I’ve recently been one of those adjudicating the June short story competition and we are in the final stages of adjudicating the June novels and novellas. The story competition winner was Patrick Riordan with ‘The Book of Euclid’, which, part from having a great title, skillfully evokes a place and the relationships of the people to and in that place. There were four strong contenders for first place and all ten of the stories that will feature in the anthology are interesting and fresh. There were lots more stories that had promise, but which also tripped themselves up along the way and I’ve been thinking about the questions authors put to me about what Cinnamon Press is looking for in a story. I also recently had a conversation with a young friend who is just beginning to think seriously about writing and the part it might play in his art as a documentary film maker. So what makes a good story?
It’s often easier to start from what doesn’t work. In the competition this is often the stories that tell me what is happening (sometimes several times to make sure I get it), but which don’t ‘show’ me anything so I am never drawn in. Telling has its place in bridging passages, in some forms of first person narrative, but for the most part I’m with Chekhov on this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Other stories failed because they were drowning in adjectives or (even worse) adverbs. Descriptive passages can sing off the page, sometimes with the rich seasoning of adjectives thrown in, but only if every one of those words has earned its place on the page. And some words simply never earn a place – really, just, suddenly (“Nothing happens suddenly,” says Ursula Le Guin in her invaluable guide to prose writing, Sailing the Craft.) Cut the qualifiers. Chasten the adjectives and adverbs (especially the latter). Instead of cluttered or clichéd writing what story readers are looking for is prose that flows – active verbs, specific details that are concrete, not abstract – don’t tell me someone is ‘wracked with guilt’, let me see it in their actions. And for those descriptive passages, strong sensory details – a writer needs to move through the world with all their senses open and collect details – when you write a scene think of every aspect – the smells, the textures, the sounds, the sights, sometimes the tastes – and then make choices.
There is a wonderful scene in the film, Wonder Boys, in which a student is critiquing her professor’s new manuscript, which runs to a huge tower of typed foolscap. She comments that he is always telling his students that when they write they must make choices and that he hasn’t taken his own advice – perhaps, for instance, he could leave out the genealogy of the horses and the chapter about their dental records.
Ernest Hemingway puts it like this in Death in the Afternoon:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
In other words – certainly do the work – know everything about your character; know every sensory detail of every scene, but don’t put it ALL in – convince the reader with the choices you make. This allows your prose room to breath and allows your reader room to get inside the story for herself.
Hemingway has more good advice on writing prose in A Moveable Feast, which I recently read on a train:
But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
William Barrett says that for Hemingway,
style was a moral act, a desperate struggle for moral probity amid the confusions of the world and the slippery complexities of one’s own nature. To set things down simple and right is to hold a standard of rightness against a deceiving world.
True sentences do not have to be ‘the truth’. So often fiction writers come unstuck on the notion that they have to get in everything (especially if ‘real life’ is the inspiration for a story). Philosophical debates about the possibility of objective memory aside, the truth in fiction (and even in much excellent non-fiction) is more about what Simone de Beauvoir characterised as ‘véridiques’– a truthfulness that makes sense of the world than it is about being ‘vraies’ – literally true. We don’t choose either to narrate or to live as Satre suggests in Nausea, but rather we live to narrate.
To write truthfully you must ‘cut away the scrollwork’– eliminate the qualifiers, be brutally sparing with adverbs, prune the adjectives, write concrete, lucid sentences with active verbs and start in the action; we don’t need pages of scene setting – letting the scene unfold with the story – it’s the story the readers want, whether it’s a finely drawn character study or action-packed.
The story that won our previous competition began like this:
Etta May Josephs opened her eyes wide as the whistle blew. She’d been sitting in the same clothes for two days and her mouth was dry and sour. She leaned back to look out the window at miles of farmland…
‘Jericho’ by Vivian Hassan-Lambert
It goes on to become a tightly written story in which threat and sinister racial hatred bristle whilst Etta May’s character emerges with lucid precision.
‘Feeding the Cat’, another previous winner, by Lindsay Stanberry Flynn begins:
Julian looked at his watch: Hermione would be waiting.
‘What will you do when you get back?’ George asked.
Julian stared out of the bus window.
‘I heard what you said.’ Julian kept his eyes fixed on a woman in a tweed coat, waiting at the traffic lights. Mother had a coat just like that.
We’re straight in – we learn who Julian is, why he is concerned with the time, why Julian is so short with George and the significance of Julian’s mother as the controlled story unfolds. There is not an unnecessary word here.
And the master of short story, Matthew Francis, who can pack in lyricism and keep wit sizzling just below the surface in a few well chosen words, begins the title story of his collection, Singing a Man to Death, with this:
I keep hearing the tune. Not out loud, of course. It’s just that some mornings, usually when I’ve had too much to drink the night before, I wake up at first light and find it running through my head: Mete üöbik oo tänabu. It’s been more than twenty-five years. And I only heard it once, or twice at the most. In any case nobody died of it, as far as I know. The music probably isn’t fatal, no more than any other of those things that stay with you: the smell of toast, say, or the mauve fluttering the gas fire used to make when you lit it, or the scrape of a stylus across the shiny black grooves of a vinyl record.
We’re right into the story from the first phrase and the conversational style implicates the reader and as soon as you’re drawn in you are hit with the surprise ‘nobody died of it, as far as I know’. Music that nobody died of? This is intriguing, but we’re kept wondering while we are drawn in further with word pictures that create a time and place with precision. Perfect.
The next novel and short story competitions end in November. http://www.cinnamonpress.com/competitions/
All you have to do is write one true sentence.