We had a wonderful salon earlier this month with guest author and short story supremo Adam Marek. Adam covered everything you need to know about writing short fiction and shared lots of inspiring ideas to take away and experiment with. Adam’s the award-winning author of two short story collections: The Stone Thrower and Instruction Manual for Swallowing. His stories have appeared on BBC Radio 4, and in many magazines and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of the British Short Story.
Adam said the beauty of the short story is that it’s completely experimental and plastic - you can do anything you like and it can be anything you want. The best stories come with an element of surprise - something unexpected happens to pull the rug from under the reader’s feet. Adam likes writing stories where the surprise is usually found in the first line. He’ll try to ground the surprise in some sense of reality, unseating the world for a moment and throwing the reader off the rails. Adam thinks of it as pressing the “wonder button” - captivating the reader and taking them somewhere they’ve never imagined before and yet it feels completely concrete and real.
We talked about the influence of Adam’s fifteen year career in the film industry on his development as a writer. He began writing short stories in his early twenties inspired by his love of the fantastic in film art. It was a slow journey to publication but with every little success came new contacts and opportunities and gradually he became more confident with his writing. Adam said there are so many misconceptions about a writer’s life. The thing to focus on is your craft. Concentrate on developing your story-telling skills and the quality of the your stories. Discipline is the most important thing. Make friends of people who can give you good advice. When you’re ready - you will be published. You’re in a race with thousands of other people who also want to be writers. Everyone else with fall aside if you hang in there and don’t give up!
Adam’s process is to work with two stories on the go at any one time. He’ll write a draft of one story and then flip back to work on the other - this allows some distance from each story between drafts. He’ll begin with a concept or think of an interesting set-up and then question what would happen if he takes two different things he’s interested in and smashes them together to create something new. Once he has the clay of the story the challenge is to shape it into something that fits a short story format. He’ll think about all the classic structural short story stuff; who’s point of view tells this story in the best way? Who are the main characters? What gets in their way and (most importantly) how can he pull the rug out from under the reader’s feet? Starting with fantastical imagery or the set-up, he’ll then ask, what’s this a metaphor for - what in my life or experience does this represent? How can I inject something personal into this image of Godzilla attacking New York - where’s me in the story? (Read Adam’s story, Testicular Cancer v’s the Behemoth).
He suggested to generate story ideas get in the habit of noticing what you notice. Follow your curiosity and fascinations. If as a writer you allow yourself to do this, something in your unconscious will pick out bright points in your world. Even if they seem random, indulge your interests and put things together. If you read anything about creativity it’s always about the fusion of unrelated things - finding the link between them is where ideas are generated.
Adam suggested a writing exercise to conjure ideas. Make several lists:
The things you’re interested in and that you know nothing about and curious to know more.
Things that you have expert knowledge about and know more than the average person.
Any passions - events that have happened to you in your life that are peculiar to you or that have emotional resonance.
Play around combining these things and ideas will suggest themselves.
The idea is everything, it dictates the length of the story. Rather than starting a new story by thinking about the word count, ask yourself what’s the idea? After you’ve written a draft you can edit it down and reduce it to the ‘story bones’ or to its essence. A story is always better the shorter it gets, up to a point. Adam said people new to writing stories sometimes mistakenly underestimate the elasticity and potential of the short story. They’ll think of the novel as an expansive form with hundreds of pages to work with. By comparison they’ll imagine the short story as a cup and question how to fit a worthwhile story into such a small vessel. If you just think about just filling a cup you will write something flat. The trick, said Adam, is to imagine a much, much bigger world - a full world that could fill a novel. Take the cup and upturn it onto the point that reveals the most about that world. Do all the imaginative work around your idea and select the surprising bit. Show it at its most interesting aspect. Think about it from multiple angles; ask who stands to gain the most and who stands to lose the most - then tell it from their point of view.
It can be incredibly helpful to set your story within a defined time limit. What’s the time frame of your story? For example, you often get short stories set over the course of a train journey or a summer, or a dinner or the staging of a play. Once you’ve got a sense of the time frame you can think more about point of view by asking those key questions about for whom the stakes are the highest and most interesting. Then you can start asking where the biggest tension in the story lies.
Withholding formation is key to short story writing. The real challenge is knowing how much to put in and how much to leave out. Find the heart of the story. What’s the big reveal? Adam suggested that the the best thing is to drop little seeds as clues for the reader to follow. The most satisfying thing for a reader is to get to the end of a story and experience that ‘Ah Ha’ moment where they can look back at the story and see how it’s led them to this point.
The beginning of the story is where you make a promise to the reader about where the story is going to go. Look at stories you like and you’ll usually see that the conflict is set up in the first page or paragraph, or even the first line. The conflict has to be resolved by the end of the story - or not resolved - in some meaningful way. We moved onto the importance of the opening lines. Missing information is the key here - create a “need to know” in the reader and spark their interest. Human beings cannot abide unfinished business. The mind creates a loop and demands completed information. If in your opening sentence you create that “need to know" by putting something intriguing in there, it opens up a vacuum in your reader’s mind - that compels them read on.
Endings are where the meaning of your story sits and a good way to learn how they work is to look at how others have engineered their endings. Think: what’s the conflict here? Who’s the main character? What do they want? What’s the obstacle getting in their way? What strategies do they use to get around it? Once you’ve read the story, look back at the opening and see how the writer has delivered on the promise they gave in the opening. Don’t tiptoe timidly away from your ending. So many stories end badly because the writer doesn’t know the point they were trying to make. You should always know what’s at the heart of your story - then the ending will come. Avoid epilogues and explanations. Flannery O’Connor said a short story captures a character at boiling point. You want to end your story where the lid flies off the pan and everyone gets burnt - not doing the clean up operation. End it at that shocking and meaningful moment or even just before it happens. For a masterclass in short story writing, especially beginnings and endings, read Shirley Jackson’s, The Lottery. You don’t see the violence on the page at the end. She sets it up so that you imagine it in your head.
We wondered how to get a short story on the radio and Adam recommended making friends with a radio producer! Jeremy Osbourne of Sweet Talk Productions has commissioned many of Adam’s stories and is an amazing champion for short stories, commissioning beginners as well as established writers. It’s worth attending short story events and entering competitions, just in case you come across others like Jeremy who keep their finger on the pulse scouting for new writing - you never know!
With thanks to Adam Marek for sharing his wealth of writerly insight and to Emma Darwin and our audience too. I’ll be back alongside Emma at The Teahouse Theatre Cafe on 23rd September when we’ll be talking Identity and Belonging: writing character and place with Diana Evans. Then on the 14th Oct, I’ll be discussing Psychological Thrillers: crafting dark and addictive fiction with Paul Burston and co-host Caroline Green. Keep an eye on the website for new creative writing workshops this autumn with Andrew Wille well as as a masterclass with Alice Jolly! More info to follow soon.
Meanwhile I hope you all have a gorgeous summer. Happy reading and writing. Until the Autumn!
Adam Marek, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl, Testicular Cancer v’s the Behemoth by Adam Marek, Film makers; Michel Gondry, Spike Jones & Charlie Kaufmann, Will Self, Haruki Murakami, Etgar Keret, St Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, George Saunders, Ted Chiang, Charlie Brooker - Black Mirror, Sweet Talk Productions, Bridport Prize, The Word Factory, Thresholds, Arvon Creative Writing Courses, Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, Tobias Wolff, Phil Hale - artist, David Vann - Legends of a Suicide, Shirley Jackson - The Lottery, Flannery O’Connor