Last night, I attended a reading and Q&A with Irish author Claire Keegan. This event was part of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, which is in its fifth year here in Waterford city and county.
Claire is the author of two books of short stories and a novella called ‘Foster’. All her books have received prestigious awards, too numerous to mention, and ‘Foster’ is on the syllabus for Leaving Certificate English.
With only three books, she has become a giant in the world of literature in English, and deservedly so.
I last saw Claire at a seminar in Cork city in 2010. That was an event I have remembered ever since. She spoke then for hours, almost without a break, weaving a spell with her words, both spoken and read. I couldn’t help but take lots of notes as everything she said rang so true with me. I refer back to those notes to this day.
Last night, we were treated to a reading from ‘Foster’ – an extract in which the central character, a child, describes her first day with her new, ‘foster’ parents. The author’s musical voice and expressive face enhanced the reading. I didn’t want her to stop.
Then for the audience Q&A. Unmoderated Q&A sessions can veer dangerously into time-wasting territory. By that I mean both the other audience members’ and the author’s time. Claire handled questions on all stages of the spectrum with grace and calm. She is (in?)famous for not taking any shit and it is a deserved reputation. For this we, the audience, have to thank her because an author who can deal respectfully with time-wasters and move on quickly is creating time for useful discussion, which benefits us all.
Remarks by Claire that have stuck with me are as follows (this is based on memory – if there are inaccuracies or omissions, please post a comment below):
- Claire writes slowly, going back to the start of the previous day’s work, dredging out extraneous material until she has a work she is happy with.
- Characters are defined by how they spend their time. Claire reminded us that we have limited, precious time on earth. What each of us does with that time says everything about who we are.
- “A good middle” is the hardest and most crucial part of a work. Once you have a good middle, your ending will emerge.
- Desire is another key driving force behind each character. What does he or she desire? Find out.
- Echoing Tolstoy’s remark that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, Claire pointed out that happiness does not usually make for great fiction (this is my interpretation – Claire did not use this quote). She highlighted loss as a driving force in fiction.
The event ran to just over an hour, which gave the audience a short and very sweet distillation of Claire’s writing wisdom and a beautiful reading.
My thanks go to the organisers of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, and the staff of Tramore Library for the welcoming, professional manner in which they hosted the event.
I was in Cork city at the weekend for this year’s Cork International Short Story Festival. This festival started out as the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival has been running for 17 years.
One of the events that I attended was a panel discussion on ‘The short story – the state of the art’. Tania Hershmann chaired (standing in for Eimear Ryan) and the panel consisted of Nuala O’Connor, Danielle McLaughlin, Tom Morris and Rob Doyle.
I was very keen to hear this discussion as I chaired a panel – that also included Nuala and Tom – on the same topic for Waterford Writers’ Weekend in 2014.
As you would expect from a panel of this calibre, the discussion was hugely insightful and interesting. Tania Hershmann did an excellent job of chairing and making sure that the discussion was well balanced between positive and negative points. Highlights for me were as follows (note that these are my impressions, not a comprehensive account of the event):
Nuala pointed out that we are lucky in Ireland to have a thriving culture of both literary journals and small presses, both of which are good news for emerging and ‘non-mainstream’ writers. She also made that point that it is a positive that our literary critics are interested in the short story and give it column inches.
One thought-provoking observation by Nuala was how regrettable it is that women’s magazines no longer publish short stories. These magazines used to be an important outlet for short fiction. It is also a pity for the form that when short stories are published in mainstream magazines such as the RTÉ Guide (Ireland’s most popular TV publication, which reaches 80% of Irish homes), they tend to be written by authors who are not specialists in the form, such as novelists who have been asked to write a short story. The outcome can be that the short stories that reach a mainstream readership through these magazines are not necessarily of the best quality, not the best examples that the form has to offer.
Tom made some interesting points about the tone of discussions about the short story at writing festivals. The approach, he said, is often disappointingly basic, with questions like “What is a short story?” and “How long should the short story be?” The short story is sometimes spoken of as if it were the post-colonial ‘other’ to the novel, which tends to objectify and restrict the form.
One thing that particularly caught my attention was Tom’s point that short story collections can ‘lock up’ our work. In other words, once a story is published in a collection, it can be stuck there, with no other route to reach audiences. Tom cited his own initiatives of “Out of office stories” (where interested parties send an email to a special address that Tom has set up and in return they receive an out of office reply with a story attached) and “A small, good thing” (where subscribers receive a short story selected by Tom). He also mentioned Twitter as a medium that writers can use in a variety of ways to reach wider audiences.
Danielle McLaughlin is a writer that I was not familiar with, though I had heard of her book Dinosaurs on other planets, which has been making waves recently. Danielle founded and runs a monthly writers’ event in Cork city called ‘Fiction at the friary’. She made the point that the practice of reading fiction aloud in embryonic forms – first drafts, second drafts and so on – can be refreshing and inspirational for both writers and listeners. Danielle also touched on the subject of the tone of discussions about the short story. As an example, she quoted the phrase “The traditional Irish short story”. Whose tradition, she asked, is being referred to here? She emphasised the importance of challenging clichés about the form.
Rob Doyle took up the point about ‘iconic’ short stories and their influence on writers. While he admires Chekovian examples of the form, he said, he finds inspiration in more experimental short fiction. He cited Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Jhumpa Lahiri and June Caldwell (whom I spotted outside having a cigarette; her new book Room little darker (see picture at the end) is getting brilliant reviews). The name George Saunders came up – I think Nuala mentioned him – as a popular writer whose work is more in the experimental vein, as did Lucia Berlin, a short story writer who has been called “one of America’s best-kept secrets”, and Arlene Heyman, who has a new book out about sexuality among older people called Scary old sex.
There was also an interesting question from the audience about the fact that short stories are read and studied in Irish schools. People who went through the Irish education system in the 1970s and 80s will remember the textbooks Exploring English and Soundings, which contained gems of short stories like ‘My First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor and ‘The Widow’s Son’ by Mary Lavin. Some panelists agreed that their love of the form was influenced by their exposure to stories like these in school, although as I said above, Rob expressed a preference for more experimental examples of the form.
I always try at festivals to get to know the work of (to me) new writers. Rob Doyle chaired a reading and discussion with two writers whose work I was unfamiliar with: Tanya Farrelly and Sean O’Reilly. Tanya is the author of two books: When the Black Dogs Sing and The Girl Behind the Lens. Her reading was really entertaining and a pleasure to listen to.
She read at a good, slow pace and did justice to the large amount of dialogue in the extract. I am always struck at readings by how important it is to emerging writers to be good public speakers. We don’t write our work for it to be read aloud, but we are often called upon to do exactly that. Like any skill, some are more gifted with it than others. Sean was also entertaining to listen to, but he read too quickly. This, combined with the seemingly large number of different characters in his extract, made his reading hard to follow.
Despite this, my interest in his work was piqued. His most recent book, Levitation, is published by Stinging Fly.
I came out of these two events feeling really pleased that I had attended. And what brilliant value for money at €5 per event! Kudos to the festival organizers, the Munster Literature Centre (represented at both events above by its administrator, Jennifer Matthews).
My post-event happiness was tempered only by the discovery that I had only €35 with me and so I had to restrict my purchases at the sales table in the foyer to only three of the many books on offer: Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor (which she signed for me), the Summer 2017 issue of The Stinging Fly and Room Little Darker by June Caldwell (I looked for her to sign it but she had gone).
This writing business is very much ‘in the head’. Watch a writer working furiously, and you will see him or her sitting at the desk, not moving very much at all – not much change in facial expression, even – and staring intently at screen or page. There will be occasional bursts of work on the keyboard or with the pen. That’s it.
So I take every chance I get to move my work more into the physical world. I got the chance recently when I started to edit a story that I am preparing for publication (more on that soon). Editing on-screen produced a lot of head-scratching but not much else. I somehow couldn’t get my head around where everything fitted together in the story.
Enter our old friend, paper. I printed out the story and got to work with my pen and scissors. I literally cut out the bits I didn’t want and wrote in new material by hand, old school style. Then I stapled the pages together in one long scroll to create the new draft of the story.
The process of editing in this way was a tangible one. It felt good to work with physical objects.
Of course, once I had done all the work I could with pen, scissors and stapler, it was back to the computer to make the changes in electronic form, too.
Back in 2011, I wrote a series of blog posts about how to write a short story. These posts are still some of the most popular on this blog. I’ve decided to revise and re-run them. Note that these posts describe how I went about writing one particular short story; they are not intended as a definitive guide or as the final word. As always, I’d love to hear your comments below.
Days 1 & 2
Physical environment – house sketch
After mulling over various possibilities for the story for a while, I develop a picture of the family at the centre of the story. The family – mother, father, and three or four children – lives in a big, chaotic house in a medium-sized town. The family’s life revolves around their shop. The small grocery shop is integrated into the house in the converted front downstairs room.
Part of the dynamics of the story is that the mother in the family runs several mini-businesses from within the home. The house is always being extended and modified to make room for each new business venture. So the house is always noisy and busy.
I realise that movement and the physical environment – all the family members moving around this big, chaotic, disorganised, confusing house – are key to the story. So I decide to sketch out a plan of the house. I want to be completely familiar with the layout of the house in my own mind, so that the characters’ movements around the house are consistent and flow smoothly.
This is my initial sketch:
At this stage, the characters are still in their infancy in terms of development. Later, I will create detailed character sketches. Before that, I need to create a timeline for the family in the story. This is to ensure that all aspects of time in the story are correct and consistent. For example, to specify the age of each character, I need to know when they were born, and all the family members’ dates of birth have to be consistent with each other.
This is the initial timeline that I drew up:
By this stage (the end of day 2), I have also written a few disconnected paragraphs of the actual story. These are really sketches themselves, rough “practise” drafts to help me get an idea of how the story might look and sound.
The next steps are: fill out the timeline, create detailed character profiles, and identify key scenes. I’ll be moving forward with these tomorrow.
Nick Hornby’s character Rob Fleming in the novel High Fidelity is famous for, among other things, categorising his music collection in autobiographical order. The same thing can happen with writings and books. For example, you always feel a twinge of pain when you see Catcher in the Rye on your bookshelf, because you were reading it when your teenage boyfriend / girlfriend dumped you; you will never throw out that copy of Generation X, because you were reading it when you first left home to go to college; and so on.
I think I had an autobiographical writing-related experience last week. I had a lovely Wednesday evening tucked up in bed with the latest issue of The New Yorker. In the Fiction section was a short story called The Judge’s Will by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
It seems odd, but I had never heard of her; that she was a prolific and highly-regarded writer of novels and screenplays as well as short stories, and the recipient of many awards, including two Oscars and the Booker Prize, I learned only afterwards.
The next day, I opened up my Twitter feed and read that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had died that morning.The news gave me pause for quite some time. The story I had read just the night before was still playing out in my mind. It was so different from what I had been reading recently – the stories of Ireland’s current crop of masterly short story writers – that I had to turn it over and over in my mind to try to get the measure of it. I had a feeling that its author was one I wanted to get to know much better.
The fact that the next time I heard about her, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had died, should make no difference to how I will read her from now on – but it will. Rightly or wrongly, I feel lucky that when I first got to know Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s work, she was a living author, if only for a few hours.
To honour her memory, The New Yorker has unlocked six of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s stories, so they are free for anyone to read. The Judge’s Will is here.
Who would have thought that tidying up some Lego would help with structuring a story?
I constantly have to keep in mind that writing time is for writing only and not other tasks, no matter how strong the temptation. Mostly, I am fairly successful at walking airily past household messes and sitting down at my desk to write.
One concession I sometimes allow myself is to do a quick tidy of the room I work in – after all, it is part writing den, part children’s play room. (The two parts are separated by room dividers from Woody’s – highly recommended if you share a writing space.)
So this morning I was in the play room / writing room, on my hands and knees (what a way to start the writing day), picking up Lego and mulling over the short story that I had started yesterday. I had most of the components of the story in my head: main character, secondary character, a strong visual image, and setting.
Some elements in the story are a little out of the ordinary, and I was stuck for “something” that would tie together all the pieces in a plausible way. I was beginning to get quite grumpy about being stuck and was wondering if I should just park the whole story.
As I tidied, an idea struck me and I began playing with a few of the pieces of Lego.
I selected a single yellow piece and put it on the kids’ play table. This was my main character – the component around which everything else in the story is built.
Then I took a bigger, blue piece. This is the story’s central visual image. It is strong in both size and appearance, like the image I have in mind. I placed this piece beside the yellow one, but not attached to it, just as the components of my story were disjointed at that point.
Next, I added a purple piece to the ensemble. This was the secondary character. I was really getting into the Lego-as-symbol thing at this stage, so I stuck this piece on top of the original yellow piece, but only partially, to show that the secondary character is only loosely connected to the main character at this point.
By now my Lego creation was looking like a bit of a mess, just like the story. (If I were someone like Tracey Emin, at this point I would probably throw something sticky at it before placing it in an exhibition and charging people money to look at it.) Something was definitely missing.
Then it hit me. My story needed another narrative layer to tie it all together. In other words, another character who would narrate the story as told to him or her. I remembered Wuthering Heights and how Charlotte Brontë famously used multiple narrators to make the book’s wildly romantic, sometimes fantastical characters and events plausible and believable to the reader.
I chose two long red Lego piece as my supporting, super-narrative layer and attached the existing structure to the top of it. The red pieces now supported everything else and connected it all together.
I have now started translating my Lego “creation” into words – that is, creating my additional narrative layer. This does raise questions about having too many characters, which can weigh down a short story. However, I am inspired (again) by Raymond Carver’s story “Fat”. This story’s main character tells her story to a friend over coffee, which is a variation of the technique; the reader hears the story as told to a third party.
The creativity that I was able to tap into by playing with the Lego led me to this solution. Techniques for tapping into creativity are something I have toyed with in the past but never devoted much attention to. I may re-visit them now.
Events (in real life) intervened since I last posted an update on the progress of my short story. The result was that I wrote nothing for six days. It’s difficult to resume a writing project after a gap. You’ve lost some of the closeness that you had with your characters, your head is not in the right place any more, you are no longer “in the zone”.
Having said that, these things can all be regained. I sat down when the house was quiet, pretending not to notice the towering piles of papers on my desk waiting to be sorted out (an essential writerly skill), and closed my eyes. (If anyone had been watching, they would have assumed I was having a little nap.) The story re-formed itself in my head, the characters came back, and I was in business again.
It’s great to be back writing; as Ray Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing, “An hour’s writing is tonic”.
I have a first draft!!!
Apologies to the exclamation mark police here, but I really feel I need them at this point!!!
Can it be that the six-day gap was actually beneficial to the story in some way? Does a break in writing allow characters, plot and the other elements of the story to develop unnoticed at the back of the writer’s mind?
I am fairly happy with how the characters have developed and consolidated. The short-lived siblings are long forgotten (God rest their souls) and the dynamics of the three-person family are working well. The character profiles that I completed at the beginning have really helped with the development of the story in my head. Each character seems to be doing what comes naturally; I haven’t found myself struggling, asking myself “What should be happening now?”
The timeline has proved itself a trustworthy friend. I refer to it often for various reasons. For example, when one of the characters hums a song, I needed to check exactly when that character was born, so that I could research what songs were popular when he was growing up.
As for the house plan that I sketched at the beginning, it is looking a little well-thumbed by now. I have referred to it many times to figure out the characters’ movements around the house.
Light at the end…
For some reason that I suspect it would take a psychologist to figure out, I put off writing anything to do with the ending until the last possible moment. OK, let me hazard a guess.
In a short story, the ending is a big deal, the big kahuna. It brings everything in the story together and “wraps everything up”. By this I do not mean that the ending has to explain things or bring everything to a conclusion – far from it. A short story may end with nothing much having happened. What I do mean is that the ending puts the stamp on the story that the writer wants it to have. As Nancy Kress points out in Beginnings, Middles and Ends, the ending may be the climax of the short story (unlike in the novel, where the climax comes somewhere near the end, followed by a denouement). So writing the ending feels a bit like heart surgery: mess it up, and the whole thing is gone.
I’m also aware that in previous short stories of mine, the endings sometimes tended to drag on. A creative writing teacher of mine (I think it was either John F. Deane or Mark Roper, both outstanding writing teachers I have been lucky enough to learn from) made me aware years ago of the need to put a quick, clean end to a short story.
In the case of this story, the original anecdote on which the story is based pulled me towards one kind of ending. As I started to write the last few paragraphs, another ending began to form in my head. So I wrote two different endings. Now I just have to decide which one to use in the final version, keeping in mind the need to “get out quick”.
So, I am really happy that the story is nearing completion. The final few things that I need to do are:
- Iron out some background details about the time period in which the story is set
- Decide on the ending and get out quick
- Check that the imagery is consistent and balanced. In terms of the five senses, this story is mainly oriented around sight and hearing; the readers see the main character’s world through his eyes and ears.
Thanks to the commenters on yesterday’s post for their advice and encouragement. I got stuck into my story again today with renewed enthusiasm and a calmer demeanour, and have gone from looking like this:
I have decided to keep the story in the 1950s because:
- Some of the key words in the story, words that were included in the original anecdote and sparked my imagination, are specific to that era.
- Setting up a small shop in your own home is much less likely to happen nowadays (planning permission laws are much stricter, and new small businesses less likely to get financing).
- If I can pull it off, the non-contemporary setting adds interest to the story.
Timeline changes (again)
I realised that the mother needed to be older. Based on the previous timeline, she had been only 18 when she opened her shop. I decided she needed to be a little older when she took this step. Also, now that there is only one child, I wanted to create extra space in the timeline, leaving the reader free to guess that there may have been miscarriages, as a possible reason for there being only one child in the family. Here is version 3 of the timeline:
The next issue I was dealing with today was also to do with time. Originally, I had thought that as well as the action that takes place in the story present, the story would include scenes from the past as background. Now I think that this time scope is too wide for a short story – for this one, anyway. I am going to keep the story within the limits of a few hours on one day. I am really trying to keep this story as tight and focussed as possible.
Development of the main character
The character of the boy is filling out. His new status as the only child has made him more self-assured although he still has the searching, watchful nature. The idea is still that the parents are very busy, so he is still always striving for time with and attention from them.
I have written just under 400 words of the actual story. This is a bit discouraging after six days.
A more encouraging thought is that a large part of the planning is complete. Now that I have quite a clear idea of the shape and sound of the story, further changes can be made as I write.
Days 4 & 5
Things are not going too well.
Maybe it’s divine retribution. I am guilty of infanticide: I have had to kill off the three siblings. As per my previous post, the number of characters in a short story has to be kept to the minimum. So the siblings’ lives have been cut short before they even properly started and my main character is now an only child. Sniff.
This changes the whole dynamics of the family and the character profiles have had to be amended as well. The mother’s energy now comes in part from a need to keep herself busy, to fill the gap in her life left by the absence of any more children.
The father-son relationship has also changed. Now that the boy is the only son, he is destined to take over his father’s family business. There is now an air of expectation and pressure in their interactions, especially as the boy is a reflective, bookish character and does not fit his father’s idea of the kind of person needed to take over the business.
Just as well I hadn’t got around to the doing the main character’s detailed profile yet – I can start that from scratch with him as an only child.
With all that in mind, I set about re-drafting the timeline earlier today. I was busy crossing out the hapless siblings and considering how to close the resulting gaps when a thought occurred to me. Is it really necessary for the story to be set in the 1950s?
The anecdote that originally sparked the idea for the this story took place in the 1950s, and I guess I just left that in in my initial planning. But does this really add anything to the story? Could it just as easily take place in the now?
Also, transposing the story to the present would remove the burden of historical accuracy (and the research work involved for me). (I could just go and ask the person who originally told me the anecdote for details about the period, but I don’t want this to be anything remotely resembling someone’s memoirs; the anecdote is simply the spark for a work of fiction.)
One step forward, two steps back. I’m starting to wonder if this story has as much potential as I originally thought.
Character profiles – mother and father
I spent a good portion of my writing time today developing the characters for the story.
The main character is the third child in the family, a boy, aged eight. The story is told through his eyes, in the third person. The mother and father are the two other significant characters.
I got the character profiles for the mother and father done today. They ended up being longer and a bit less structured than previous profiles I have done, but I got into a good flow and didn’t want to interrupt that! There is a lot of detail in them, which I hope will enhance the characters. The vast majority of the detail will not feature in the story, it is just background information for me to keep in mind and refer to as I write. I certainly feel as if I know these people well now.
Here is an abridged version of the character profile for the mother:
Mary, born 1925 into a large family, several children. Grew up in the countryside outside the town she now lives in. The town seemed remote and exotic. Her parents kept a few cows, grew their own potatoes, did what they could – her own mother kept hens, sold eggs, took in mending, etc. Mary was one of the older children and worked from a young age, cooking, cleaning and minding younger children. She moved into the town aged 16 to work as a domestic in a guest house. Her cleverness and capacity for hard work were quickly noticed and she was soon offered a job as a shop assistant in the town’s largest grocer’s shop. She made lots of friends in the town and settled in quickly to her new life there.
At age 18 she met Tom Loughlin when he came into the shop one day. She fell for his charm and wit. As the only son he was expected to take over his father’s business in due course. Because Tom’s family had means, lack of money did not delay their plans and they married later the same year. Tom’s father helped them buy a house that came up for sale on the main street in the town. Mary is delighted and feels she has truly escaped the hardships of her childhood.
Mary gives up her job in the shop when she marries. There is an expectation that she no longer needs to work and she sees no reason to disagree initially. However after a few months of “keeping house” in her new home, she is bored and starts to think about how to occupy herself. She loves Tom as much as ever but has noticed that his business and management skills are not as keen as hers. His building business ticks over but does not do as well as it could. This annoys her and she also realises that extra money coming into the house would not hurt.
Mary decides to open a tiny grocery shop, operating from the front room in the house. Being an end of terrace house, there is a side door from which the shop can operate without putting in on the household too much. She persuades Tom to give the idea his blessing. She has found her calling: businesswoman. She knows that Tom is a little put out but her ambition and conviction drive her on. She also knows that Tom adores her and despite grumbling, will always support her.
As she settles into motherhood, Mary finds that with help, organisational skills, and her great energy, she can keep running her shop and begins to plan for expansion…
One other thing about the character aspect: I am not too clear at the moment about how I will handle the siblings in the family. It is central to the story that the family be a large one, so I have settled on four children. However, this being a short story, three main characters is pretty much the maximum (unless you are Kevin Barry – his story “Beer Trip to Llandudnow” in New Irish Short Stories has six equally important, perfectly drawn characters – but that is Kevin Barry). So I don’t want the other siblings to be prominent. At the same time, they have to be proper characters and not one-dimensional “devices”.
Timeline version 2
The other thing I did today was expand the timeline. Here it is now:
The timeline needs refining but I am not going to change it again until more of the story is written. Once I see how the characters are developing on the page, I will be able to see more clearly how the time aspect is panning out and revise the timeline as required.
Possible key scenes
I’ve worked out three key scenes so far. Number 1 below will be placed towards the end of the story. Originally I had thought of this scene as the “climax”, but this is too strong a term in a story like this where the action takes place largely in the main character’s head. “Epiphany” is likewise not quite right. It’s too dramatic. What the main character in this story experiences is more of a quiet realisation. So a better term in this case is “turning point”.
This is another key scene and the resulting first draft of a paragraph I have written for it:
It’s dinner time. Bacon and cabbage for the lodgers. Mammy spins between kitchen and dining room, steaming plates held high. He retreats, going right to the back of the house on the top floor, but the smell is everywhere. His parents’ muffled voices float up from the kitchen, in the rising inflections of an argument. There is a moment of silence, then the stomp of angry footsteps. Banging. He follows the noise downstairs, through the door through to the new house. His father stands at the foot of the stairs, one hand at his brow, the other resting on the sledgehammer, a pile of splintered wood at his feet.
He knows to ask his father only specific questions.
“Why are you breaking the stairs, Daddy?”
His father closes his eyes slowly.
“So Mammy can make her cafe.”
- Create a character profile for the main character
- Figure out background characters (siblings) – check creative writing books
- Decide on a title for the story – in a short story, the title is crucial
- Write the opening paragraph