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If you were to be offered a two-hour writing class - about the short story form - what aspect would you find most useful? Trying to see if I can find a consensus among people. All suggestions gratefully received.
Would this be focusing on womag-type commercial stories?
If so, any of these might be useful:
Characters - how Everywoman-ish, how weird or eccentric, how to make both kinds come alive and be cared about in a tight space.
Plotting - how to find the right-sized plot, how resolved vs open-ended, how many elements you can fit into the different kinds of length. What kind of resolutions are satisfactory without being trite?
Prose - how to Show without taking too long, how to Tell (because of the need to cover the ground when things are plotty) without being too bland
How to make dialogue lively and convincing without being too rambly, how to use it to move plot forward without being clunky.
The boundaries - subjects, settings, slang/bad language, characters. How you handle realistic subjects without being grubbier and grimmer than the readership wants.
But I think it depends a bit on whether you think your audience will be people who are tentatively wanting to write for the womags, as it were, or experienced aspiring writers of them, who are looking for the push to get them over the bar into being published.
If it's the latter, then they'll be looking for, as it were, specifics on developing and self-editing their work - which is the sort of thing I was outlining further up.
If it's the newbies, you might do better to set up the workshop as a "typical" process of writing-a-story, from getting the idea, research, plotting, drafting, revising, selling...
Can't add anything to what Emma said, really. Wish I lived nearer because I might sign up!
I think womag stories need a particular kind of technique, which certainly doesn't come naturally to me. I'm in awe of people like you and Petal, who can produce story after story that magazines actually want to buy!
Yes, it's for womags. Emma, I think that your suggestions are great and what I would come up with. But I'm thinking of just one particular area to hone into - specifics, as you say. Like, for example, I can usually tell nowadays whether a story I'm going to write is going to be a one-pager or a two-pager. I'd love to know how to teach that skill but I'm not sure how to go about it.
|I can usually tell nowadays whether a story I'm going to write is going to be a one-pager or a two-pager. I'd love to know how to teach that skill but I'm not sure how to go about it.|
I think you can often teach things by demo, which you can't articulate in terms of more general principles.
Why not go back to a couple of one pagers and a couple of two pagers - yours, or someone else's, or both - and deconstruct them: what is it that means one plot can support two pages (no. of characters, how many settings, complexity of initial problem, complexity of working-out of problem) and another plot and setup only a one-pager...
You could even photocopy them and dish them out, and then talk about them - and get the students to talk about them - under those different headings. I'd be using the blackboard or flipchart at that stage, getting them to have ideas under the headings.
And/or, having discussed that a bit, you could get them all involved in coming up with a collective story ... and talk about how long it looks likely to work out at, and why.
I usually try to keep my own writing out of my teaching, as much as possible - but this is an example, I think, of where you can talk most knowledgeably about what the author was trying to do, when you ARE the author. And unlike when I talk about my novels, you talking about your previous stories can't be taken as a sales pitch...
Sounds a great idea, Emma. I have been so long out of teaching that I find it hard to come up with ideas these days. Thanks.
You're welcome, Jem.
For me, I would want to discover what makes a short story just that instead of (just) a piece of fiction. I feel as if most of my short stories are more like excerpts of novels.
I would also be interested in different markets and styles.
Most of all, I would want the course leader to know what they were talking about (which of course you do, Geri!). I only say this because I remember how irritated I was when I went on a weekend course years ago about how to write short stories for womags, and the guy taking it had never done that; he was a playwright. Grrrr!
|I remember how irritated I was when I went on a weekend course years ago about how to write short stories for womags, and the guy taking it had never done that; he was a playwright. Grrrr!|
Yes, very irritating. Such different forms.
God, that must have been infuriating, Debbie! Thanks for your suggestion - it's a good one because it's one of those things that seems so obvious yet isn't at all.
Yes, it was pretty annoying. It was ages ago and my mother wanted us to go together to a weekend place where they did lots of courses - she was doing an art course and I chose my own interest, which was fiction. But that experience made me much more careful in future - to check credentials and make sure the outfit putting it on had a good reputation (Arvon, for instance).
Another experience I had was when I enrolled on an online fiction course run by a Scottish Uni. The course tutor "had a couple of novels under her belt", so when I found out she was unpublished I was pretty unimpressed. Yes, some people say you can be a good tutor without being able to do it yourself, but I would prefer to be taught by someone who's been there. Since she was unpublished, she may have been wonderful, but she hadn't proven that. I mean, I wouldn't dream of running a novel-writing course, even though I know the basics pretty well and could happily spout about them.
I actually withdrew from that course, for that reason and also because she laid down some pretty odd rules about critique. We weren't allowed to tell anyone what we thought didn't work, however nicely.
When I think of all the teaching gigs I've not applied for because I didn't feel well-enough qualified!
And actually I do think being published matters in this context. It is a sort of qualification: someone with something to lose by being wrong has said that you can write to a professional standard.
I think you can stretch sideways from where you are. And I think you can, for example, deliver a fully-built open university course, with supervision, in forms that aren't yours.
What you really shouldn't be doing is is devising and teaching a course from a basis only of what other teachers do/say, as it were. It's like teaching a pottery course when you've only watched videos.
I think sometimes university-based setups don't realise that
"I know you usually teach the 17th century women, but could you take on this 19th century politics course?"
can be dealt with perfectly well by an experienced teacher willing to do some ruthless reading and hard work planning. But the equivalent:
"I know you usually teach poetry, but can you take on this novel course?"
really won't do, beyond the simplest-level stuff.
Edited by EmmaD at 18:05:00 on 24 June 2013
Yes, I agree entirely. There is some room for movement, but not as much as those two courses suggested.
|When I think of all the teaching gigs I've not applied for because I didn't feel well-enough qualified!|
Makes you think, doesn't it!
This 16 message thread spans 2 pages: 2 > >
|For me, I would want to discover what makes a short story just that instead of (just) a piece of fiction. I feel as if most of my short stories are more like excerpts of novels.|
I think this is key. When I turned to short fiction a few years back, this was a regular criticism I got from editors. And they were right: I'd always written novels previously and wasn't even aware that my writing instincts were to go wide, so to speak, to set up arcs all over the place that would head back in eventually but not soon enough for a short fiction reader. Similarly, I introduced too many characters, too many scenes, etc.
Yes, an accomplished short story writer can break these 'rules', but I suggest - especially if you've always written novels - that you spend some time working on the generally accepted techniques first.
Roughly speaking: just one main character, a couple of secondaries at most. Work around one feeling, vision, event. No flash-backs. Strong, consistent tone. Start as far forward as possible; don't beat around the bush - slap the main character right at the front and show their problem (that the story will resolve - or not) immediately.
Perhaps most importantly, reach inside yourself to grab the killer emotion that this story is going to produce in a reader and make that the climax/point (alongside the plot climax which is actually secondary). Nothing much else matters in a short.
The great thing about shorts is around this last point: that you can accentuate a single feeling and therefore leave it highlighted in the reader's mind, whereas with a novel you'd have to introduce a whole other bunch of stuff that might actually water it down. For instance, I wrote a story called 'Big Dave's in Love'. All I wanted to do was highlight a kind of eccentric warmth I'd experienced from the East End side of my family, partly as a counter-balance to how East Enders can be portrayed in fiction (stupid, essentially). This wouldn't have been enough for a novel but was ideal for a short (even if it was very difficult to get right in the event).