The art of writing short stories: masters of the form at the 2015 Vancouver Writers Fest

Note: This article was first published a year ago on the West Coast Editor blog. My thanks to Meagan Kus for copy editing.

Granville Island. Photo by Keith Dunn

For many years, I’ve been an eager attendee at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Granville Island.

 

(2016 was no exception, and my review of a recent event will be published soon on West Coast Editor.)

Like most editors, I’m an avid reader and an aspiring writer, and I never fail to be amazed and inspired by the panels of writers at each event. In 2015, one of the events I attended was the True to Form session, which focused on short stories. The writers on this panel were David Constantine, Steven Hayward, Greg Hollingshead, and Irina Kovalyova; the panel was expertly moderated by book critic, editor, and writer John Freeman. All of the authors are seasoned short story writers, with the exception of Kovalyova, who has just published her first book.

Why go to the Writers Fest?
There is nothing like a live performance, whether we’re talking about a rock concert, the theatre, or a Writers Fest event. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole 90 minutes. It is wonderful to see these authors on the stage, to get some idea of the personalities behind the writing, to appreciate that most of them are consummate performers as well as writers (especially when reading their own work), and to get some understanding of what motivates them as writers. What are the seeds that germinate in these writers’ minds as they create their stories?

Sitting in a packed audience of people who were all there because they love literature, I felt a vast kinship with everyone in the room. As the writers shared some ideas about where short stories come from, I was reassured that I was grappling with key questions in my own attempts to write. These authors gave many helpful insights into what makes a short story a winner.

The short story as a metaphor for—?
Moderator John Freeman got the ball rolling by asking each panel member to suggest a metaphor for the short story. Irina Kovalyova said a short story is like a very small canvas that, despite its size, contains a whole world.

David Constantine introduced a new idea by saying a short story is like a container you scoop into a rushing river, removing a small part of that river, and then pouring it back in again. He was making the point that a good story has no closure (though convention pushes us to want closure in stories), because in real life there is never closure, and the river never stops moving. Constantine commented that Chekhov was a master at showing that any arbitrary closing is at the same time a new beginning.

I was comforted by Constantine’s analysis, because I’ve always struggled with my inability to contain my stories, to keep to a word count. Now I understand that beginnings and endings to stories are arbitrary. As a writer, I must choose a beginning and an ending, but it is inevitable (and desirable) that the story evoke the larger story of which it is but a part.

Greg Hollingshead followed Constantine by suggesting another water metaphor. He compared the short story to a whirlpool. His key point was that a short story contains centripetal energy—it’s spinning toward a crisis, not closure. In contrast, Hollingshead suggested, a chapter in a novel has centrifugal energy—it spins out into the world, forward and back.

Steven Hayward compared the short story to an unhealthy breakfast. He told a funny anecdote about lying to his mother on the phone about what he had eaten for breakfast—he told her he had had “the melon plate” when in reality he had eaten a breakfast called The Authentic. I’m unclear about how a breakfast is a metaphor for the short story—perhaps he was just making the point that an authentic short story has to be complete and honest?

Form in short stories
Freeman next steered the panelists toward a discussion of how writers can be creative with the form of short stories. When whole worlds have to be implied within such a constrained number of pages, are there special techniques that writers use? In answering this, some of the panelists segued into explaining where their story ideas come from and how their creative process expands the germ of an idea.

Kovalyova began by describing one of her short stories from her debut collection, Specimen. It’s a story about a mother and child trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. She structured her story with two different scripts, one on each side of the page. On the left side of each page runs the narrative of what is actually happening as the mother tries to keep her child calm. On the right side of each page is the mother’s interior dialogue as she struggles with her panic and the knowledge that she must stay calm for her child.

Hayward talked about his use of footnotes in short stories, a format used extensively by the late magnificent David Foster Wallace. Footnotes can be a way of cramming more into a short story and may actually contain all the punchlines or subversive comments about the more conventional words in the main text.

Hollingshead, speaking after Hayward, explained that he uses a very conventional structure in his stories in order to get away with having extremely weird characters. In fact, he said, his weird characters come from real life. He uses 4″ × 6″ cards to write down notes about unusual people or incidents that he might later incorporate into a story. He said that the conventionality of his structure allows him to disguise his real (but weird) characters as fiction.

Just as Hollingshead finds inspiration for his stories in real-life events and people, Constantine also draws upon real life for his ideas. Constantine spoke at length about the critical importance of place to his writing. He talked about his attachment to one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall in England. These islands, said Constantine, though made of enduring granite, are “in a state of pure flux,” changing every moment with the tides, winds, light, and seasons. For him they illustrate the impossibility of writing a story with complete closure, when real life is ever-changing.

Finding things to write about, said Constantine, depends on paying attention to what William Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars.” We write about things that grip us, things that obsess us. We are compelled to write. Creativity doesn’t mean grabbing ideas out of the blue. It’s about working with memory and your own interpretation. I left the event feeling reassured that the “minute particulars” in my own life are worthy of writing about.

Dialogue
A few lines of dialogue can bring characters to life quickly. Hollingshead quoted Mavis Gallant, who used the expression “the dialogue of the deaf” to make the point that people typically don’t listen to each other. One speaker often uses the last few words of the other person’s speech as a springboard for what they want to say, whether there is any real connection or not. So in a story, the only dialogue that sounds real is dialogue that captures this “failure of communication.” For example, when three people are talking, it might sound like they are reading three separate scripts.

 

Performance
Unless you’ve been to the Writers Fest, you might not realize the sheer entertainment value it offers. All of the panelists in True to Form read portions of their latest stories, and they were all dramatic performers. But the star of this show had to be Steven Hayward. Before he went to the podium to read his story, he gave us the real-life backstory. He talked about living in Colorado Springs, where everyone is either an Olympian-in-training or a former Olympian, and about his discovery of Strava, a software program that measures and ranks athletic performance (in this case, in cycling).

When Hayward started reading his story at the podium, he turned into his fictionalized protagonist—a very funny fat guy. Hayward showed great dramatic flair and timing in his reading. His story was a perfect illustration of how to take an incident from your own life, exaggerate it, and give it to your created character to produce a fictionalized story that is even better than the original true story.

It was obvious why Hayward has been a successful stand-up comedian!

Masters of the short story
True to Form concluded with the panelists discussing which writers had particularly influenced them. All of them named Chekhov as the great master of the short story. Kovalyova read Chekhov first in Russian when she was young, and she commented that some nuances are lost in translation, yet good translators can add something too, with their own interpretation of the stories.

Hayward said that Alice Munro is the best at the modern, sophisticated short story. Though she doesn’t have as wide a range as Chekhov, she shows technical mastery. Hayward recommended Jim Shepherd highly. He also likes Charlie Baxter and Richard Ford. Kovalyova cited Edgar Allen Poe as one of her big influences.

I left True to Form with a renewed eagerness to read—I can’t wait to devour all of the panelists’ new books! In addition, I feel inspired and hopeful about writing my own stories.

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How much solitude do writers need?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much solitude is ideal for writers. In part, this is an ongoing problem for me because there is this constant conflict between how much time I spend creating (pondering ideas and punching them into the computer), how much time I spend absorbing (reading books, newspapers, online articles) and how much time I spend socializing (sometimes in person but often online, and though this can be educational or stimulating or fun how much is too much?).

Recently, I wrote a snail-mail letter (because it was Christmas) to a friend (I’ll call him James) who interpreted what I had written as a request for writing advice. We ended up having a phone conversation about it. He feels very strongly that writers need to be alone most of the time. For him, socializing is almost always boring, a complete waste of time. (I think his mind is too brilliant to find a match with the vast majority of other people’s minds.)

Though it is true that the actual writing gets done when we’re alone, I don’t agree with James that writers have to be completely withdrawn. We get a lot of our ideas from both interacting with others, and being observers and eavesdroppers.

I’m sure most writers are like me in getting inspiration for fictional characters from real people. Sometimes it’s better when you know a person only slightly—but something about that person utterly seduces you or puzzles you—and you can go on to let your imagination build a whole character from the few tantalizing things you know about the real person. I’ve heard some writers say that they lose control of their characters—the characters “take over” the story and it goes places the author never planned.

How important is it for a writer to have an audience—his readers? Of course we all want to write a bestseller that millions of people buy so we can get rich, but do writers also get a reward simply from the act of creation itself?

I went to a Canadian Authors Association meeting last night in Vancouver, where B.C. BookWorld publisher and writer Alan Twigg gave an inspiring talk (in his inimitable provocative style) about B.C.’s writers and publishing scene. He began by telling us he’d been writing a book for two years that was intended for one reader. [I’ll be writing more about Alan Twigg and B.C. BookWorld in another post.] He segued into other topics, but later I reminded him about his “one reader” comment. I said that most writers, even if they didn’t care about becoming rich and famous, would rather have a hundred readers or a thousand than just one. Most people around me nodded.

After all, don’t we write in large part because we want to share—our experiences, our imagination, our unanswerable questions and partial answers? When James talks about writers’ solitude, does he mean the purest writers don’t care about having an audience at all? Is the purest writing done for oneself alone?

I don’t think so. Writing is an attempt to capture truth and beauty—which we each do in our own way, though Keats wrote a long time ago:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

(These are the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, published 1819.)

We want to capture and share.

Did James mean that in writing one shouldn’t be corrupted by what others want or expect? One should write exactly what one means from the depths of one’s solitude? Then others can make of it what they will. A writer with integrity will want to express himself as precisely (in meaning) and as beautifully (stylistically, in his own voice) as he can. The “masses” may not approve of or understand what comes out. That doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Surely most writers have peers (as well as people they consider to be superior to themselves in terms of wisdom, knowledge, writing skill, talent, and experience) and the opinions of these people will “count”.

We want not only to share, but to receive feedback. Most of us aren’t egoless, and we like pats on the back. Also, everyone can improve at any skill, including writing, and there must be few writers who can’t benefit in some way from the feedback of others. But I guess James is right that the initial effort has to be the effort of a single mind, not a committee.

I liked the challenge James suggested to me, though—his idea of “what it takes” to be a fiction writer:

I am reluctant to run advice past you that wouldn’t be worth anything unless you know somehow somewhere you have that feel of “ok, I want to put five years into this fiction business. See what I got. Throw the dice, accept the consequences. I refuse to sit around and bark all day.”

Alan Twigg expressed a similar idea of the writer’s compulsion to write: “You will be a writer if you can’t not write.” He went on to explain—“We have needs…hunger, sex, and then there’s art. Life is empty without art.”

Some cool and funny editing markup symbols

Aside

My readers might enjoy looking at this article “7 key elements of micro-editing” by Laura Hale Brockway. It does a good job of reviewing the basics of editing at the sentence level. At the fun level, it has a cool chalkboard graphic showing some editing markup symbols you might never have seen before!

Follow-up to “One space after a period”: Complications

There are some exceptions to the general rule to use only one space following a period at the end of a sentence. If you are writing a plain-text document that is likely to be viewed with a fixed-width font like Courier, it is often a good idea to insert two spaces after a period. “Plain text” includes no bold, no font choices, no font sizes, etc., just letters, numbers, punctuation, and manually-entered whitespace like newlines and indents created with space characters.

Here are some examples of documents that are created using fixed-width fonts (in some cases they can be viewed with variable-width fonts, but in other cases they are viewed with fixed-width fonts):

  1. Almost all computer programming is still done with fixed-width fonts because the vertical alignment of things tells a lot about their logic; although there aren’t real sentences in the programs themselves, they tend to be full of comment blocks explaining (with English text) what is going on, and those typically still use two spaces after periods. HTML tags are included in this type of document.
  2. Another place where people write in “plain text” and often view with a fixed-width font is in so-called README files that you find online explaining what is in a folder (for example), or at the top of a CD-ROM explaining the contents.
  3. Basic email is sometimes written in “plain text,” for example, from a Blackberry, and that will sometimes be rendered by email programs (the recipient’s viewer) in a fixed-width font.
  4. For academic dissertations, some universities still follow an APA Style recommendation to include two spaces after a period in “draft” manuscripts. There seems to be a good deal of confusion about this point, and most editors recommend checking with a specific university’s style guidelines.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of my “software genius” brother Alan Rooks for explaining the first three points above to me. More details are available if required.

One space after a period

Aside

A lot of older people who grew up using typewriters still haven’t “unlearned” the rule of putting two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. This should never be done now. Word processors automatically add the correct amount of space, and if you insert two spaces between sentences, the resulting text will look poor, containing large chunks of empty space.