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Archive for the ‘Short Fiction Shorthand A-Z’ Category

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S is for Shut Up and Deal

[also for Spoiler if you’ve never the seen the film, so beware…]
Writer/director Billy Wilder, co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, and star Jack Lemmon had combined two years earlier (with Joe E. Brown delivering the killer line) to create the immortal “Nobody’s perfect” dialogue at the end of Some Like It Hot. In 1960’s The Apartment, there’s something approaching perfection in the stuttering path Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine take, through endless work and love-based misdirections, to the romcom moment of epiphany depicted at the start of this closing sequence. But from the moment MacLaine enquires after the deck of cards, the brief remainder of the film becomes an outstanding example of letting the action speak for itself, that any writer would do well to heed. Yes, Lemmon attempts a gushing declaration of love but he’s cut short and handed the deck: “Shut up and deal.” Note MacLaine’s expert shuffle, a story in a few hand movements, and then, as the end credit appears, the way Lemmon follws that instruction, cards flying everywhere and bliss taking hold:

T is for Twist…Bust
Shirley’s just dumped Fred McMurray to see in the 1960s with you, she’s got the pixie haircut and she’s wearing that dress…those cards aren’t getting picked up anytime soon – it’s not as if you’re playing Felix in The Odd Couple for another eight years. Should Jack and Shirl eventually return to their game, they might get round to playing some blackjack, and they’ll know that, when you’re aiming for 21, if you twist too many times, you could end up bust. T could be for Tortuous Analogy because, as in card games, so it is in the short story: twist if you need to, but exercise caution. Writers approaching the short story via a Tales of the Unexpected, Guy de Maupassant or, indeed, Scooby Doo route, might believe that a twist in the tail is essential to a short story’s DNA.

Maupassant’s influence, as one of the 19th century architects of what we now understand as the short story and the leading pioneer of the twist (and you thought it was Chubby Checker!), is powerful. Yes, he may wrong-foot the reader, but his characters aren’t constructs purely for the purpose of concealing the surprise at the ending: these are people living real lives. In The Necklace, the unfortunate, impoverished Mathilde, having borrowed a glittering diamond necklace to mask her poverty when attending a function related to her husband’s work, loses the necklace and she and her husband spend ten years raising the funds to buy a replacement to give back to the owner. The twist is that, when the owner has the dreadful secret explained to her, she tells Mathilde that the original necklace was a cheap fake. It’s a shock to the character, definitely, but the story isn’t about that shock: they’ve crippled themselves with debt and worked hard for ten years to pay for something they could have replaced for less than 500 francs – that’s a story about how crap life is when you’re skint. It’s not a twist at all: it’s a boorish, droning inevitability. Get the reader to understand your story, and the ending may momentarily startle but it won’t seem to have come from nowhere. Set out at every turn to fox and confuse your reader and it won’t just be the disgruntled old retainer in a phantom mask who’s plotting your downfall.

U is for “Uno, Dos…Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro…”

Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken count-in to The Bottle; Little Richard’s “A Wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom” into Tutti Frutti; George Harrison’s double-tracked guitar intro to I Wanna Hold Your Hand: if they were short stories and not songs, they’d read something like –

And then, after six years, she saw him again.
[Katherine Mansfield, A Dill Pickle]

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
[Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen]

Miss Cicely Rodgers strapped her cock and balls into the Miracle Deluxe Vagina, which was made from skin-like flesh-coloured latex and came with fully adjustable straps to ensure a perfect fit and to hide any last sign of maleness.
[Alexei Sayle, Who Died And Left You In Charge?]

V is for Velázquez
It wasn’t just that he’d paint a dwarf as well as a Pope. It was that the depictions of the Dwarf Francisco Lezcano or the beggars and lowly workers, in the grounds around the royal or papal palaces, were proper portraits, investing the subjects with dignity unattainable in everyday society. It was also that Pope Innocent X could be portrayed in such a storytelling way, the terse, malevolent executive overflowing with human power but without too much divine grace in evidence. Stories can work like paintings in as many ways as there have been artistic movements, but the humanity in a Velázquez should be high on the list of aspirations.

W is for Watermelon

Thank you, the sex was lovely and, as you know, I’ve been very keen for it to happen for some time. And how delightful that the hotel puts watermelons in the room – so refreshing! I’m going to cut myself a slice. Would you like one?. I tell you what – this is lovely, but those black pips get on my nerves.

In Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, none of this is spoken by the male protagonist, Gurov, to his titular sexual conquest. He does cut himself a slice of the watermelon, which he eats slowly. And then Chekhov creates an image so excruciating, it’s enough to put you off the fruit for life: “At least half an hour passed in silence.” Girls, if he’s not at the very least asking you whether he’s got any pips stuck in his teeth within the first ten minutes, (a) get the message and get out of there, but not before (b) you shove the rest of the watermelon into him, not sliced up, and not necessarily via his mouth either.

X is for X-Ray Spex
Acknowledging the passing of Poly Styrene and celebrating the concise characterisation displayed in Warrior in Woolworth’s:

Y is for Yeast
That idea you’ve got, that you think would work in a story but you’ve not got a plot yet, or characters, or a setting or a way to begin or end it. It’s still there, still at work, and it’ll grow, so give it time.

Z is for Zelda Fitzgerald
The epitome of the writer’s muse. The ethics of drawing from your own life, and thereby the lives and personalities of those who share that life, are in a constant state of push-me-pull-me within each writer. You use your non-writing hand to wipe away the tears shed at the worst moments of your life because the other hand’s twitching for the nearest pen. Zelda was not simply a muse but an incisive writer herself. Scott knew this, of course, but does the selfishness required by a writer instinctively seek to overshadow this apparent equity in their relationship? Is there room for a second writer in your house? I’m only asking because I write short stories for a living, and I think my landlord might have got wind of this….

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L is for C.S. Lewis’ 5 Tips for Clear Writing

I was reminded of this list when it was posted on a Facebook page for creative writing students at Liverpool John Moores University, where I’ve been luxuriating in short story pursuits since the end of September. The notable thing is not just how much good sense there is in each of these tips, but that Lewis was directing his advice at children, the assumption being that writers will then reach adulthood having dispensed with the bad habits counterposed here. Either they’re starting adulthood a lot later these days or the message needs to get louder:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

M is for Mr Benn

On holiday in Madrid and Toledo in 1996, only the second time I’d been abroad since moving to Liverpool over ten years earlier, my writing brain started finding points of connection with David McKee’s fancy dress time-travelling adventurer. I was writing predominantly about cultural identity at the time, for performance poetry and for an MA, and the pivotal narrative mechanism in each Mr Benn story – he changes his clothes; steps through a doorway and becomes embroiled in the dramas of a strange foreign environment; changes their lives; then he gets reminded who he really is and he returns with only a memory – seemed to offer a loose parable for the co-mingling of ‘otherness’ and belonging experienced when a second generation immigrant becomes a British tourist abroad. The thoughts found concrete expression when I introduced a Mr Benn twist to the story of San Miguel de los Helados, written after going for an ice cream in Toledo and representing the first time my increasingly prose-shaped poetry took off its bowler hat and donned the apparel of a short story.

Aside from the delightful stories, brilliant illustrations, the iconic cartoon it spawned with Ray Brooks’ narration and a soundtrack by some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians of the time, Mr Benn provides handy shorthand for a number of narrative tropes and archetypes. Festive Road is a terraced row of pathetic fallacy, in which the mood of the street and its inhabitants echoes something in the fantasy world Mr Benn will find. Our hero may as well be carrying a loaf of bread in his briefcase, sitting in the park all day feeding the ducks, and then going home at 5 o’clock to tell his wife (if we’re allowed to speculate that he has a wife) he’s been hard at work, when in reality he was laid off months ago: what does he do in his bowler hat, suit and tie other than take it off in the fancy dress shop? But this sense of him being as escapee from office and suburban humdrum is a huge part of his appeal. The device of the shopkeeper popping up “as if from nowhere” is, at first glance, textbook deus ex machina but this is a text in which Mr Benn too steps out of a machine to resolve the crises he encounters. His role is typically that of a Dr Who bringer of knowledge from other worlds or a mellower version of the ghostly inspector in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, forcing the community to examine itself. The shopkeeper’s intervention, then, is not to impose an artificial or divine solution but to represent reality’s yoke, leading Mr Benn back to that terraced treadmill.
Don’t get me started on the psychosexual undertones in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea!

N is for Pablo Neruda

from I’m Explaining A Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I’ll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.

[…full poem here…]

And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!

O is for Osiris
Because when you’re in the world of words and stories and ideas about words and stories, you sometimes need a purgative, a palate-cleanser, and joining in the chorus of this funk monster should do the trick:

P is for Periphery
What’s everybody looking at? That’s not where your story is.

Q is for Quite
Or fairly, a number of, several, a few…

The trouble with omniscient narrators is that they think they know it all. No, actually, we think they know it all, we depend on that – it’s what we trade our hard-earned suspension of disbelief for. So when the narrative tells us that a place is “quite far away” or that there were “a few” people in the bar, there’s got to be a pretty good reason why we’re not being told the precise distance or number of customers. There was a pretty good reason for me using “pretty” to modify good in that last sentence – two, in fact: one, because it gives the tone of the blog the sense of motivational speaker urgency that seems to go down well; and two, because it sets off a little Larry David in my head, saying “Pret-tay, pret-tay, pret-tay good!” and that makes me smile. All these weak adjectives have their place, of course, when you need an adjective to express a personal attitude towards a quality or quantity being described, but if you want to give your reader information, and you want them to pay attention to that information, then if it’s quite important that it’s quite accurate, you’re diminishing your intended impact.

R is for Rainy Day In The Park

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film, Withnail and I, ends with this, the moment Richard E. Grant will carry with him as evidence when he’s claiming a comfortable seat with which to see out the afterlife. Forget everything you know and have ever quoted from this film. Go to that park, stand in that rain, see that man with the umbrella, hear him shouting, and then listen to what he’s saying – your story starts where this one stops.

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E is for Emotional Choreography

A line I’ll often throw out to students facing the construction of their first ever short story is to think of as simple a plot as possible, then make it simpler. If someone is telling you the summary of their short story plot, by the third or fourth “and then…” alarm bells are ringing out. Any short story, even the most fleeting vignette, requires a plot, whereby the characters do things, or things happen to them, or things are revealed to the reader, in a particular order – it’s just not always helpful to try to break it down in those terms. The idea of emotional choreography can be more useful when talking about a story in which little takes place in the way of external action or happening but we are witness to a shift in the internal state of the character(s), and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a conversation in between, but the emotional choreography is worthy of Gene Kelly.

F is for Forbrydelsen

In 1995, Steven Bochco’s Murder One unravelled a single murder trial over 26 hour-long episodes. In a TV world in which the biorhythm of any crime was that it should be solved with time for a bit of banter at the end within the space of one hour, where the feature-length deliberations of Morse had seemed an impossible luxury, Murder One‘s progress towards the truth, led by Daniel Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman – the shaven-headed, ursine embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s line “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – seemed more in keeping with the complexity and level of commitment we’d expect from a novel. When novelistic TV series, like The Sopranos, began to roll out of HBO and the other US networks, Bochco’s innovation receded into fond memory. Once high production values, narrative complexity and mumbled articulacy had become familiar to drama viewers, the crime-solving drama moved towards being the type of quality pulp that enabled you to switch your brain to autopilot without feeling you’d surrendered it to a tribe of reality show producers.
First airing in its native Denmark in 2007, but only reaching the UK when it was shown at the start of 2011 on BBC Four, Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing, but the poncey insistence on the Danish also serves to differentiate it from the patchy US remake) took on the police procedural genre. While crime, in general, and police procedural or criminal psychologist narratives, are staples of the fiction bestseller lists, as well as the TV ratings, and while “fiction bestseller” equates to novels rather than short stories, it’s also possible to argue that the Whodunnit is a pertinent model for short fiction. Getting to the truth, or a good enough truth to enable us to move on, is as much a short story reader and a Chandleresque detective-figure can hope for over the course of a story. Forbrydelsen‘s first series ran for 20 episodes, but each episode represented one day of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, and one day at a time in the grieving process of her family. So, while it had a similar novelistic scope to Murder One – and in Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, a shrewd, sensitive, tunnel-visioned Sam Spade for our times, and for the future series of the drama to come – it often carried itself like a short story. As one example, Lund’s relationship with chewing gum is a crucial aspect of Gråbøl’s performance but it’s one never given overt reference in the script: we just see her chewing her way through the barriers – bureaucratic, emotional, political – that hamper her progress towards the truth. The correlation between her chewing and the stress tells us enough so that when the frustration piles up to the extent that she bums a cigarette from her colleague, Jan Meyer, an arc, reaching back to way before we knew any of the characters, is completed.

G is for Gil Scott-Heron
For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that for Pieces Of A Man:

Saw my Daddy meet the mailman
and I heard the mailman say,
“Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,
‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
that he was only talking to
pieces of a man.

H is for Hunger

“Cig?”
“Come on.”
“Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Eh?”
“Oh aye.”
“Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?”
“We only smoke the Lamentations – right miserable cigarette.”
“Nice room.”
“Very clean…”

Hunger is Steve McQueen’s 2008 depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes and dirty protests in the Maze prison, culminating in the death of the IRA prisoners’ Commanding Officer and newly-elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The film, drawing on McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning video artist, deploys the essential short story technique of observed detail to extraordinary effect, so much so that the genuinely harrowing scenes of filth, brutality, a shocking assassination and Sands’ lingering demise acquire a perverse luxury through the beautifully patient storytelling. The heart of the film, for which co-writer Enda Walsh deserves credit, is a 17-minute dialogue between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran. With just one change of shot after ten minutes, we are able to focus on the dialogue’s humour, tension, tragedy and politics, not to mention the relief – for us and, we can empathise, for Sands – to have this break from literally wading in shit. This clip is just the first chunk. There are breezeblocks of exposition in fiction – and then there’s this expositional sculpture:

I is for iPadding
Nothing at all wrong with first person narrative. Nothing wrong with streams of consciousness nor with charismatic narrators who are the stars of their own stories. Writing what you know: tip-top advice. We often enter into the process of writing short stories as an act of self-expression or memoir; we come via the poetic statement that’s acquired a narrative; via the anecdote; via life’s epiphanies or forks-in-the-road. And when I say “we”, we write “I”. “I” in fiction can be a Nick Carraway or a Charles Ryder, the unremarkable foil to the Gatsbys and Flytes that absorb the light throughout those novels. But “I” can also be an obstruction to any given scene or story. A writer can wrap themselves around every detail so every piece of information about place, action or other characters comes to the reader already evaluated and filed under a particular conclusive emotion. It can make for a narrative effect similar to having someone sitting next to you, talking all the way through a film you’re trying to follow, not only drowning out the dialogue but explaining the plot as well. Simple(-sounding) solution: get “I” to step back and allow us to see the sunset, the actual sunset and not just what “I” thinks about the sunset – we know “I” can see it, otherwise we wouldn’t have it narrated to us, so we get very little from “I looked across to the West and saw in the sky a beautiful sunset.”

J is for Johnny Cash
When you can sing a song like this, you’ll get a great reaction from any audience, but when you’re stuck in Folsom Prison or, as the crowd is here, in San Quentin, then the visit of a country&western superstar, singing songs about the life you used to lead and the one you’ve got now, will be a story you’ll be telling each other every day until your release, and every day thereafter. Confinement is a key to short fiction. One night in a cell might get you enough material for a short novel, if you’re Roberto Bolaño (By Night In Chile), and a train journey might provide you with a murder mystery novel, but you’d beter hope that train’s the Orient Express: for the 13.34 from Irlam to Widnes, you’re going to need a short story. A restricted temporal or spatial setting alerts the reader to the idea that what happens here and now matters: what’s being described is not leading you to anything or anywhere else more important so stick with it, pay attention to every clue and, eventually, you’re going to find that sonofabitch that named you Sue.

K is for Stanley Kunitz
His last published poem, written and performed here at the age of 100. “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” This is a poem that anyone, but especially each and every writer, needs to “remind me who I am” and this video is a short story in itself:

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There’s no bettering Kurt Vonnegut when it comes to articulating the nebulous pursuit of a philosophy of writing. The objective of this series is to express nothing as grand as a writing philosophy nor as self-defeating as an attempt to pin down the ingredients of my, or anyone else’s, fiction. This is just a glossary that will gather together a series of creative touchstones in order to locate a system of shorthand for “the things I mean when I say the things I say that make you say ‘I guess you had to have been there’ when I say things about short story writing.” It’s not a reading list, because it’s clear that continued, wide and deep reading offers its own best system for understanding how writing works, but it rounds up some of the other stuff: the not-always-literary, bespoke moments that become the mantras.

In some of these, I’ll be reprising ideas I’ve floated in previous posts but shall include here so you can cut the pixels from your screen and reassemble them in a handy binder to file next to your Oxford English, your Roget and your dutiful copies of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please

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A is for Albert Brooks in Broadcast News
It’s for everything he does as Aaron, the flop-sweating, unrequited, intellectual pinnacle and moral centre of Taxi creator James L. Brooks’ 1987 TV newsroom satire-cum-romcom which, if it didn’t directly influence Drop The Dead Donkey, recent BBC drama The Hour and Aaron Sorkin in general, must have slipped something into their water supply. But it’s mainly for this contender for both the Film Speech You Most Wished You’d Written and The Line You Most Want To Come Out With In Real Life, namely “Don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.” An object lesson in how to make an enduringly salient point about capitalism and managerialism within an act of romantic emotional grandstanding, and it even finds a way to reference the subversion: “How d’you like that? I buried the lead.” If you’ve never been Aaron in this scene, you have no place at my table. If you’re Tom, see you in every workplace in the land next week; don’t forget the twee bloody biscuits you insist on bringing to the team meetings.

B is for the Bridge in A Night In Tunisia

Charlie Parker on A Night In Tunisia performs a precarious highwire act to get from the tune’s main theme into his opening solo. It’s one of the most famous “bridges” in jazz history. The composition of fiction can have a fractal quality as you visualise the story in discrete moments or plot points. Crossing the bridge from one of these moments to the next needn’t be as spectacular as Parker makes it but without a successful crossing, the coherence of your piece may never recover. There isn’t a single method for crossing your story’s bridges: sometimes it’ll be a compact, unfussy, functional action or description; sometimes you might want to elaborate. But knowing that you have these crossings to make can be the important first step.

C is for Cup of Tea
We’ve been here before: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care when s/he’s saving the world.

D is for dice and women and jazz and booze

Beale Street by Langston Hughes

The dream is vague
And all confused
By dice and women
And jazz and booze.

The dream is vague
Without a name
Yet warm and wavering
And soft as a flame

The loss
Of the dream
Leaves nothing
The same

And D here dovetails with another significant inspiration from Langston Hughes, his narrative for the Charles Mingus jazz piece, Scenes In The City, a pitch-perfect portrait of low-rent bohemia, chiseling out a recipe for survival from a life of struggle, shortage and disappointment: “And with the blues, whether I like it or not, I love the idea of living.”

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