I'm still trying to figure out just what my contribution to Short Story Month will be, but I do plan on joining Dan, Clifford, Matthew and everyone else who will be participating in this worthwhile endeavor, and hopefully I'll have better luck on this than I have with previous such projects which shall remain nameless. It appears that Dan will be discussing a story every day, much as he did with his "poem of the day" posts last month. I'm thinking that my post will be a little more sporadic, that I'll be looking at the craft in general, possibly a few specific short stories that have meant a great deal to me over the years, and throw in some reviews of collections that have crossed my desk over the last few months. Basically, this will all develop organically so stay tuned. And as always, feel free to add your opinions, links, etc. in the comments section or drop me an email if you feel particularly strong about a short story or short stories in general and would like to contribute a post to Syntax of Things.
To get things started, here's Raymond Carver (who else?) on writing short stories:
It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine — the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing, whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily-rendered realism. In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story “Guy de Maupassant,” the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” This too ought to go on a three-by-five.
Evan Cornell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason — if the words are in any way blurred — the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing “weak specification.”
I have friends who’ve told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them, or leaving them — something, some apology for the writing not being very good. “It would have been better if I’d taken the time.” I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don’t justify or make excuses. Don’t complain, don’t explain.
In an essay called, simply enough, “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor talks about writing as an act of discovery. O’Connor says she most often did not know where she was going when she sat down to work on a short story. She says she doubts that many writers know where they are going when they begin something. She uses “Good Country People” as an example of how she put together a short story whose ending she could not even guess at until she was nearly there:
"When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women that I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable."
When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was my uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.
[From Kay Bonetti, "Ray Carver: Keeping It Short," Conversations with Raymond Carver]