Friday, November 13, 2009

Short Circuit: a guide to the art of the short story

Also received in the post (purchased direct from Salt Publishing, rather than Amazon, for reasons see here) a terrific reference source, Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of The Short Story. This is edited by Vanessa Gebbie, a very welcome occasional contributer of comments on this blog and, like me, a former student in Alex Keegan’s online writing group, Boot Camp. Our times in Boot Camp barely coincided – I was making my first tentative forays as she was leaving – but, nonetheless, I’ve come to know her work well, and her first collection of stories, also published by Salt, Words from a Glass Bubble, is well worth buying. Vanessa knows about short stories, and so do the contributers she has gathered for this collection. I think it may become a definitive work.

I’ve read half a dozen or so of the essays so far, and skimmed through the rest, and there is good stuff here. I’m not usually very good with ‘how-to’ manuals, mainly because I won’t be told ‘how to’: the contrarian in me instinctively makes me do the opposite of what I’m told, even if I agree with the advice. That’s Calvinist atheists for you – we do a good line in nose-cutting.

Anyway, the advice here is good, in large measure because it isn’t dogmatic. At one point in her article, Lane Ashfeldt says: ‘I have no wish to waffle mystically about ‘inspiration’ here. A book on the craft of short story writing should provide more concrete advice than that.’ Agreed, and I think she goes on to provide that advice admirably, but what I like about this collection of essays in general is that what you don’t get is the usual collection of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ of writing craft advice, the sort of nonsense that tells you to write two pages of drivel show in order to avoid telling the reader that ‘Johnny was in a fearful temper because he had a bad case of piles.’ No, what we have here is measured, considered advice on a range of subjects.

Our old mentor, Alex Keegan has a chapter to himself on, as you would expect from AK, theme. As ever, he makes it appear utterly simple, perfectly obvious, seductively easy. Then you go away and try to write something and you realise it isn’t that easy. I remember the first time I ‘got’ theme, at a workshop at AK’s house. After three days of Alex talking about theme, theme, theme, it suddenly made sense. I understood. I looked around me in a state of wonder and the world seemed different, somehow. I was ‘the guy who got theme’. It was a revelation. I went straight to AK’s kitchen to write a story, and what a story that was. Theme was oozing out of it, from every comma and semi-colon, every full stop, every sloppy dash. Every description, every shred of dialogue screamed ‘theme’. It was a thematic symphony, an oratorio, a meisterwork. If I’d only bothered to put a plot in there that story would have been sensational, I tell you. But reading Alex’s brilliant article I sense, again, the nearness of understanding how theme actually works. It left me itching to go and write something, and what better praise can any writing craft article have?

There’s other excellent material, too. Paul Magrs, in a fine, chatty piece, offers the following advice: ‘The skilled writer will make the first person narrator say things they don’t mean to.’ By coincidence, as I was reading that I’d just read a very fine piece by David Vann, Legend of a Suicide (review to follow) which revealed some of what Magrs said, using a very simple but effective technique that I don’t think I’ve seen before. He describes (in first person) his main character breaking into his own house, and trying to deduce from the evidence lying around what sort of people might live there: Robert Burns’s ‘to see oursel’s as ithers see us’ brought to reality, as it were. And in doing this, the character does reveal stuff about himself, but in layers of detail of which he is unaware, and he tells us far more than he realises he is doing. It’s beautifully done. Elaine Chiew also offers excellent advice, including a section on epiphanies which I will probably devote a separate posting to.

Lane Ashfeldt sums the book up nicely with a fine quote from my old favourite, Kurt Vonnegut: ‘You can’t really control a piece of fiction... Part of the technique is to lose control.’ Alex Keegan explains what that really means in inimitable style:

I do not need to plot. I do not need to plan. I do not need speeches and carefully placed metaphors. I just live the story, go to the right places, allow my ‘ordinary man’ to be exposed to the waves, and record what he does. What he does will contain meaning. What he does, what he feels, is what the story means.

See how easy it is when you free yourself? This is what I think is essential in fiction writing, and the fear is that the creative writing courses that are proliferating and the writing craft textbooks which are appearing will stifle the essential creativity that allows you to ‘lose control’ or leave your characters to explore meaning. The joy of Short Circuit is that it doesn’t allow that to happen. It just makes you think. Creative writer, get thee off and write (but remember some plot).


Ken Hannahs said...

I went back and read some of your boot camp diaries and found them to be so intense and awesome. How would I go about submitting an application for Keegan's bootcamp?

Tom Conoboy said...

Yep, intense it certainly is. Hard work for sure, but you WILL come out a better writer.

You can contact Alex directly at:


I think that's his current address. If you don't get a response from that let me know.