Short Or Long? Form In Fiction with Tessa Hadley

‘Short or Long? That is the question,’ tweeted a member of the audience as we gathered at the Tea House last Monday night for a salon with the acclaimed novelist and short story writer, Tessa Hadley. Outside, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was shrouded in the autumn dark but inside the cafe there was a seasonal sparkle and cosy atmosphere as the last of the audience arrived. 

Tessa Hadley on the left. Me in semaphore mode.

Tessa Hadley on the left. Me in semaphore mode.

Tessa was the perfect guest to tackle the question of form, being the prize winning author of six novels and three collections of shorts stories. She also publishes stories regularly in the New Yorker as well as reviewing for various publications and is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Her writing has been compared to Elizabeth Bowen and Alice Munro. So we were in an expert pair of hands!

With Tessa Hadley (centre) & Emma Darwin (right). 

With Tessa Hadley (centre) & Emma Darwin (right). 

Beginnings: Tessa wrote three or four novels, ‘that were no good’, alongside some short stories over a period of many years. Somehow the scale and scope of short stories, seemed do-able. This led to her break-through, a series of shaped pieces that eventually were published as her first novel, Accidents In The Home.

Short versus long? Brevity defines the short story form, the ending is crucially important. The reader accepts this and can afford to wait to the end. Short fiction, if you like it, can be a good place to start your writing apprenticeship. The novel however, is a series of parts or acts inside of which something must happen. Make something happen! Colm Toibin’s novel, Nora Webster, is a rare example of a novel where not a lot seems to happen and yet the reader is compelled to read on with the tension woven like tight springs woven inside the sentences. Novels demand deliberate thinking. Negotiate with your spontaneity. Put pressure on your image. Manipulate your material.

Stories are about choices: We talked about Tessa’s short story, Funny Little Snake, and some of the decisions she needed to make about the characters and the ending. Examine the secret self of your character - find the strangeness in it or them. Do something unexpected. Don’t go for the obvious.

The salon in full swing

The salon in full swing

Process: Tessa always knows where she’s going but doesn't know what it’s going to be like. This is part of the pleasure of writing - the unknown. It’s thrilling. Write forwards. Have a good map - as an apprentice writer, failing in her early attempts, she would write into the dark until she hit a wall. Build architecture, know what will happen next. Write toward something. To paraphrase, writing a novel is like building a bridge from one continent across an ocean to another continent and back again. It’s an extraordinary act of faith - a risk. Your mind gets better at this with practice. 

Point of view & the narrator: Many of Tessa’s stories and novels are written in the third person with a clear sense of a narrator: 'not a person but an entity who,' as Emma suggested, 'conveys things beyond what the character can know or understand'. The first person narrator or even close third person presents a limited point of view and can be a challenge for the writer. Employing an omniscient narrator allows the writer to show the whole person and the world they inhabit. The oft-quoted mantra, show not tell, does not necessarily serve the writer’s needs. Telling is helpful at times. For the sake of economy, don’t be afraid to describe, in a sentence or two, a scene to get to what’s important in the story. For a masterclass in the execution of this device, read Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park. Be sure to honour your contract with the reader and announce your narrative stance from the beginning - beware slipping from third person to close third.

Dialogue: Tessa uses dashes instead of speech marks, ‘Speech marks are like corsets.’ She prefers the words to bleed into the text. Dialogue in fiction is an art form. It took decades to learn how to do this. In life, no one says what they mean. In fiction, dialogue represents the essence of how people talk to each other.


Structure: Tessa's novel, Clever Girl, written in the first person, covers fifty years of a woman’s life. This required structural thinking, for example, what’s a good cut off point in dramatic terms? Tessa worked out a linear narrative, a series of ‘hot episodes’, building tension within each. This presented a structural flaw; youth being potentially more exciting or dramatic than middle age. She solved this by bringing back something that happened in the character’s youth. In comparison, Tessa’s most recent novel, The Past, spans three weeks in the life of a family who gather together for a holiday. Set in the present day, the structural problem here was the ‘flabby middle’. Asking herself, ‘why am I holding off?’, Tessa found a gift in the title. She dropped into the past to revisit other characters and propel the narrative forward.

What can an MA do for a writer? Tessa did an MA before she was published and found it helpful. It gave her an audience and she learned to read her work as a reader. It supplied editorial support through workshopping and working with a tutor.

What an MA can't do: teach you how to take notes with a cat on your lap.

What an MA can't do: teach you how to take notes with a cat on your lap.

Composite’ novels: i.e. linked short stories marketed as a novel. Is this a genuine form? It seems so - it’s a new thing and in the age of the internet seems to fit our moment. Such a novel is comprised of little arcs or pieces of satisfaction collated to make a whole, read for example, All That Man Is by David Szalay. 

Parting suggestion: take possession of your story. Engage your readerly self and fiercely imagine or visualise your story or novel in its finished form. Take it off the shelf - how do you want it to be? Be in control of it instead of it taking control of you.

With huge thanks to Tessa Hadley for being such a generous guest and sharing her writing process with us. I especially enjoyed hearing Tessa’s talk about her writing beginnings, and what it felt like to get a story published for the first time.  Thanks also to Emma for leading the discusion.

Coming up next for Words Away is a creative writing workshop on Saturday 18th November, led by Andrew Wille, at London Bridge Hive - there are only two spaces left! Our next salon at the Tea House Theatre Cafe is on the 4th December, with the award-winning poet Maura Dooley discussing Poetry for Prose Writers. It’s our last salon of the year and the Tea house will be in full festive mode as will we! Plans are underway for new salon dates in the New Year - keep an eye on the website and social media.

Hope to see you soon.


References & links: Funny Little Snake - Tessa Hadley in The New Yorker Magazine, Nora Webster - Colm TiobinThe Mulberry Tree - Elizabeth BowenAlice MunroThe Lives of the Muses - Francine Prose.  The Good Soldier, Parade's End - Ford Maddox Ford. How Fiction Works - James Woods, Negotiating With The Dead - Margaret AtwoodAll That Man Is - David SzalayMeet The Author: Tessa Hadley - Rachel Cooke: in The Guardian . Don't Plot, Just Play Fortunately-Unfortunately: This Itch Of Writing - Emma Darwin