Friday, January 15, 2010

Short Circuit- Blog Book Tour Stop

Today, Thoughts from Botswana is happy to host Vanessa Gebbie editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story.
(Read my review of the book here.)
Welcome Vanessa!
TFB: How were the contributors chosen? Did you assign them topics or did they stipulate what they wanted to write about?

VANESSA: The short story world is very small, really. I have got to know many superb writers, many of them prize-winners in quality literary competitions, and many of them writers who also happen to teach writing. Others I knew of, via the Internet, blogging, by reputation… It was a simple matter to draw up a wish-list of contributors. (example – I knew I wanted to cover the short short story, or flash fiction. Two names were obvious – Tania Hershman and David Gaffney.) Both Salt authors.
But that raised another issue. Although this book was to be published by Salt, I wanted the contributors in the main body of the book to be not all Salt writers. In the end, we have a 50% split.
Before I approached anyone, I drew up the topics I wanted covered. That was easy. I was taught to strip a story down into its craft elements, to analyse the efficacy or otherwise of that element within the work. It worked for me, so I wanted to follow that approach in the book. I also wanted to cover as many process issues as I could get my mitts on!
I asked writers to contribute, and apart from one, the original wish-team said yes! If they had an idea themselves, that was terrific. The pure ‘process’ essays such as Alison MacLeod’s treatise in taboo, or Adam Marek’s on the writer’s response to originality, for example, answered a real need for writers to see what makes a story resonate and buzz rather than be pedestrian. As the writers talked to me about what they would write, the craft elements all appeared organically. The contributors picked things they felt passionate about – and if they were passionate about everything, I maybe gave them a gentle shove in a particular craft direction! Then I waited to see what was left – and I wrote the chapter on openings, which I find very interesting and very difficult anyway – so it all panned out fine.

TFB: At the beginning and the end of the book you include this quote from Faulkner-
“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. But when it comes right, it is the best feeling in the world.”
Why is this so important to you? Doesn’t this run head-on into the idea of writing a textbook on short story writing?

VANESSA: Exactly. It sure does. I think there has to be an element of total bewilderment allied to times of confidence/stubbornness if you are going to be a good writer. The swing between confidence and self-doubt sets up a dynamic that drives you onwards. Without the self-doubt we’d never bother to try to get better. Without the confidence in ourselves and our work we’d never have the faith to send work out.

Short Circuit is not a didactic ‘do this or else’ sort of book! The whole idea is to get away from the type of book that says ‘do this and you will become a writer fast’ and gives the budding craftsman/woman the impression that if they follow that ‘law’, they will cut a corner and become a great writer uber-quick. There is no substitute for writing and writing and writing, and reading and reading – and it takes a long time to get it right. I agree with the ‘teach yourself by your own mistakes’ quote.
But having a team of great writers and teachers all sharing tips and thoughts with you can only help on the journey – save a few of the pitfalls, sharpen your act, keep you on the straight and narrow, save you making fundamentally silly errors.
At the same time, you’ll notice that some of the contributors contradict each other. Marvellous! That doesn’t weaken the book, it strengthens it! There is no simple a, b c in writing fiction. Everything is complex. I WANT the reader to question, disagree, to hit against what it said. I want them to get a little closer to the heart of their own creativity, as I said in the introduction – I do not want them to ape other writers just because they are told to! If what they suggest chimes with you, then fine. If not – move on.

TFB: I’m curious about the exercises at the end of each chapter (which are excellent by the way), did each contributor submit their own exercises or did you as the editor write them?

VANESSA: Many did, and many didn’t. Some go so far as to say they don’t actually like ‘writing exercises’ themselves. Salt Publishing decided they wanted something for the reader to try out, at the end of each essay – each topic covered. So where there were no ideas from the contributors, yours truly came up with something she found useful herself, from workshops I have attended. Or even something invented for the purpose.

TFB: As a writing teacher what is the single most easily corrected mistake a newbie short story writer makes?

VANESSA: I think my answer to that is ‘over-writing’. I think overwriting is easily spotted, once you know what it is. Once you learn that actually, floral tributes, modifiers, saccharine and purple words do not a great piece of prose make. I think many new writers aim to be clever, and writerly. The results are the opposite – distinctly un-clever and nothing like a good writer.
But you see I’m using I think, over and over? It depends on the writer, surely?! There are others – the use of cliché and tired images. Spending ages describing a character’s appearance to ‘make him real’. I worked once with a writer who spent paragraph after paragraph telling me that her female character had a tiny waist, wore satin jumpsuits and was very beautiful. Fine – so what? I still don’t know who she is. And all easily corrected. Hopefully, a zip through Short Circuit will iron out the easily corrected blips!

TFB: Graham Mort says in the book, “The reader, I would argue, both experiences the story as it unfolds and completes it”. How important do you think it is to leave space for the reader in a short story?

VANESSA: Hugely. If I don’t enter into the story and take part in it, I am just a passenger, watching puppets. I need to be IN it, to believe in the world and the unfolding events. If the writer put everything on a plate, tells the reader everything, there is nothing for the reader to do apart from follow the plot. For this reader, that is not satisfying fiction. Not good fiction. Not memorable fiction.
Reading, to be satisfying for this writer, needs to be active. Not passive. I don’t want a story to play itself out like a film created by someone else. I want to make the pictures.
But I need to add that there are oodles of readers who don’t want to read like this, who find it a pain, and think I am being a pretentious so and so. That’s fine- there’s room for all of us.

TFB: In Alison Macleod’s chapter she says, “If you know everything you want to say as you start writing, the story won’t be a story; it will be a message". What is your view on this?

VANESSA: I know what she means. Think of some fables – stories that are told expressly to illustrate a moral. Or the ghastly and bloody Victorian cautionary tales - it’s the message itself the reader was intended to recall. There are no layers, just the message sledgehammer that hits you between the eyes. I think she means that if you plan to say something specific, and force the piece into something that shouts what you intend, the story may end up weaker than if you come at it in a more organic way – exploring, allowing your creativity to work.
But it IS hard to put into practice sometimes, I know that!
I would also add here that some writers can manage to do what she counsels against – and one example is William Golding. He deliberately wrote Lord of the Flies as a fable. He knew what he was wanting to say and he went for it. And went for it with his full talent, his full imagination, his skills as a writer. I think rather than win the Nobel Prize for Lit, most of the rest of us would fail miserably…

TFB: Elaine Chiew admits to being controversial in her chapter on endings when she says “neatly-tied up endings, everything resolved, often seem contrived by the author to me”- are such endings passé? Do we need unresolved issues to make it in the modern world of short stories?

VANESSA: I don’t think so – but it’s an interesting thing isn’t it? I am no academic, and have not made an academic analysis of the stories that constantly make it to the highest level. Maybe I should. But Elaine gives away what she is saying in one word… ‘contrived’. If anything at all feels contrived, the author is intruding and the fictive dream is shot. The ending of a good story is fundamental – isn’t it what stays with us long after the reading is done? If everything is too neat, then ‘they all lived happily ever after’ or something equally final slams the story shut. Isn’t it good to leave an echo, no matter how slight?

TFB:Okay, Vanessa, in 25 words explain why my readers should purchase Short Circuit- A Guide to the Art of the Short Story immediately.

VANESSA: It’s recommended by the Bridport, Fish, Asham and Frank O’Connor Prize organisers, by writing teachers, by writers. AND there’s 20% off at Salt Publishing! (25 words)
Fantastic Vanessa. Thanks so much for stopping by and good luck with the book. Readers, if you want to buy a copy of this excellent book click here.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Lauri, thank you so much for some fab questions, and for hosting me and Short Circuit on your great blog.

And happy Birthday!


Lauri said...

Oooo.... Vanessa my birthday is even following me here?? Yikes. (Thanks for the wishes!)

It is lovely having you and your fabulous book at the blog.

Liz said...

Very enjoyable and enlightening, thanks to both of you.

Helen Ginger said...

Very interesting look not only into the book, but into the writing of short stories. Thanks.

Straight From Hel

Rachel Fenton said...

Vero cool Qs and As, thank you...I do keep dipping into my copy (have I mentioned I have a copy? :), and it's really such a relief to a "starting out" writer to know that all these short story heroes are actually grappling with the same thoughts and story issues. The resounding message of this book is simply to write, and what better advice could a novice writer want?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Lovely comments, thanks all - from my perspective, it is terrific to see new writers, and those with some successes already under their belts, responding well to the book.

Thats what its for, really - just helping you get on with it, taking out the mystique...

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Just this interview was so thought-provoking I am compelled to order the book! Thanks Lauri, thanks Vanessa.

Lauri said...

I agree Vanessa. The book is one people anywhere along their career can find useful.

Rachel- I agree. I keep going back to my copy and I only finished it a few weeks ago. Very useful and I;m not big on writing books myself. I only have a few I find helpful.

Tania Hershman said...

Great interview, thank you both! Just wanted to quickly mention that the book has a website with info about the other stops on the virtual blog tour, about the book's authors, and more coming soon!

Lauri said...

Tania thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

It sounds extremely informative. Great interview. Congratulations, Vanessa.