How I write 3: editing a short story
January 20, 2013
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By “short story”, I mean something between 2000 and 7000 words in length. I also mean a lyrical short story, intended to convey something about feelings rather than a history of a series of events, even though events are necessary to depict the story. Anybody who has read Raymond Carver but can’t stand his work should stop reading now.
It goes like this:
1. You have an idea.
2. You start writing.
3. You get stuck with the idea.
4. You work out why you got stuck.
5. You fix the reason why you got stuck.
6. You finish the story.
7. You market the story (of which, more later).
That is how I write short stories. Item 1 has already been discussed here under “How I write 1: getting the utmost from a free-write”. This article deals mostly with items 3 to 6.
Any writer of any short story must be able to answer the following questions.
1. Whose story is this?
2. What happens?
3. What is the epiphany? If there is no epiphany, …
4. Why not?
The reason why you got stuck is that you were hazy about “what happens?” As with free-writing, there are a number of simple steps to carry out. Because they are simple, they are frequently neglected. The more assiduously you can carry them out, and the more you can cultivate the habit of carrying them out, the better will be your writing.
The first thing to do is to borrow a technique from poetry-writing and talk out loud. I said OUT LOUD. I don’t mean reading and imagining in your head that you are talking out loud. I mean TALKING OUT LOUD. The reason you have to talk out loud is that talking out loud to most people is more embarrassing than reading inside one’s head. When you are trying to unpick a story that has got stuck, you need the story to speak for itself. If it is a bad story, it will sound worse when you try to describe what happens in it out loud. If it is a nothing story, it will sound like nothing when you try to describe what happens in it out loud. It if is a good story, it will sound better when you describe what happens in it out loud.
Better still, explain what happens in the story, out loud, to another, living person.
One of the things you are looking for at this stage is ambiguity. “Well it’s sort of about…” is no good at all. What the story is “about”, at this stage, means who does what to whom, and why: nothing to do with underlying themes or metaphors: just the physical facts, the sequence of events, and any salient points about setting (“it takes place on board a submarine”), or the protagonist (“he has recently gone blind”). All such “salient points” should be able to stand up to the question, “Why is that important?”
Once you can explain, out loud, what the story is about, from beginning to end, without drying up, or getting lost, or realising that you are talking drivel, you are starting to get somewhere. You should write down “what the story is about”, or record it on a dictating machine. You can then start to re-write the story.
What mainly characterises a contemporary, literary short story is not the word count. It is the degree of development of the protagonist, and the time-scale. The action of a short story should be completed in less than one day. And the protagonist should be the same person he or she was to start with, except for one thing. That one thing is the epiphany.
A short story does not have to have an epiphany, but it needs either an epiphany or a reason why there is no epiphany.