The most important thing for a writer is the urge to tell a story.
Writing my second short story collection came as surprise. I was originally just fiddling with images in my head, and my story ‘Husk’ was a reaction to the story of two mummified women on display in an old bathroom in a restored rail depot now the home of the Barbour County Historical Society in West Virginia, U.S.A.
I imagined the story of one of those mummified bodies. I imagined her as a woman locked away in an insane asylum by her husband and her brother. Her life became nothing and ended as it did, mummified in a glass coffin.
You must allow yourself to take the voice of a character. Use elements of your own fears and disquieting dreams to fashion a character as distinct as any other person.
The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield wrote: ‘Would you not like to try all sorts of lives – one is so very small – but that is the satisfaction of writing – one can impersonate so many people.’
In a story, the character needs to be real. He or she needs to be someone the reader can actually inhabit. For me as a writer, it is necessary to either hear the first line of the character’s story in my head or follow an image trail that leads from one sentence to another. If the story is in the character’s voice then the writer must see through the character’s eyes. If the story is third person, then the writer needs to respect the story’s ‘voice’.
Read your favourite writers and write out their stories. Learn what attracts you to their writing. Yes, it is imitation but you are learning from it and soon you will find your own way.
Voice is individual. Nothing and no one can replicate your writing voice. All sort of fears invade once you begin to write a story. Does it have a voice? Does the voice have its own rhythm? Just write it and keep on writing until you hear something that resonates.
Fuel your imagination. Listen and watch everything.
Once you have the story’s character or a feeling for the story, write it. I don’t plot my short stories but I do however play them out in my head before I begin. I need to anticipate the beat of a story. What does the character want? What makes him or her flinch?
If you write something that scares you, then that is good. If it shames you then that is better. Visceral shame is excellent but do not write for shame’s sake because it will become stale, and it will only go through the motions of shocking the reader. Keep what scares you close. A story must have fictional truth.
In one of my stories, ‘A Sense of How Things Feel,’ Leon is a failed writer reduced to creating ‘future lives’ for dead people who will always remain dead yet their loved ones still need something to keep them alive. It is a story I wrote in reply to a question I had heard about imagination. What good does it do? That leads onto other questions. What use is it? What if it is dangerous? Can you survive without it?
A story rarely answers questions. I believe that it is more important for the story to scratch the itch and then explore the consequences.
Read great writers. Read because your writing depends on reading. Read without boundaries.
Dialogue, action and plot come from the character’s fears, desires and confrontations. Know the character, be it human or otherwise. Location and scenery can emphasise character and emotion. Be visual in your writing.
Details need to be succinct. I don’t like the common belief that a novel is the flabby sister of the taut short story but in a short story, economy is imperative. Tell what you must in prose that serves the story.
Daydream with abandon. Play with ideas.
Keep a notebook of thoughts, ideas, and/or sketches.
Write longhand or straight onto the laptop. It does not matter as long as you write to the ‘urge’.
Don’t be afraid of numerous drafts but if a story is not working, step back and wait until you either see a way out or you realise that you might have to leave it. Some stories never work for many reasons. Even unsuccessful stories teach the writer.
Write despite any fear you have, the fear of being no good at writing or the fear of others reading your work.
Don’t fall for the romance. Work hard at writing.
A good story means something to the writer. A good story comes from the writer’s way of looking at the world and a good story makes the reader see that world.
In the end all a writer can do is write a story.
(c) Órfhlaith Foyle