Very few writers tread a seamless path from creative writing student to published author. The majority travel a more circuitous route, coming to writing later in life and from other careers. Yet in our fast-paced, success-driven world, where Olympic champions are barely out of nappies, and the term ‘overnight success’ is frequently bandied about, aspiring authors often have unrealistic expectations. I know I was frustrated by my stuttering start, and certainly impatient to be published. Tempering that impatience was one of the most important lessons I had to learn. A writer’s overnight success might in fact have entailed countless hours of learning and honing their craft. Passion and innate talent aside, there exists in writing, as in any profession, a body of skills that need to be mastered.
When I hung up my stethoscope to pursue a career in writing, my goal was clear – to write a novel. Yet I began with a form quite distinct from that, the short story. Ironically, the tight form, with its own demands and devices, would prove an invaluable tool in my novel-writing apprenticeship.
All too often new writers get bogged down on the lengthy journey that is the novel. For me, the short story served as a training ground to build my stamina, preparing me for the long haul. By virtue of its relative brevity, it was a bite-size, achievable goal. After perhaps a couple of weeks I could have something tangible and complete to show for my efforts, and the sense of satisfaction I derived would invariably motivate me to keep writing.
Further, the short story taught me to be succinct. Every word in a good short has earned its place on the page; there is no room for flab. After editing and re-editing stories to fit within a prescribed word count, I soon learnt to avoid overwriting, choosing every word with care. A strong verb, for example, is far more powerful than one requiring a modifier to achieve the same meaning.
With little space for lengthy exposition, the short story relies heavily on what is not said, the reader enlisted to fill in the gaps. Many readers actually prefer to engage with, and interpret, a story, rather than be mere passive recipients of information. Another lesson learnt: good writing credits the reader with intelligence.
Most writers will have experienced the sinking feeling that comes from the realisation that a piece of their writing is flawed. Perhaps the voice is not convincing, the work populated by too many characters, or the plot has petered out. It takes courage (and sometimes significant retail therapy) to discard a piece of writing. For me, the pain and inconvenience of setting aside a five-thousand-word story was definitely less than deleting a sizeable chunk of novel. For this reason I found writing short stories liberating. They were an opportunity to experiment, find my writer’s voice and make mistakes.
Writers cannot write in a vacuum, most especially when just starting out; we crave and need feedback. I’d frequently sit at my desk and stare into the middle distance, wondering if what I was doing had any merit. Yet I didn’t dare risk another’s opinion until my novel was complete, just in case the criticism impacted too greatly on my tentative self-esteem and dissipated the impetus behind my work. I wanted to show the full arc of my protagonist’s journey before seeking any appraisal. To overcome this feedback conundrum I decided to enter short stories into competitions – lots of them. Occasionally a competition judge offered some insights; better still when a story received a commendation. In this way I was able to test myself against the writing world. Deadlines also lent structure to my writing calendar and helped discipline my writing habits, while over time I built a portfolio of stories and a writing profile, both of which proved invaluable when it came to submitting my first novel to publishers.
The short story impacted my novel writing in another way too – by providing inspiration for future books. I now have a folder on my laptop entitled ‘potential novels’. It is mostly filled with short stories that have refused to be packaged into ten-thousand-word bundles – stories that are straining to morph into something bigger.
My first novel is now published and my second book well underway, yet still I take intermittent breaks to pen yet another short story. I’ve come to love the form. In addition, the change of tempo and varied subject matter work to refresh my mind and afford much-needed distance from my main work.
The short story is indeed a challenge to master and certainly no less of an achievement simply because of its brevity. I have huge admiration for the Raymond Carvers of the literary world, whose small parcels open onto such wide landscapes. That I have found the short story a useful tool to refine my craft is no real surprise. As someone once explained to me, (and sorry, I don’t know to whom I should attribute this), a novel is like a photographic exhibition, and a short story just one photograph. Both tell a story and both tap into common principles of good photography.
Fiona was born in South Africa and moved to New Zealand in 1989. She worked as a family doctor for a number of years, before pursuing a long-held dream to write. Her first novel, Shifting Colours, is set against the violent backdrop of apartheid South Africa and the calm of late-twentieth-century Britain. It traces the lives of Miriam and Celia – a mother and daughter separated by land, sea and heart-rending circumstance. One of twelve books named an Amazon UK Rising Star for 2014, it was also listed on Sainsbury’s Best Debut Novel Collection. It will be released in the USA in October 2015 under the title, Another Woman’s Daughter. Fiona also writes short stories. A number have been broadcast on radio, and her writing has had success in local and international writing competitions. You can learn more about Fiona by visiting her website, and you can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.