a writer’s journal may provoke a number of questions: What does a writer’s journal look like? Where do you keep it? How do you use it? How is it different from using a notebook? Before starting, though, let’s get one thing out of the way: your journal and your notebook are not two separate things. Inevitably, your notebook may form part of your journal. You might organise your practice that way, or, if you’re like me, there’s no distinction between the two.
Robert Graham

5. How to Read as a Writer

Abstract
My purpose in reading’, John Updike wrote, ‘has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal. This is what writers do. Artistic practice is a matter of consumption that leads to production. Artists in any field consume their preferred examples of good practice and synthesise them into something new. David Byrne, the main songwriter in Talking Heads, talks about the process in his song ‘The Good Thing’, where he alludes to adapting things and making them his own. In fiction, Graham Swift modelled the structure of his Booker Prize winning novel Last Orders on that of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. At the time, Swift drew a good deal of flack in the media, just as Zadie Smith did with her novel On Beauty, which is informed by the work of E.M. Forster. However, to anyone who ever tried to write fiction, to anyone who has engaged in any kind of creative practice, these accusations of plagiarism must have seemed wide of the mark.
Robert Graham

6. Research

Abstract
Occasionally people ask me what it’s like to be a writer and the only honest answer I can give is that being a writer is like constantly having homework to do. In exam season. While everyone else has broken up for the summer. Because as a writer you are never off duty, you are always looking for inspiration. You are always researching. A writer is a researcher of all human life. Your job is to observe the world around you, to reflect upon it from your own unique perspective. You are there to look for those details that nobody else has noticed (you are like a stand-up comic in that way: seeking out and recording life’s little idiosyncrasies). Each person you meet becomes a potential character, each place a potential setting, each anecdote you hear (no matter how embarrassing or tragic for those involved) becomes fair game, up for grabs; often resulting in an internal battle over the ethics of stealing it. The more fiction you write, the more life seems to transform into one big research project, with the sole purpose of fuelling your art.
Robert Graham, James Rice

7. Reflection

Abstract
The part of the title of this book that’s in brackets hopefully suggests the importance to writers of reflection. The ethos and methodology of HTWSS has to do with thinking about the way you read and write in order to help you write better stories. It’s hard to overstate the importance of reflection: you will grow much faster as a writer if you regularly examine your own and others’ work. You will develop more quickly if you’re able to articulate your creative processes and if you learn to become self-aware and self-critical. You’ll benefit from habitually examining your growing understanding of the kind of writer you are. As well as reflecting on your own developing craft, you need to be able to analyse the craft of those you aspire to emulate. You also need to begin to be able to analyse the literary context you wish to be a part of and to articulate your own intentions.
Robert Graham

How to Write a Short Story

Frontmatter

8. What Is a Short Story?

Abstract
It’s perhaps easier to declare what a short story isn’t: it’s not an abridged version of the novel; nor is it a prose poem, though it can share aspects of these forms – a distant cousin to both, if you like, a younger, often brash and indecorous one. Let’s start then by terming the story a compressed narrative, irreducible and intense, a piece of fiction designed to move, delight, provoke, amuse or shock – all in a single sitting. Barbara Kingsolver remarked that stories are the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces. Flannery O’Connor, too, evoked this aspect, claiming certain truths exist that can only be told through the short story. Although assimilating elements of early forms of storytelling (fables, myths, sagas, parables, folk tales, ballads), the short story as we know it today is little more than two centuries old. The author Philip Ó Ceallaigh suggests that after food and shelter, stories are the thing we need most to sustain us. Certainly storytellers have been revered throughout history; in the gulags, for example.
Robert Graham, Tom Vowler

9. Point of View

Abstract
The viewpoint character is your host, the person from whose perspective – perhaps even from within whom – we experience the story, and every work of fiction has one. Because point of view may be confused with opinion, which it isn’t, Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft suggests ‘vantage point’ as a more precise term. The viewpoint is the vantage point from which we experience the story. Burroway goes on to suggest that ‘it might be better to think of viewpoint as being about speaking: Who speaks? To whom? In what form? At what distance from the action? With what limitations? All of these issues go into the determination of the point of view. Perhaps, then, in beginning a piece of fiction writing, the first decision to make is: who is speaking?
Robert Graham

10. Characterisation

Abstract
According to Janet Burroway, ‘Human character is at the forefront of all fiction, although writers will do well to note Hemingway’s caution that ‘a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. The important difference between people and characters lies in the nuances of the word ‘character’ as defined in the Oxford and Cambridge online dictionaries: in both, character is defined firstly as ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual’, but secondly as ‘a person in a novel, play, or film’. Characters in long and short fiction are always the second, but they must seem to be the first. They are the story, for according to John Gardner in The Art of Fiction: ‘However odd, however wildly unfamiliar the fictional world … we must be drawn into the characters’ world as if we were born to it.
Robert Graham, Helen Newall

11. Plot

Abstract
Maybe there are some writers around who give birth to plots the way salmon spawn, but I haven’t met one of them. Most of us struggle with the whole business of constructing a storyline that will ensnare, retain and move – not to say change the whole life of – the reader. Plotting is hard, but let’s see if we can’t make it a little easier. As you know, all genuinely creative art originates in the unconscious and you will be best able to tap that most fertile part of your mind when you are closest to a state of unconsciousness. (See Chapter 1: ‘How a Writer Works’.) A corollary of this is that too much planning will not benefit your fiction. Here’s the author Henry Green on the subject.
Robert Graham

12. Dialogue

Abstract
First, the easy part: practicalities. If readers are to connect with your story without being confused, it makes sense to present your dialogue in one of the established ways. Here are the ones I know about. I don’t know of any others but if you do, drop me a line.The most common convention for laying out dialogue, the one that has been used more than any other, is to put the speech inside speech marks, like this, from V.S. Pritchett’s story ‘The Lady from Guatemala’. That’s the way most of us present dialogue. There are variations, of course, as here, in ‘The Dead’, where, instead of speech marks, James Joyce opts for preceding speeches with dashes.
Robert Graham

13. Scenes

Abstract
The screenwriter William Goldman on beginnings: ‘We must enter all scenes as late as possible. We must enter our story as late as possible.’ While it’s true that cinema is a more impatient medium than the short story, fiction readers are impatient enough. I regularly receive student work in which the story doesn’t actually begin until late on page 1, or 2, or 3. Sometimes this is because the authors don’t discover what the story is about until they have warmed up their engines. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t fully aware of the reader’s need to commit to the story. How often have you set aside a story or a novel because you have not been able to do that? Isn’t it nearly always because you haven’t been hooked? The bottom line is that your reader will not commit until you have established the story, until you have shown that something is at stake.
Robert Graham

14. Setting

Abstract
As in Spike Milligan’s script, everybody has to be somewhere, and this is true of your characters and their situations. Interior monologue, authorial summary and exposition might be included in a list of exceptions, but as far as scenes in fiction go, you will have to set them somewhere, because according to Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Nothing happens nowhere’; and, for Jerome Stern, ‘A scene that seems to happen nowhere often seems not to happen at all. Setting in fiction serves several purposes. It contributes to the solidarity of your fictional world and so makes it more convincing. It is a means by which you can make the world your readers imagine when they read your fiction more vivid, more real. It can play a major part in creating both character and emotional tone. You can use setting to dramatise, to generate and enhance the conflict. The setting may help build narrative tension, advance the plot and amplify the theme.
Robert Graham

15. Description

Abstract
Writers have been creating virtual realities since before computers were even dreamed of. Good fiction conjures an alternative world, gives you a window into someone else’s life, takes you somewhere other. Above all, it’s convincing. Effective description is fundamental to this process. The aim is to entrance your reader by the cunningly set stage to the extent that they don’t notice the ropes and pulleys supporting it all. The craft is in judging what is salient and what is boring, when to zoom in and when to draw back, when to show and when to leave intriguing gaps, when to elongate and when to contract. While these considerations apply to all prose narratives, they are particularly, urgently important in short fiction, where we donʼt have time to elaborate. A larger text, like a novel, may be able to carry a little extra weight. But a short story offers no hiding place – it must be lean and built for speed. As Alice Munro puts it, ‘Youʼre much more thinly clothed.
Robert Graham, Ursula Hurley

16. Style

Abstract
Style has to do with accuracy of expression, sentences, syntax, vocabulary choice, imagery and voice. (More on this in the next chapter.) Put simply, style is proper words in their proper place, as Jonathan Swift suggests. Rust Hills, in Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, lists all of the above, plus the use of tenses, italics and punctuation (specifically exclamation points and semi-colons), plus paragraphing, plus choices in dialogue writing. In only a short chapter, I can’t cover every facet of style; what follows is a little advice on a few of them. Your influences will have shaped your style. These may be the fiction you’ve read over many years (and last week); the way people around you speak, both wherever you are now and in the place where you grew up; the poetry and songs you listen to; and you. Your style comes out of who you are, out of your evolving personality and out of who you are this moment when your coffee doesn’t taste right and you’re looking out of your window at the house behind.
Robert Graham

17. Voice

Abstract
According to the writer Josip Novakovich, that puzzling thing called ‘voice’ is simply ‘a metaphor for a writer’s vigour’, or that unique timbre or note that makes you the writer you are. So at what point in your writing life do you find it?. At a recent festival of writing, the noted dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson divides his career into three parts. First, he says, comes ‘urgency of expression’. In other words, deciding what you want to say can initially be more important than pondering how to say it. Too early a concern with voice may lead to a mannered, self-conscious style which rebuffs or estranges the reader instead of luring her in.
Robert Graham, Jenny Newman

How to Redraft

Frontmatter

18. Redrafting

Abstract
Redrafting is where you get down to the nitty-gritty. Your first draft is the raw material, and from it you are going to sculpt a thing of beauty and truth. In a sense, with a first draft you have assembled the resources from which you are going to build the finished item. You probably won’t need all these resources, and many of them won’t initially be up to the task they need to perform. As Tom Wolfe says, ‘You go to bed every night thinking that you’ve written the most brilliant passage ever done which somehow the next day you realise is sheer drivel.’ But that’s okay. You can make the resources you’ve assembled better. If you can’t, you can get rid of them and generate some new material. Flaubert, who redrafted his writing obsessively, said, ‘It’s never finished; there is always something to do over,’ and Tolstoy, Joyce and Fitzgerald kept reworking right through until the printing presses were rolling. (And sometimes beyond.) More recently.
Robert Graham

19. Page Design

Abstract
If your work is poorly presented, it won’t stay long on the desk of an agent or editor. Since you don’t want that, your page should be double-spaced (1.5 line spacing is also acceptable) and you should format it with an inoffensive, professional-looking font. Courier will indicate that you’re a screenwriter, which, when you’re writing short stories, you aren’t. Chalkboard will suggest that you’re eight years old, Playbill that you’re putting together a Wanted poster for Billy the Kid. Curlz MT just says ‘I design greeting cards for Hallmark.’ Arial and Times New Roman are perhaps the most commonly used fonts in fiction writing and will demonstrate that you are interested in being published. A point size that will be easily read (for instance, 11 in Arial, 12 in Times New Roman) is essential. As is numbering pages.
Robert Graham

20. Peer Appraisal

Abstract
One of the key learning and teaching strategies in university Creative Writing is informal peer appraisal. Apart from the many good reasons for engaging in peer appraisal, which will follow in a moment, this is a useful stepping-stone to workshopping, which can be daunting in the early stages of learning your craft. When I talk about peer appraisal, what I mean is asking a small group of your friends or fellow students to read a draft of your work in progress and give you feedback on it. Peer appraisal allows you to write for an audience wider than the tutor. This is important in building confidence and eliciting feedback for the redrafting process. Feedback is motivating for writers, and peer appraisal extends the feedback you can get. Without peer appraisal, you are writing for an audience of one: the tutor. In a Creative Writing degree you may depend on the expert tuition of individual tutors and on their informed assessment and commentary on coursework, but the addition of other, increasingly informed readers has a vital role to play in your development as a mature, autonomous writer.
Robert Graham

21. Writers’ Workshops

Abstract
I’ve mentioned my visit to Iowa more than once, haven’t I? On day two, I was a guest in Frank Conroy’s MFA class, which was recognisable as the form of writers’ workshop used in universities throughout the world. For a summary of this modus operandi, read my guidelines in ‘How It Works’ later in this chapter. When I sat in on Frank Conroy’s MFA workshop, students were asked, one at a time, going clockwise around the room, to comment briefly on the tabled piece. Once this was out of the way – it didn’t take long, and students offered their observations with much trepidation – Frank launched into a line-by-line analysis of the story. First up was a former medic wearing a neck brace, which came to seem like a metaphor for his ordeal. Frank held forth on many aspects of the fiction-writer’s craft. He cited Flannery O’Connor, perhaps Iowa’s most illustrious graduate, on the necessity of creating a sense of immediacy. (You remember: ‘The reader isn’t going to believe anything just because you tell them.’) He demonstrated the difficulty of achieving ‘meaning, sense and clarity’.
Robert Graham

How to Manage Fictional Time

Frontmatter

22. Some Notes on Handling Time in Fiction

Abstract
Henry James observed that ‘the eternal time question is … really a business to terrify all but stout hearts’. Every writer of fiction must confront the question of how to handle time. In a short story a writer might have to make time pause, accelerate, fall back, leap forward or go in circles. A sentence in a story might distil a decade or even an entire life (‘In the end his misfortunes touched her; she grew to love him’: Chekhov’s ‘The Darling’). A story might devote itself to the pivotal events of an hour as in Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, or an entire history of the world as in Italy Calvino’s ‘The Soft Moon’. A story, like Alice Munro’s ‘Friend of My Youth’, might probe the past and how its secrets surface in the present. A story might plait the past and the present, as in Hemingway’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ with its feverous hero recalling his past as he dies in the African heat. A story might concern the passage of time very directly, as in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with its visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
James Friel, Robert Graham

23. Crossing Timelines and Breaking Rules

Abstract
How fast or slowly does time go? Most people will answer ‘It depends’ because we are all very well aware that time seems to go too fast when we are doing things we enjoy and extremely slowly when we’re bored. The writer can simply describe this experience The long afternoons I spent in the Maths class nearly drove me mad with boredom or I was so much in love with Jenny that the hours I spent with her went by in a flash and were over far too soon. But it is much more challenging and interesting for the writer to try to show the subjective experience of time in a story. In David Foster Wallace’s ‘Forever Overhead’, the protagonist is a boy on his thirteenth birthday. The story is told in the second person, an unusual point of view that enables the writer to add another time-shift: that of the boy narrator himself and of the omniscient narrator/writer remembering. The boy is rapidly turning from child to adolescent and is both thrilled and alarmed by his new sexual awareness and his changing body. On this special day he decides to make his first dive into the swimming pool from the top board.
Heather Leach, Robert Graham

24. Transitions

Abstract
One aspect of the pressure to maintain reader engagement is the need for movement. I’ve said already that a story has more in common with a movie than a photograph: it ought to involve movement almost all the time. In attempting to keep your story in motion, you will need a variety of means for a variety of purposes to move your reader around. Perhaps the most obvious movement – and it is prompted by wanting to leave the dull parts out – is moving through time. Watch how Amy Tan in this passage from one of the stories in The Joy Luck Club achieves the most elementary moving through time.
Robert Graham

25. Foreshadowing

Abstract
According to James N. Frey, ‘Foreshadowing is the art of raising story questions.’ Every time you raise a question in the reader’s mind, you are foreshadowing and – not just because it is central to raising questions in the reader’s mind – this is a key storytelling technique. In a way, foreshadowing is connected to cause and effect: because this happens, that should follow. Chekhov observed that the gun in the first act should go off in the third. If Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is shown taking a gun with him at the start of one of his adventures, we expect a follow-through. The expected effect of this private eye setting out with a gun is that he will use it later. But he’d better use it. In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor sees foreshadowing as a promise the author makes to the reader, and warns of the dangers in unfulfilled promises: ‘A careless hint or a subject that’s raised and then dropped is a gun left in plain view but never fired. It’s a promise to the audience – “Trust me to deliver the goods” – that’s never kept.
Robert Graham

How to Go the Distance

Frontmatter

26. Finding an Audience

Abstract
The first story I read by the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was in Last Evenings on Earth. The book is a randomly ordered hotchpotch from two different Spanish-language collections. Context is everything, and I knew nothing about how or why this book was put together. As far as I was concerned, Last Evenings on Earth was what the author intended. For me to read this particular story first. And, given the content, it seemed a deliberate statement, which comes back to me each time I ask myself: how do short story writers find readers? Let me explain the connection. The story in question is called ‘Sensini’. It focuses on the relationship between a young Bolaño and the eponymous, exiled Argentinian writer Luis Antonio Sensini. Set in late-1970s Spain, with Bolaño in his twenties, our narrator is isolated and suffering from insomnia.
Rodge Glass, Robert Graham
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