‘The Magical Life of a Short Story’: an apt title, because as Jane Archer amply demonstrated throughout the course of the evening, there is an inherent magic to the short story that no other form can quite capture. What exactly is that elusive quality – easily felt, but not so easily identified – that makes the best short stories so compelling and rewarding? Jane’s workshop engaged precisely with that very question, exploring the creation of short stories, the art of crafting memorable characters and the stereotypical writing hazards to avoid.
The night began with a discussion about why short stories mean so much, and what the short story must possess that is not so significant in other forms: attention was given to the integral components of character, time and place (essential in any creative writing) but Jane placed especial emphasis upon intensity and brevity as a source of the much-sought ‘magic’. Simply put, every word counts: a maxim that should never be forgotten. Jane also stressed the importance of carefulness when crafting a short story: of overcoming your own lazy writing defaults and meticulously considering every aspect of the story.
The key ingredient of specificity was repeatedly highlighted – as difficult as it is to pronounce! – which can transform a vague, bland story into a brilliantly realised world, populated with lifelike characters that transcend the page. To this end, she encouraged the attendees (and the SWC staff) to complete a writing exercise, asking us to write down an aim for the rest of the night, the rest of the year and the rest of our lives, and feasible reasons why this goal might not be accomplished. The target was to be as specific as possible in the detailing of our aspirations – a lesson that should then be readily transferred to our characters in short stories. As Kurt Vonnegut once stated, the author must know everything that is going on in the minds of their characters, even if it isn’t necessarily replicated upon the page. And in every story, every character must want something, just like humans do – as Jane reminded us, the more specific, the better it will come across in the story itself. Jane recommended asking those very questions of characters, and she also underlined the importance of ensuring that every character in the story deserves to be there – that they indisputably merit a place within the narrative.
Jane also dispersed snippets of general short story wisdom – the benefits of acknowledging your reader’s intelligence, the damaging effects that too much exposition can have upon a reader’s interest and the importance of being economical with both words and narrative. As well as referencing some short stories that Jane felt epitomised the message of the workshop, she read one of her own stories, intriguingly one upon which she is still working, abundantly demonstrating the continually interrogative and improving nature that writing a short story entails – thus, a fitting finish to the event. Throughout, the workshop was intently focused on genuinely helping writers to perfect their short story technique, a message that seemed to resonate very strongly with the workshop attendees. The workshop, brimming with suggestions and ideas, delivered a keen, incisive and highly helpful insight into perfecting short stories, one that certainly inspired and motivated.
Words by Rachel Walker