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.

alison

‘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.

download (2)

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

 

Two New Short Story Publications

It has been encouraging to receive such a positive response to my first published short story, The Bench. Take Me to the Castle is continuing to sell well, both in paperback and eBook formats. Several readers have been asking when the next short story will be released. I am pleased to announce the publication of two short stories: BLOOD RED and BIRD. You can download copies by clicking on the images on the side bar at the right. Here is a little information on each one.

Blood Red

Blood red cover final

This short story set in India reveals the hidden tension in the mind of a young boy as he has to let go of the girl he loves for an unknown young bride chosen by his parents. But as the wedding day approaches, will he be able to follow his parents’ wishes in the face of his passion and quiet desperation?

Bird

Bird cover
A caged bird, an aging mother and a family loss that noone will talk about. This short story delves into the pain and longings of a girl caring for her mother with an insight into the world through her unspoken wishes.

Short Story Publications

This is just a short post with some news, written mainly because of several messages I have had from people about short story writing.  I am hearing from an increasing number of authors who enjoy writing novels, but feel intimidated by short stories, or worry that the form is so different that it would be hard to adapt to the change of style and, obviously, the length of prose.

I published a post on short story writing earlier this morning which might be useful, and I wanted to let you know that several pieces of my short fiction have just been published online. They have all been written in the past six months, so I am fairly new to the form, but it is clear to say that I am hooked. Please let me know how you get on if you decide to try writing any short pieces. I would love to read them.

I normally only send publication news to those on my mailing list but, if you would like to read my published work online, you can find Berggasse 19 in The Puffin Review and I.P. in the Flash Flood Journal (many of you will have read it from an earlier post.)

I am also excited to be able to tell you that Ether Books have just this week published four pieces: Confessional, The Edge of Wandsworth Common, Tomatoes and Thicket, and Un/wanted. These can all be downloaded, free of charge, to your phone.

 

 

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

 

5 Ways to Write More Effectively

IMG_9529

W.H. Auden’s Desk (copyright F.C. Malby)

I know there are many lists of ‘to to-dos’ and ‘not-to-dos’ for writing and endless amounts of advice, but I just wanted to add a few things which I have found really helpful (some of them dietary!)

  • Write first thing in the morning if you can. I know that people work to different schedules and many people are writing around full-time jobs and some, well into the night. If you have the time, though, I think the mornings are a time when your mind is fresh and uncluttered from everything you might have read on email, twitter, facebook, and the news. Interestingly, I have heard several writers this week saying that they are pulling back from the internet because it is hampering their creativity (but that is another post all together).
  • Cut out caffeine for a while. Yes, I really did say that. I know it sounds like a lot to ask and, believe me, I LOVE coffee but before Christmas I was feeling tired and lethargic and I realised that I was drinking far too much coffee in the form of very strong nespressos. I’m now having a detox for a few months and it really does help. I can only do this because I know that it won’t be forever. I wake up feeling less tired and my mind is much clearer. The difference to my writing output is phenomenal. Since the New Year, I have written 9 short stories, 9 pieces of flash fiction, and mapped out the next novel. I drink peppermint tea and water and I can’t tell you how much it has helped. Getting enough water is really important for brain function. When I teach, I can spot the children who haven’t had a drink in the mornings. They can’t focus.
  • Have a rough plan of where you are going. Whether you are a detailed planner or are more relaxed with your writing, it helps to know where you are heading for the day/week/month. I carved out time during January and February to write short fiction and have achieved my goals. Your targets can be large or small, long-term or short-term but I would encourage you to make some goals rather than to drift through the days.
  • Use visuals to help with details of characters and settings. I use mood boards and Pinterest to give me the fine details, especially for short fiction. See the article I wrote recently on using Pinterest to help your writing. To be able to see images, beyond what is already in your mind, can give a fresh perspective and trigger new ideas.
  • Take a break. You can’t really focus for more than 90 minutes without loosing a certain amount of efficiency and concentration. Some people use timers but you’ll have a clock on your screen/wrist/wall, so make sure that you get out of your seat and move around. It will get the blood flowing to your brain and your muscles, especially the leg muscles which have been squashed into a chair for longer than they were designed to handle.

Creating Intriguing Characters

Human male face made of several different people, artistic concept vertical collage

Creating interesting, engaging and intriguing characters can be most of the battle when it comes to writing fiction. It is the characters who draw the reader deep into the story and who make a compelling case for why the reader should care about the the people involved in the story. This is relevant for almost any genre of fiction and some non-fiction, although there may be some exceptions.

So how do you go about creating the kind of people who readers will be unable to leave behind? Some characters will be kind and generous, others spiteful or deceitful, some will resist elements of the plot and its events, others will be dislikeable but their flaws might resonate with the reader by exposing a certain vulnerability.

Think about the people who you have met, seen in films, read about in compelling books, or interacted with in business or by other means. Who do you remember and why? What sort of character traits make a person likeable or dislikeable? What has happened in their life to make them behave in a certain way? There are cultural differences to consider – how does the character’s ethnicity and cultural background shape them as a person?

Dig deep into the each character’s psyche and tease out the details of their life, their surroundings, family, experiences, passions, dislikes and fears. Often a character’s fears, especially that of your protagonist, will be rooted in an event or a set of events which might be familiar to people on a larger scale. Are they afraid of change, restrictions, loss, death, illness? Do they have an inability to make decisions?

Take time to profile your characters – brainstorm, make notes, paste photographs into a notebook or onto a Pinterest board (see my post on using Pinterest to improve your writing). Make sure that you know your characters to the very core and then let them loose in a situation, a setting, a crisis and you will know how they respond and why, you will know the decisions they need to make or are afraid to make.

Can you think of interesting characters you have read about recently? Do you have any tips on creating realistic and engaging characters?

Short Story Writing

writing

I am in the thick of writing short stories and I really enjoy the punch that you can use to mould a high-impact piece of writing. Last night I read the new issue of Paraxis, a wonderful online publisher of short stories, and I was impressed by the range of prose delivered and the tension created in each short story. This current issue 04 is a publication of the works of both developing and established writers and the combination gels in a surprisingly smooth run of stories:

Seclusion

by Alison Moore

Looking out of Broken Windows
by Dan Powell

Saving Face
by Emma Seaman

The Rat-catcher
by Lorrie Hartshorn

Defacement
by Stuart Snelson

The House in the Woods
by Emily Cleaver

Dan Powell’s metaphorical cracked window panes were still on my mind this morning. The other stories had a similarly disturbing effect. Good writing, writing which lasts, leaves you feeling changed, it forces you to see the world through a different lens and nowhere more so than through a short piece of fiction.

My personal preference is for literary fiction, as that is what I immerse myself in when I read and write, but I was given Ian Rankin’s collection of short stories, Beggars Banquet, for Christmas. In a disturbing and gripping set of stories he covers stories of Edinburgh’s underworld to startling effect. It is important to read outside your genre and read widely, so my repertoire of books is expanding. There was an interesting review of Rankin’s collection on Amazon from a reader who does not usually read short stories who said it was like reading a whole novel in a short story.

This is the essence of the the short story. It should be a complete story in somewhere under 5,000 words. Many are a good deal shorter, but never lacking in impact, never leaving the reader wondering about the rest of the story, apart from to search for meaning and to think about where the characters have been and how they will be impacted by an event or a ending.

Fish Publishing, who publish anthologies of the works of international emerging writers and poets, describes the writing of short stories as being, ‘a glance at the miraculous. Joyce used a religious word. He called his stories ‘epiphanies’. A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realization. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb. There is a record by the American singer Tori Amos called Little Earthquakes. That’s a good metaphor for a short story. Often, a good short story will be a little earthquake.’

In an Introduction to the 1997 Fish Anthology, Dog Days & Other Stories,
Joseph O’Connor says this about the writers of this genre:

What kind of strange creature is a short story writer? I must confess that I don’t know. A high priest or priest of art? A wounded soul who can’t understand the real world and thus feels a need to re-invent it? A moralist? A Spinner of yarns? An entertainer? A prophet? Probably all of these things. Possibly none.

The single fact I can be sure about is this: writers are watchers. The one and only thing they have in common is an ability to look at the everyday world and be knocked out by it. Stopped in their tracks. Startled. Gobsmacked.

In an Introduction to the 2003 Fish Anthology, Feathers and Cigarettes & Other Stories, Pat McCabe quotes Frank O’Connor in saying that the form is as close as you could get to the lyric poem:

Henry Thoreau said that it didn’t have to be long but it would take a long while if you wanted to make it short. What was he saying this about? About the form we know as the ‘short story’. Everyone over the years has had something to say on the subject. For V S Pritchett it was an athletic form. If you got a good start you could sprint to the end, unlike the nineteenth-century novel. For Frank O’Connor, it was the closest you could get to the lyric poem, in that the novel requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

Katherine Ann Porter wrote her stories in one sitting. Or so she said. But then writers say all sorts of things. Another thing that was said about the form – and I think it’s a good one – can be attributed to William Trevor. That it’s the ‘art of the glimpse’. Meaning that if the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story tends more towards impressionism. It is an explosion of truth and its strength ought to lie in what it leaves out as much as what it puts in, if not more.

As an aside – Just after I finished writing this post I discovered Charles May’s post on The Secret Life of the Short Story. In it, he discusses the work of  Alice Munro and William Trevor, two of the greatest short story writers in the world today. Munro has been compared to Chekhov. You can read a post on Chekhov’s short stories if you are interested.