Short stories are sly. They act all benign and friendly and companionable and then when you’re happy and relaxed and your guard is down they grab you in a headlock and fling you to the ground and sit on your chest laughing at you until you cry.
Some of that isn’t actually hyperbole. I have found myself close to crying, grieving for my deceased confidence, the evanescence of my ability to form words into coherent sentences. That craic never lasted too long, though. Anne Marie (my wife) was usually on hand, or nearly home, and she always copped me on to myself, firmly and kindly. Donie, love, stop acting the fool. Stop talking bollocks. Finish the story. Stop worrying about stupid things. People are starving in this world. People are being murdered. None of your problems are actually problems. This was always the message, if not the exact words. She’d sit me back up at the kitchen table and log me back in and sit beside me until I was happy again, and typing.
Anyway, the main thing is not to worry. Enjoy the process of finding your voice, finding out what kind of writing works for you. We all attempt to be polymaths starting off, borrowing from here and there and letting all sorts of diverse influences and artistic considerations inform our styles. Keep it simple and true. Frank McCourt writes beautifully of this in Teacher Man, a book that should be read by all young writers and all teachers of creative writing.
Start in the first person. This obviates many technical issues that can stymie creativity. Use a voice that’s clear to you. The French novelist Olivier Adam puts it very succinctly: finding a character’s voice is like tuning a radio – it can be a struggle to find the exact frequency but when you do, all you need to do is listen. After doing this for a while you’ll start to find your own voice, and then you’ll start to find some confidence. Don’t get too much, though. Too much of anything can kill you.
Get your first draft down nice and fast. Someone far cleverer than me said recently that your first draft is “you, telling yourself the story.” Perfect. Pretty it up afterwards. I spill paragraphs onto the page as they occur to me and rewrite them and rearrange them and delete them until something recognisable as a story starts to take shape.
Don’t get tangled up in exposition. Don’t over-describe any character or situation or scene. Impose strict limits on yourself. “I will describe this character’s appearance in 50 words, max.” Then strictly enforce your own limits, arbitrary as they may sometimes seem.
Don’t let your story be strangled by its own plot. Keep your narrative clear. If your ending occurs to you at any point, write it down. Sometimes, your ending mightn’t occur to you until you’ve started your last sentence. Don’t sweat it. Stories come to life sometimes and act like seven year olds. They’ll do their own thing no matter how upset you get with them. Then they’ll settle down to sleep and look beautiful and perfect again.
Mike McCormack points out that the “wonderful accommodation” offered by the novel form is not offered by the short form. There’s nowhere to hide in short fiction; it’s a barren landscape and there are snipers on all sides. On the not-quite-other hand Mary Costello says any short story could be a novel and vice versa. So don’t be alarmed if your story starts to extend into novella or novel territory (there are no clear delineations anyway) but work towards a point where your story feels balanced and supple, to have a tensile strength and be robust; so that its various elements seem nicely weighted and right. Listen closely for this feeling: when you sense it you’ll know you’re near the story’s end.
Make sure your narrative makes sense. remove yourself from it as you re-read: “cast a cold eye upon it from above” as I was once advised. Stories occur in the interstices of existence, and of course the reader should be invited to look beyond the obvious, to infer and presume and guess, but opacity for its own sake is purposeless.
Don’t flog a dead horse. If it’s not coming, if it refuses to be tamed, if it keeps running away from you, leave it for a while. Regain your energy and tackle it again. If it starts to take over your life and still you can’t finish it, leave it unfinished. Writing should be important, but it should never be the most important thing.
Frank O’Connor said a short story should describe a moment of change in a person’s life, that it should be “a bright light falling on an action in such a way that the landscape of the person’s life assumes a new shape. Something happens – the iron bar is bent – and anything that happens that person afterwards, they never feel the same about again.” This is, I think, a perfect description of what we should aim for when we sit down to write stories
Wittgenstein pointed out that language as the vehicle of thought is the great paradox of our existence. That’s why writing stories can drive us mad. We can never fully describe anything, we can never tell the whole story. So our work will never be done.
(c) Donal Ryan
About A Slanting of the Sun
An old man looks into the fearful eyes of a burglar left to guard him while his brother is beaten; an Irish priest in a war-torn Syrian town teaches its young men the art of hurling; the driver of a car which crashed, killing a teenage girl, forges a connection with the girl’s mother; a squad of broken friends assemble to take revenge on a rapist; a young man sets off on his morning run, reflecting on the ruins of his relationship, but all is not as it seems.
Donal Ryan’s short stories pick up where his acclaimed novels The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December left off, dealing with the human cost of loneliness, isolation and displacement. Sometimes this is present in the ordinary, the mundane; sometimes it is triggered by a fateful encounter or a tragic decision. At the heart of these stories, crucially, is how people are drawn to each other and cling on to love, often in desperate circumstances.
In haunting and often startling prose, Donal Ryan has captured the brutal beauty of the human heart in all its hopes and failings.
A Slanting of the Sun is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!