As we grow within our writing experience we pass through different stages. You gain maturity, you just ‘know’ things you didn’t understand before. This presents a feasible analogy with life and its stages towards adulthood. Here I wanted to explore my progression as a short story writer. The examples given at each of the stages are personal ones, but I would be interested to see what fellow short story writers experiences have been.
Baby stage: Before I really began writing short stories I didn’t really know what they were. In fact I had a vague idea of what it was to be a writer at all. I probably hadn’t read very many. On the other hand I would have had the archetypal Problem-Conflict-Resolution structure imprinted on me from a household full of books and my love of reading. But I didn’t know if I really wanted to write short stories at all.
Childhood stage: When I started to write short stories I wrote them very naively. They were oversimplistic tales with the core elements but none of the subtlety. I would have used very traditional and clichéd characters, situations and language. I over explained scenarios and overwrote dialogue. However some stories were popular. I won a school short story competition and had to read the story about the detrimental effects of small town gossip to some people from the small town. A story about aliens changing boys to look like their personality was also rated highly in the school mag. Sometimes morality tales are best kept simple! But this childish phase of writing does not just apply to my childhood efforts, many early adult stories have the same naivety. They follow convention and formula, the ‘twist in the tale’ caveat. Those that rose above cliche and were more developed were published.
Teenage: The teenage phase of writing is where you begin to think you really know it all. This is a narcissistic phase we can slip back to at any point where we fall in love with our own writing and have difficulty seeing its flaws. The fervour of authentic self expression can sometimes lead to cringeworthy melodrama. It feels real and worthwhile at the time, you may even enter your story for competitions because it ‘feels so right’ but months later you read it back and you need to cover your eyes with embarressment that you let it out there. All those overblown phrases, dramatic incidents with people standing on cliffs realising what life really means, convolutions of language just for the sake of showing off, not because they add to the story. You know what I mean, don’t you?
Young Adult This is the stage that denotes the pretty accomplished short story writer and even the pretty, accomplished short story writer. The quality of the work is good, the use of language more for the story’s sake that for its own. The importance of character development is understood…..except….many of the characters are too close to the author’s own view and personality. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. The best stories are fired by intense personal memory or experience. In the debate about ‘confessional art’ and ‘fiction’ we may acknowledge that the seeds of fabulous stories come from core elements of our own experience and everything is our way of looking at the world, our fascinations, the stuff of our subconscious and conscious experience. In this sense there is nothing that is absolute ‘fiction’. Writers can remain successfully in this phase for their writing life if their concerns and preoccupations mirror those of their readers. But we must be careful not to become self-obsessed, making all our characters ‘us’ in different guises. For well rounded writing and greater relevance and resonance we need to learn to see the world from slightly different eyes, even though of course we are always only surmising. A technical flaw that can still occur at this stage is that of ‘spelling things out’. We are so ardent about our subject matter that we want people to understand what our story is ‘about’. So ‘she felt’ or ‘he didn’t want to do that because’. The mark of a wonderful short story is that everything is somehow ‘implied’.
Adult: This phase of accomplishment takes on board the lessons garnered through the author’s short story writing life. This is only done through constant practice and refinement of skills. Characters are truly only ‘sketched’, there is a light touch that never over explains or over describes. As I continue to improve as a short story writer I constantly find myself writing something and then asking ‘does that line really have to be there?’ In fact the genius of some short stories is the ‘anti-story’ the story that is told between the lines, by suggestion, by everything ‘not said’. In fact as you gain maturity in life, as well as in writing, you understand that the ‘unsaid’ things are often the most important. So the short story’s strength and success lie in the ‘not saying’.
This is a journey we take in all kinds of fiction writing, not just short stories, though for me, the stages are easier to trace in this beautiful form. What are your experiences? What stage are you at or do you shuttle between the stages, depending on the project and subject matter? What are your thoughts?