Breaking The Rules

Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.

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‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.

Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.

Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.

So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?

I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?

These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.

I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.

To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.

Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.

‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’

Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize.  Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012.  Her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’

You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com

 

What Poetry Teaches Us about Writing Prose

I took a poetry class to fulfill one of my workshop requirements for my master’s in Writing and Publishing. Although I didn’t have much prior experience with poetry beyond some teenage scribbles, I discovered a new way of playing with language.

And in the process, I also realized that writing poetry helped me to create better, stronger prose. Here are four things I learned about poetry that also apply to writing prose:

bookshelf

Photo by Saltygal

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue

1. Focus on one moment.

My professor encouraged us to be specific and concrete when writing our poems—none of that abstract what-does-this-mean? stuff. We narrowed the scope of each poem to one moment and took care to describe it so the setting, action, characters, and emotions were crystal-clear.

2. Choose the best words.

Because most of the poems we wrote were fairly short, we wrote concisely. Each word had to carry meaning and work hard. No fluff allowed.

3. Work with structure.

Some of our assignments dictated the structure of our poems. In those cases, I only had so many lines or syllables to work with or I had to make sure certain lines rhymed, but establishing parameters made my writing stronger. I had to think and revise and move parts around. While we have a lot of freedom in writing, adding the constraint of a structure forces us to have a goal in mind and be creative in a new way.

4. Play with lyrical language.

Even concise writing is allowed to sound pretty. Poetry is rhythm and sound. It’s a form of writing that’s especially wonderful when read aloud. When the language is musical, the poem itself comes into focus and creates a song, one note at a time. It conveys more than just the words.

Reblogged from thewritepractice.com

 

Zadie Smith – Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking

This video was filmed at the New York Public Library. Author Zadie Smith begins with this quote:

‘In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.’

Here is a summary of the rest of her talk. I found it inspiring and very true:

You need to work hard and make choices that are meaningful.

By the nature of your sentences, you are expressing a belief about the way you see the world.

Your views will change with time.

Delve deep into the consciousness of the characters.

‘Magical thinking makes you crazy and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems with structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved and the whole chapter falls into place, but why didn’t you see it before. You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you reads becomes your epigraph. It seems to have been written for no other reason.’

This talk comes from a longer essay written by Zadie Smith. If you enjoyed it, I invite you  to come back on Thursday of this week and on Monday week, as I will cover some more of her key points for writing.