OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA How Do You Work on a short story?  I’d been jotting down my thoughts in a notebook, and afterwards it seemed that this was the question I’d been trying to answer. [Writing down your thoughts, as Sir Randolph tells us in Isobel Colgate’s novel The Shooting Party, means you don’t have to bother other people with them – but that obviously hasn’t worked here -BHDandMe]

At the moment I’m working on a story with the provisional (or working) title of The Silence. It’s based on recollections of something I was told decades ago, by a literary man who’d worked for a time at a stone quarry. In my story, as in the one I was told, the literary man amazes his non-literary workmates, by the simple fact of taking in a book to read in his lunch break. There was no incident, such as the one in the story, and his co-workers were not quite as silent as mine, but he did have to learn to lift weights that to begin with he couldn’t even move an inch, and there was no meeting of minds, which partly is what the story is about.

There is another strand to it though, and that comes from an experience I had many years later, when at a country wedding I’ve referred to in other blogs, I heard some freshly made poetry recited. It was there that the thought struck me, that however un-literary people are, at important change points in their lives, perhaps at crises too, they will reach for language, and for language fashioned into Art, and that sometimes it is into themselves, rather than out to professional writers, that they will reach.

The story I am writing is finished; or rather, it is complete – a set of events, thoughts, and a location in time and place. But I want it to go deeper, and further. I want there to be a point to having been told of these things that makes it worth having heard them. There’s an interesting statement attributed to V.S.Pritchett (one of many!) about the short story: that it should ‘reveal’ what the (real life) events ‘only suggested.’[though I expect we might rather like that one as much were it turned around!] With my story,  I even know, almost, what that point is. On the other hand, I don’t want the story to grow out of control. I want it to be intense, rather than extensive. I like the structure of Coppard’s story, Weep Not My Wanton, where the characters enter, cross, and exit a carefully prepared stage. (the eponymous story in Turnpike Books’ 2013 collection – this indie publisher specialises in C20th  short stories with offerings from Pritchett & Priestly among others)

I’m a putter in, so the technique is similar to the one I used in the novella A Penny Spitfire (Pewter Rose Press, 2011), APennySpitfire-frontcoverand the idea is to squeeze in more information without moving the ends of the story any further apart than is absolutely necessary.

C.S.Lewis, writing (in Of Other Worlds, Bles, 1961) about ‘story’ rather than about short stories in particular, refers to the ‘surprisingness’ we look for in them, and he also uses the metaphor of the quality we want being a bird caught, and glimpsed, only briefly in the net of words that the writer has woven. I’m at that stage where the holes are still too big for the bird to be caught even momentarily, so that if you were to read the story now, you would, I’m sure, catch a glimpse of nothing apart from what the words have actually said. What I want to communicate is still a bird that flies through my net unimpeded. My job now is to bind the words, and their resonances, more tightly, so that I might get the flash of wings that Lewis says is the best we can hope for.

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