Welcome back, Vanessa. Last time you were here we were talking about short stories. Now you’ve edited a guide to them. So, Editor Gebbie, could you tell us a little about Short Circuit – A Guide to the Art of the Short Story?
Thanks Nik, it’s great to be back, and thanks for the invite. I love being Editor Gebbie! It’s been a terrific project: knackering, exciting, challenging and frustrating by turns. Compiling something like this, identifying the right writers, working with all 24 of them, has been at times like herding cats – with myself the worst of the cats to herd, I might add. But I am very very proud of the finished book.
Who’s it for?
It’s for anyone who wants to write short stories. Maybe someone who had a go, and discovered that actually, writing good ones is not as easy as some people think! It’s aimed at students on writing courses, maybe at the universities, maybe not. It’s aimed at people who are already writing them, and want to do it better, stronger, differently. It’s aimed at people like me (they always say write for yourself, don’t they??) who may want a refresher. A ‘shot in the arm’. A reminder that when things don’t go right that there are a whole load of superb writers out there who share that feeling and can offer insights, ideas, inspiration.
But also, I’ve been told it is a good companion volume for anyone who enjoys reading short stories, to understand the craft behind the scenes, to be introduced to the works that inspire the writers. It’s a fun, fascinating and engaging read.
How much do you think good writing/ story telling is down to intuition, as opposed to what can be learned from How-To books, forums, and workshops?
Good question! I’ve met a few ‘how-to’ books that didn’t help me to the ‘how’ at all, and were just platforms for ‘look at moi!’ from the author.
But is good writing/storytelling just something we are born with? Let’s look at storytelling first. That’s innate in us all. It goes back to dark nights in caves, round the fire, weaving stories to explain the rising of the sun and the movement of the stars night on night. When you listen to a voice telling a story, are in the presence of the teller, it is a mesmerising experience. You can get totally caught up with the world of the story. The word ‘novel’ seems to have its origins in the ‘news’ taken from one town to another, and relayed by word of mouth… then slowly, so the story goes, the sequence of events were juggled to make people wait to find out what happened… to make a better ‘story’…as people listened, they were caught up in the events of that other town.
It’s not so easy for the written word to have that transporting effect on the reader. But with a following wind and a bit of peace, the reader can sink into a story and disappear in the fictive dream in the same way – and there are good strong craft skills behind that, in the writing. Each time the craft falters, the writer stumbles into the reader’s space, and the dream breaks. A badly crafted piece will not have the same mesmerising, dreamlike effect effect on the reader.
Craft is a skill and it can be taught. But one thing that stultifies the learning experience for this awkward cuss is that I always find this – if a single person is trying to tell me how to do something as complex as creative writing, I lose patience as soon as one thing they say differs from my own experience. But give me a range of tutors, with slightly different approaches, ideas, voices… I may be more willing to listen. To try new things. To come closer to my own creativity – and no one else’s.
In Short Circuit, the contributors may even contradict each other. That’s marvellous. Tobias Hill talks about writing in a relatively ‘plotted’ way, although he can also work intuitively. Marian Garvey talks about not plotting and ‘writing into the void’ as she calls it. Neither are ‘right’, and neither are ‘wrong’. They are different writers. And that’s the point. For you, the reader, to have a look at every which way, try things out, and discover something about yourself. That’s process.
What about imagination. Can we teach that too? Not so easy. But another thing that can be taught (or shown, I prefer that word) is a way of writing, or opening up, so that new ways of ‘seeing’ life feed the imagination.
I think anyone can be taught to write well. And encouraged to use their imaginations, to be braver, wackier, to ‘let go’. But what they write after that… well, that’s not so easy! What drives you as a writer matters. A spark has to be there, something different, original. Call that intuition if you like. Something innate. Maybe that’s what differentiates the greats from the rest?
Are you one for writing exercises? If you are, which muscles are being worked?
Yes. I think they have their place. The very act of embarking on a writing exercise uses creative muscles that may need a workout. But they are just that, exercises… a chance to try things out, to experiment. It’s good to keep those muscles loose, isn’t it? So when we just have to get to the paper and write, or to the computer and tap away, we do it freely. Which muscles? Erm the story-biceps, the character-six pack, the gluteus maximus of theme!
No, I don’t do writing exercises every day. But I do enjoy discovering new ones, and trying out new things. I love attending workshops and courses. If I ever get fed up of learning about what I do, I’ll stop.
What would reading Short Circuit do for me?
Cor, how long have you got? It is like sitting down in a one-to-one with a series of top prizewinners, and listening to their secrets. Hearing them talking honestly about their craft, maybe taking their own work to pieces, revealing the scaffolding. It’s like having a private session with a series of different writing tutors who have no axes to grind. Who are simply passionate about what they do and want nothing more than to help you achieve the same things.
You’ll find inspiration in their words, and in their company – because at base, writing is a lonely thing to be doing. It reminded me, after the mean-spirited events of earlier this year of the innate generosity of spirit of so many superb successful writers. I hope it does the same for you.
24 writers sending you off to find other inspiration in the many ideas for trying things out for yourself. 24 writers giving you lists of stories they have found extraordinary, for one reason or another. And lists of reference books.
Short Circuit is a 288 page ‘door’ into a huge resource of craft, idea, inspiration and literature.
If you’d have read Short Circuit a few years ago, what would it have changed?
I would have loved this book! When I was given the commission by Salt to compile a text book, they gave me free rein, and said ‘just do it.’ So I was able to pull together the perfect book that would have done such a lot for me.
When I started out a few years ago now, I had to fight to concentrate on the short story at a university course. The course I did wanted only novels – and I wasn’t ready to do that. I discovered the power of short fiction, thinking mechanistically – ‘I’ll cut my teeth on something shorter’. Then I discovered how hard they were to get right. Discovered the intensity of experience that reading a short story can give you. Short Circuit would have been a brilliant companion for the whole class– injecting more than a little energy into my own journey – but also feeding the craft skills of those who were struggling with their novels.
I asked (fellow Short Circuit contributor) Sarah Salway, when I interviewed her last year: If there was a Miracle-Gro for writers, what would it do? and she replied by saying: ‘I think we have it right now, and it’s called blogging.’ How would you answer that question?
Something that feeds writers… intensely? Before answering this question, I read a bit about Miracle-Gro on the internet. (Bless the Internet, occasionally!) And I discovered that it forces growth fast. And most of the time that’s fine, but it causes weakness in the plants if over-used.
Why would a writer need to grow faster than is natural? Let experience work its way through, I’d say. The best Miracle-Gro for writers has been around for ever. It’s called life. And it’s also called reading. Reading lots – anything and everything.
Has editing Short Circuit changed your approach to writing?
It’s a bit soon to answer that one. It’s been fascinating to read everyone’s essays, to learn what goes on in their creative lives. I hope Short Circuit will enrich all the readers… including me!
Can you recommend any other good books on the subject?
If I had to choose just one, I’d go back time and time again to Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.
And to finish, can you recommend a writing exercise (or a few) to my readers?
· Switch off the computer. Pick up a pen. And write a chat between yourself and the pen, letting it talk to you about the words it keeps locked in the ink…words it can’t tell you about because you hardly use it…
· Keep two lists of words. First, a list of emotions. Second, a list of colours. When you don’t feel like a writer, pick one from each list at random, and let the two words open up a story…
And you can see which book I’d recommend, if I could only recommend one, here.