Saturday, June 18, 2011

So you want to write a short story?

From January to April this year, I was able to pick the brain of Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author (The Hours). I practically transcribed his lectures in our seminar; unfortunately, I shipped most of my notes back to Cali. Not a good decision, especially if I'm going to be writing a couple short stories this summer. Here's what I can remember from seminar, about how to write fiction:
  1. Buy into the idea of the expected surprise: whatever the story's climax, sprinkle delicate hints beforehand. An example would be mention of a grandfather clock before the dramatic moment (death).
  2. Set your story in a specific time and place by using the slightly odd detail: the “thin, empty vase” that contributes in an underhanded way to a sense of foreboding, romanticism, or anxiety, or whatever you want to convey.
  3. Make images and actions entirely precise. Verbs need to be completely accurate. Beware of the pathetic fallacy – we ought not to attribute human qualities to the inanimate (whispering pines, babbling brooks). Think always of the exactness of objects.
  4. After you’ve written your story, think: how can I make this shorter? what can I take out? You don’t need 10 different details; you just one effortless detail that will place you in the mood/moment.
  5. Your characters should not cry.
  6. Beginnings and Endings: The opening line should give the reader no choice but to read on. Open with a paragraph that is as vivid and beautiful as you can possibly make it. Endings are much harder. One vague tip is to promise the reader something, and then give the reader something else. Set up something and give it to them slightly askew. Don’t introduce forward momentum; rather, deepen the character study. The end of a story should almost introduce another story, or a nice subtle, tonal shift. Subtlety will get you far.
  7. Alice Munroe said: All my characters are lovers. Not in the literal sense, of course, but as relationships – there are always relationships between people in your story. Don’t shortchange them, no matter how briefly someone appears.
  8. In many sad moments, there isn’t just sadness.
  9. Remember that in today’s modern workshops, Moby Dick and Great Gatsby would be massacred. So take all advice with a grain of salt.

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