In September 2011 I stumbled upon BBC Scotland’s Writers’ Corner on the BBC website. Original written to accompany the TV series Writing Scotland in 2004, the advice is still good. Therefore here is the presenter of the series, Carl MacDougall, talking about writing short stories. (He even includes a few books for further reading). MacDougall‘s advice is as follows:
The first and most obvious thing is that anyone who wants to write short stories should read short stories, and not just by acknowledged masters like Anton Chekhov or Ernest Hemingway but also by writers at the start of their careers, their works will set your standard.
Anthologies can usually be relied on for a general introduction. Be adventurous. Try Eastern European or Latin American anthologies, as well as the more recognisable, standard texts. When you read these, take the pieces apart. Analyse the work and ask how these pieces work. Dismantle the stories, read till the narrative takes over, then ask how the writer achieves the effects, look for a passage you found especially good, and break it down. There are no special tricks. The mechanics of a short story are always obvious. It isn’t magic. All you have to do is consider the evidence.
To conclude MacDougall offers these tips in particular before going on to recommend some anthologies to read:
- Look at openings, being especially careful to notice how short story writers compress information, how short stories are neither synopses nor anecdotes;
- Look at the importance story writers give to details and what they can reveal;
- Look for the distinguishing features of a story, the things that make it work, precision being the most deluding and difficult feature;
- Look at the importance of voice and characterisation and the ways in which they are used;
- Look at the ways a writer can impart knowledge indirectly, how something is shown rather than told, how backstory is largely irrelevant, how dialogue which is used for anything other than moving the story forward is usually redundant and how an atmosphere is established and maintained;
- Look at the way short story writers use imagination as a means of discovery rather than invention;
- And read short stories, not forgetting the estimable Voltaire, who said, “If you want to be a writer then for God’s sake write.”
The anthologies are
- The Devil and The Giro: The Scottish Short Story (Canongate) Edited by Carl MacDougall;
- The Granta Book of the American Short Story (Granta) Edited by Richard Ford;
- The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories (Penguin) Edited by Susan Hill;
- Cowboys, Indians and Commuters: The Penguin Book of New American Voices (Penguin) Edited by Jay McInerney;
- The Penguin Book of Latin American Short Stories (Penguin) Edited by Thomas Colchie;
- Descriptions of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary East European Prose (Picador) Edited by Michael March.