Growing up to be a short story writer

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?

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23 thoughts on “Growing up to be a short story writer

  1. Great post! I think I switch between the stages, depending on what I am writing. I am most certainly not fixed in the adult stage, and wonder if I ever will be. 🙂

  2. What a good post this is, love the life analogy. I think I am still in childhood but, like life, it’s going to be an interesting & turbulent road to adulthood!

    Thanks Alison 🙂

  3. I wonder what folk here think of published anthologies of short stories? Even a writer I much admire such as Michel Faber has a patchy quality to his anthologies. Some marvellous, others far from…

    I write flash, but I don’t really write short stories. I think for all the reasons you cite – too keen to include an ongoing discourse as to what is fiction, plus I do want to get into the language on a microscopic/forensic level and I’m not sure the short story is the best form for that. Having said that, there is a short story writer called Gary Lutz who makes some very impressive word implosions (through startling combinations of words to throw you off kilter) in his fiction and here I ask myself the opposite question: ‘yes, but could he sustain this over the course of a novel?’

    Also I found it interesting what you said about the meaning lying in what is not said – that very much echoes how stage plays ought to work, only there you have the added cues of an actor’s expressiveness of gesture, inflection and body language. For the lack of a literary equivalent of this in fiction (ie my tendency to specify such non-lingual language through words on the page), I often find short stories too thinly drawn. But that’s my personal view only.

    Very stimulating posts as ever Alison

    1. alisonwells

      Very good question re: anthologies. I am in the process of compiling one but fear that some of the earlier work is from an earlier ‘stage’. I like the idea of themed anthologies that provide a context that can inform the whole collection.

      Can you get away with the ‘thinly drawn’ in flash rather than in short stories as they can often be akin to prose poems and you can use those unique word combinations more or less to your hearts content. They are just ‘flashes’, impressions, you need to evoke, not convince.

  4. Rachel

    What a totally brilliant post – you’ve gently communicated some really good advice in there. I fear that I flit between the childhood and young adult phase and can often be found in the teenager phase but I have acquired a cliché radar that I am very proud of 😉

  5. Wow that’s brilliant! I cringed when I read your comments about characters standing on a cliff realising what life is all about….*rushes off to rewrite that dusty ms*

  6. Fabulous post – really enjoyed reading it and can toatlly relate to the different stages. I began writing niavely as soon as I hit primary school. “I would have used very traditional and cliched characters, situations and language…” – exactly couldn’t have put it better myself.
    Great piece – thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. alisonwells

      To all of you who recognised the teenage phase, we’ve all been there and it is rather embarressing looking back. But we need to go through the phases to recognise them. I seem to have a built in cliche alert these days (not saying some doesn’t slip through). Sometimes it makes me stop writing a particular story altogether. As some of you have said though, having passed through that phase doesn’t mean you won’t slip back into it at times!

  7. Quite a fabulous and cogent post! I certainly wish to be in the adult phase, but know that I can be found gamboling about them all. Though my short story writing has been in the flash camp for the past year, I feel the stages you presented are applicable for that form too.

    I am now moving onto to writing short stories that are more than the 1000k or less defined by flash, and I will certainly keep your wonderful advice front and center as I work toward that “adulthood” especially since I promised myself to lose the anxiety for submitting pieces this year.

    Thank you!

  8. What a fantastic post, Alison, and as always you have made me think. I read it first this morning. I can see myself in more than one of the stages, just to be awkward. I do like a twist, so maybe I am still at the childhood stage. :o)

  9. I think I may have spent most of my writing life in the young adult stage, writing about characters that are just different versions of me. I have moved away from this recently, thankfully, as with this came a tendency for the ‘teenager’ melodrama, with an over the top use of dramatic actions, words and thoughts.

    I’d like to think that some of the elements of my writing now fall into the adult stage, probably mainly due to the fact I now do more ‘showing’ than ‘telling’, using a character’s interaction with objects, incidents and people as a vehicle of showing their personality rather than a heap of over-descriptive words.

    I still have some way to go in identifying and chopping out bits that don’t ‘need’ to be in though. My editing eye still needs a lot of fine tuning, my plots need to be simplified. So maybe I am at different times – a teenager, a young adult and an adult? I certainly see myself that way outwith of writing!

    Fantastic blog post Alison. Your lyricism even finds a place here in the non-fiction…

  10. Interesting post. I can definitely see the stages I have flitted between on the way to here and now. Here’s hoping I can keep moving and make it to a grown-up writer. Top post.

  11. A brilliant analogy. I haven’t dabbled in short stories yet – but have been thinking about it recently. I will think of my blogging as my conception stage, if I ever do put pen to paper and write something short – and decent!

  12. Pingback: The journey of a non-native writer « Andrea S. Michaels

  13. Pingback: Best Books 2012 – ‘Stories to make you go OOH and AH’ by Alison Wells » Tom Gillespie

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