For me, writing short stories is a process of refinement, of putting together a story and then redrafting and redrafting until I have to stop. The main way I think about my writing – short stories or otherwise – is that it is like sculpting a big block of marble into a finished piece, except that the writer has to also go down into the marble mines (I assume that’s how you get a big block of marble, I don’t know where Michelangelo was sourcing his material from) and personally dig out the raw material alone, by hand. By which I mean that drawing out the unfiltered text from the base of my brain is the difficult part. When I have a piece of text that is just there, everything works a little easier. So, the process of refinement is the main thing, but I have to find ways to get the raw material on the page too.
It’s easier to take out my little marble sculpting tool and go through the text bit by bit, line by line, paragraph by paragraph – applying techniques, making choices, rethinking each individual word, changing what order the paragraphs fall in just to see how it would work differently. That’s the writing that I love. I recently completed an MA in creative writing, and my favourite part of the course was reviewing the work of my classmates and offering feedback and edits. I enjoy taking a piece and working out how it can be better, how to pull out more of the story. Redrafting my own work scratches a similar itch. Sometimes the main structure of it can remain intact, and my edits focus on trying to make the characters feel more real and the space more lived in. Other times, the piece requires wholesale restructuring, tearing the wiring out and reassembling.
As a more concrete example, I want to focus on how I wrote my story ‘American Short Fiction, 1800-1999’, which is featured in the latest anthology from Sans. Press, Into Chaos. It originated with a prompt in George Saunders’ newsletter which asked the writer to compose a two-hundred-word story using no more than 50 unique words. Imposing restrictions on my work can help me work through creative blocks, and I ended up with a strange thing about people stuck in a library thinking about names. It got fixed in my head, and I was still thinking about it on my walk to college the next morning. I worked out basically the entire narrative development over that thirty-minute walk, and when I got to college, I sat down on a bench and wrote out about 2,500 words or so. After getting feedback from my classmates, I tweaked it a little, added more detail to the supporting characters and fixed up the ending, and once I’d gone over each sentence in detail about ten times to see if any words could be better, I was finished (until I thought of another small detail I could change a few weeks later, and then something else after that, until I finally had to just submit it and decide to be done with it).
The raw story went from my brain to the page in the space of an evening and the next morning, and it didn’t need much restructuring for a couple of reasons: one, the exercise had fixed it into my head so that it was bouncing around in there all night; two, I was in the aforementioned MA course, and being in an environment where I was writing constantly, taking classes about writing, and talking to people who were similarly focused on writing meant that the creative gears in my head were turning. If I try to wait for an idea or for inspiration to come to me before I sit down to write, it’s never going to come. I have to be actively encouraging my brain to create it, and that means writing and reading a ton. Thinking about words and what you can do with them. The goal, as one of my lecturers said, is to get to a place where the subconscious is as present in the redrafting as the logical brain is in the drawing out the raw material – to get to a place where you’re operating simultaneously with an awareness of your writerly techniques and an openness to strange impulses and flights of. By no means do I think you have to do a creative writing course to be a writer, but it did certainly help in allowing me to focus on refining my techniques and spend time in a creative community.
Outside of that environment, I have to try to do a little every day. On the train to and from work I am either writing or reading. If narrative writing isn’t flowing, I will at least write a brief diary entry or a note about something I’ve read or watched recently. On my days off, I will do a little more. I don’t divide my writing time between ‘writing’ and ‘editing’ – I do what I feel needs to be done. If I don’t always stick to the routine, I don’t kick myself about it, because everything I do is still going into my brain, and it’s from inside me that I’m going to pull out the writing. It’s all going to be used somehow.
I don’t know how to tell when the refining is done. I don’t know if I really believe a piece of writing can be entirely finished; the comics writer Matt Fraction says he only knows his scripts are finished when he has no choice but to send them off to the publisher, and for me it’s similar. Part of me thinks it’s all connected, and every single thing you write is going to be a continuation from the last thing you did and a precursor to the next thing you do. Don’t worry about, just keep doing it, you’ll be done when you’re dead.
(c) Aran Kelly
Aran Kelly can be found posting online at twitter.com/arankelly.
About Into Chaos from Sans.PRESS:
What lies beyond the portals of our reality – and what would lead you through them?
In the newest Sans. PRESS anthology, 15 writers take on what it means to step into chaos! From parallel universes to magical encounters, from the heartbreak of unbending reality to the mayhem of the end of times, these stories will take readers on a wild adventure, and look into what it truly means to embrace the unknown, and to find joy in the strangest of places.
With stories by Cormack Baldwin, Die Booth, Danny Brennan, Aria K. C., Brianna Cunliffe, James Dwyer, Andrew Eastwick, Chris Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Hudak, Tom Javoroski, Aran Kelly, Lark Morgan Lu, Jamie Perrault, Courtney Smyth and David D. West.
Order your copy online here.