Sunday, 14 December 2008

The art of the short story

The last week has left me feeling like I have been given the equivalent of a literary doing over that I think has undermined by body’s resistance and left me shivering and coughing and spluttering with a cold for the last few days.
It started about two months ago when my cyberspace friend Gerard Brennan emailed me and invited me to contribute a short story to a book that he is co-editing.
Gerard runs the crimesceneni website and has been more than kind about my novel The Lost Chord, reviewing it on his blog and on Amazon, plugging it in an article for Verbal magazine and even talking about it during a contribution he made to a book show on BBC Radio Ulster.
He said the common theme of the story collection would be crime stories with an Irish mythological theme and he had already lined up a number of leading crime writers from throughout Ireland.
I was a bit wary to start with, firstly because while I have total respect from crime writing as a literary genre it is not my thing. My publisher described The Lost Chord as a novel of ‘music and mystery’ on the blurb and it does have elements of a detective story to it but it is by no means a crime novel.
The other names who had agreed to contribute are among the best-known crime writers in Ireland and so I felt that I would be a bit of an imposter.
The second reason why I was wary about getting involved was because I had never really attempted to write a short story before. Sure I’d done a few but never bothered revising them and never even thought about trying to get them published.
I like novels, I read them for pleasure and at this point I have written three and a quarter of my own – one published, one hopefully due to be published soon, a new novel which is still taking shape and my first flawed, much-rejected outing which is tucked away in a drawer somewhere.
I think I know what makes a novel work and it is a genre I am comfortable with but short stories are a totally different thing. Apart from Liam O’Flaherty and Jorge Louis Borges I never really bothered reading them until quite recently when I got John McGahern’s New and Selected Short Stories as well as O’Flaherty’s three book box set of Complete Short Stories.
The briefing notes and guidelines that Gerard sent me were intriguing but I decided that it was not really for me until while out walking one morning I hit on an idea. Writing is writing, right. It doesn’t matter if it is crime, science fiction, romance or so-called serious literature. So what if I wasn’t a natural crime writer it was all down to the art of story telling.
Two days later I had written nearly 8,000 words and was still only halfway through the story. The guidelines were between 2,000 and 6,000. But this was a first draft I told myself, keep writing, get all my ideas down and then I would cut it back in the next draft.
By the time I’d finished the story was nearly 13,000 words and I briefly considered expanding it and seeing if I could turn it into a full-length novel. There were four very strong characters and a couple of interesting minor ones, I thought, and they could all be developed and other plot lines brought into play.
In the end I decided against it, firstly because I wanted to continue with the novel I am writing, secondly because I wanted see if I could actually distil it into a good tight short story and thirdly because I’d already told Gerard that I would contribute.
I emailed him and said I’d had over run on the word count and could he accept something more than the top limit of 6,000 words.
No problem, he replied, and so I set about trying to edit my story down eventually getting a version that I was happy with which sat at just over 8,000 words. I’d had to cut a number of scenes that I was very keen on and drop sub-plots that I’d thought gave the story a bit more depth.
I was keen to get an opinion because from his website it is clear that Gerard Brennan lives and breaths crime fiction and I wanted to know if my story would make the grade. The reply back was cautiously optimistic but with the proviso that all decisions had to be taken jointly between Gerard and his co-editor Mike Stone (no not that one – an English writer of mainly of sci-fi, horror and fantasy).
A few weeks later Gerard came back and said the plot was too complicated and that Mike had thought it was really a novella being squeezed into a shorter format, although he said they both liked the overall story.
They were right. I had approached the story as I would writing a novel. When I had edited it down I had still tried to keep in all the ideas that I’d had when it was a 13,000 word piece introducing too many character points of view, too many twists and sub plots.
Gerard advised on keeping the basic plot and writing from a single point of view, cutting the number of characters and ditching some of the superfluous scenes. Superfluous! These were some of my favourite parts of the story and included some of, what I thought, was the best writing.
Again I decided that I would just forget about it until about two weeks later I suddenly thought of how I could maybe make it all work and so within a day I had rewritten a new draft, using mostly material from the original, but from a different perspective and telling a much simpler story.
I sent it back. Gerard was upbeat but suggested a few more revisions which I agreed would make it a better story and so rewrote again. By mid-week Mike Stone was also involved in the process pointing out gaps in the plot which I had thought were perfectly clear but then again just because I knew what I was talking about didn’t mean that everyone else did.
We were down to mere sentences but both editors had still not finally committed to including the story in the collection until Friday morning when I got two separate email from Gerard and Mike saying that my story was in.
As I said at the start I felt as if I’d been given a literary hiding but it was an invigorating and humbling experience. To have something you have written scrutinized in such fine detail is unnerving but to me it is the sign of the perfect editor.
It is hard to distance yourself from something that you have written. You can’t see the flaws, especially when you are trying to turn the whole thing round in too short a period of time.
It was like having a master class in short story writing. In fact mid-week to try and take my mind of my ‘crime’ short story I started writing another one and finished it that night. I read over it yesterday and I can see that it needs redrafted but is much more focused and tightly written. It is a short story and not a mini-novel squeezed into the short story format.
Thanks to both Mike and Gerard. You can find out more about Mike’s writing at his website mylefteye and about Gerard’s writing and his excellent insights in Irish crime writing a crimesceneni.
The short story collection they are editing is due to be published by Morrigan Books in early 2010 and Gerard is running a competition to try and find a name for it. You can read more at his website and find out who some of the other authors who are contributing are.


Gerard Brennan said...

Thanks for this, mate. They say all publicity is good publicity, right?


Michael Stone said...

Thanks for the thanks, Tony. It's been a pleasure working on your story and have no doubts. It's a winner.

Tony Bailie said...

You guys...
thanks for the thanks for the thanks