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How to Write a Short Story by Genevieve Jenner

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
genevieve jenner

Genevieve Jenner

Genevieve Jenner, the author of a new collection of short stories centred around food, Chocolate Cake for Imaginary Lives, shares her insights on shaping short fiction…

Once I was in London, walking down the street (or pavement to use the vernacular of the natives) with a couple of friends. We were near the Ritz having just left The Wolseley with canelés bordelaise, and caramelized pink grapefruit still on our lips. Why do I mention this? Geography matters. We need to ground ourselves with our surroundings. The heat of Lucknow, the meticulous shape of La Plata, the scent of Venice.

I was half-listening to my friends talking about the museum we were going to visit, giving a maternal glance towards my friend’s baby in the pushchair, and trying to catch a million other details around me. What if I spot a ghost sign, or someone in a ridiculous coat (the coats and shoes near the Ritz are often worth a stroll. You never know when something will inspire you or become a part of a story)? In this whirl of stimulation on a crowded city sidewalk, I bumped into an older gentleman. I lost my balance. Not enough to fall over but I wobbled. This gentleman grabbed me by the forearm to right me. I took a hold of him and was twirled in his direction. I looked up at him to say thank you but instead I found myself aware of his gaze and became lost in it. Maybe he thought me a pick-pocket. I wondered if he was a spy. We caught each other for a moment and had our own private conversation outside of the known world. He was well-dressed in that continental fashion, where style is an assumed right. I was holding onto the remains of my American origins in my manner of dress but my adopted home had begun to inform my accessories. Neither one of us were pilgrims to this island. We could have easily shared jokes about the natives. Instead we smiled and were reluctant to let go of each other. His hand slid away with his fingers brushing the inside of my wrist. I sighed and watched him go off into the crowd. One of my friends brought the world back into focus by asking, “What the hell was that?”

I laughed, adjusted my scarf, and said, “So much!”

The Fitchean curve often used to describe the structure of certain kinds of stories (murder mystery, pulp, and short) was put to use in the story I just told. The basic idea is rising action, followed by climax, and then falling action. There are plenty of guides on the architecture of writing short stories but there are so many ways to approach it. Many of my stories begin as jokes, or observing something that strikes me as absurd.

The joke element goes back to my childhood. I am the oldest of four siblings and if we found something hilarious, each of us would begin to add to the imaginary world one of us would envision around something funny. We would lob pieces of the story back and forth to one another almost like a ball game but further layers had to be added. Soon there were characters and dialogue. Sometimes arguments would be had about what would be allowed in this story/idea. We might add parameters. If we explained the story to others, it would seem like a soufflé of a tale but there was this Mariana trench depth to the invented universe. This method is still incredibly effective. You begin to ask questions.

“What if…”

 “Why did they say that?” 

“Why does her coat matter?”

“Where is his dog?”

“Who is that child crying?”

It is like standing at the edge of a pond that is so smooth and beginning to toss in a pebble, watching the concentric circles form and then deciding to toss in a few more pebbles and creating small waves and seeing how much chaos is formed before standing back and waiting for the surface to settle again -if it can. Maybe you don’t want a neat ending. This is your invention. All the while you are almost like a scientist taking notes.

“Yes they would do that.” 

“But they only spoke French at court, how would she know that word?”

Then comes the moment when something so unusual or interesting, becomes the focal point. This universe begins to make sense and plenty of material will be shed, it may not be present on the page but it has an echo within the story.

I find that a writing a novel is like building a house, with its foundations, and joints that need a specific kind of attention (occasionally someone will build that house upside down, or out of unusual material and it works in a completely different way), while a short story is like a curated room that will be filled with something (or many things) that have mille feuille-like layers of history and subtext. In this room of our own making, we can change the air, leave everything a mess, set it on fire, or have it be the entire galaxy, and it can still be a room. In interior decorating there is the idea that to truly set it; it is important to remove one thing. Is it tied to the rest of the room and its theme/point of view? Or is it just there to fill a space or look clever? The same thing can be applied to a short story. “Is this clutter, or does this have a specific place/presence.” One can be surprised that editing can create a kind of shadow/light that adds more to the greater plot/character of things.

Remember the thing you didn’t use can be put into storage and may be of use in another room down the road. Keep your eyes open, there may be a stranger who will appear one day to take you on a thirty second adventure that lasts an eternity in words.

(c) Genevieve Jenner

About Chocolate Cake for Imaginary Lives:

“We all have imaginary lives, and if we are lucky we have a dish to go with them…”

So begins the title story of Genevieve Jenner’s debut short story collection, a ground-breaking anthology of magical realist food writing.

A Russian countess finds herself making borscht for her socialist Parisian neighbours; unknown office colleagues secretly exchange lunchtime delicacies and recipes via the work fridge; steak is cooked at midnight on a Friday to get around Catholic proscriptions; and a thrilling sexual awakening descends into a metaphor of tired sandwiches and squashed fruit.

Chocolate Cake for Imaginary Lives is a book that the sexiest celebrity chef you can think of would take to read in bed, cackling in private recognition—but not just because it’s about the role of food at the centre of our lives. It’s also about the place of women in the world, the messiness of life, and the joy of snatched moments in the midst of chaos. With a wit and frankness that combines vulnerability and strength, all wrapped up in a package of stories that speak right to the soul, Genevieve Jenner writes about real and imaginary lives with poignance and authenticity.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

When Genevieve Jenner was six years old, she liked to play dress up and write stories, and she wanted to be a mermaid. She has finally accepted that being a mermaid isn’t the most secure career option, but the other two things have remained constant.
Genevieve lives near Bude in North Cornwall. Find out more: https://genevievejenner.medium.com/ Twitter and Instagram: @gfrancie

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