M’colleague and generally excellent writer Aliya Whiteley is celebrating the launch of her new short story collection, Witchcraft in the Harem. How to describe it? Well, World Fantasy Award winner Lavie Tidhar says:
The experience of reading this collection is like being waterboarded by an angel. Shocking, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, this is some of the best writing I’ve ever seen. If you like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, you will love Witchcraft in the Harem.
I had a high old time on Monday night at the launch. Given that I’m talking occasionally on this blog about the creative process, I thought it would be nice to ask Aliya about how you get the full world feel in something as small as a short story. Take it away, Aliya.
How do you make a short story feel full?
Thomas Hardy was an amazing novelist. You only have to read the first pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge to realise you’re enjoying the powers of a master of description. And there’s a lot of description to get through. I mean enjoy. There are long paragraphs about the Wessex countryside and the meaningful weather. However much you love Hardy, you have to admit that the modern taste in prose has moved away from such loving build-up. A book that starts with three thousand words describing the landscape is unlikely to meet with the approval of a big publisher nowadays.
Description gives depth, but if you’re working on a short story, then you need to provide that rounded feeling in other ways. And if you write flash fiction, then you need to create the entire world in under 1000 words and lose none of the reality. So how do you do it? Here’s some helpful advice. Bearing in mind that I don’t give good advice and cannot be trusted.
Set your story at the bottom of the ocean.
Deep, see? No, okay, that’s not entirely serious. But do set your short story in some place that will be evocative with very little work from you. The Orient Express, for instance. Or choose one really good detail and describe that rather than going large-scale. Describing the swivel of the golfer’s hips as he hits his first shot is as meaningful as writing about all eighteen holes.
Don’t bother to set it anywhere.
If you’ve got brilliant characters, amazing dialogue, and an exciting plot, then let them do all the work for you and forget describing the colour of the carpet. The setting doesn’t always matter. Sometimes it’s more powerful if we’re not provided with a framework.
The first story in my new collection is called Galatea. It’s a piece of flash fiction about a lonely orphan boy who grows up to be obsessed with naked flesh. There’s no mention of the Pygmalion myth in the story but the title brings with it a whole mythical set of expectations that say more than an extra thousand words could manage.
Avoid the natural world.
If you find yourself describing the types of trees in the field behind the house the characters live in (and they aren’t even looking out of the window) then you’re not keeping the word count down. Unless you’re writing a story about killer plants or the passing seasons or something, obviously.
Use default settings.
When it comes to describing what people look like, there’s very little point unless it’s remarkable. We all assume people look a certain way. Alas, Hollywood-style pleasant beauty has won over our imaginations in this regard, so instead of wasting time with hair and eye colours concentrate on the way the characters respond to each other. If they’re attractive, don’t bother describing your idea of attractive. A reader might hate muscled men or women with long legs. But what happens when they enter the conversation? That’s more interesting, and it tells us all we need to know. Then the reader becomes the detective of the story, solving the clues you leave behind. Artfully arrange your breadcrumbs rather than supplying a whole loaf of bread. It keeps them hungry and takes up less wordcount too.
So that’s what I know about turning a short story into a satisfying and rounded experience. I’ve set stories in the Canadian Rockies and in Viennese Concert Halls; I’ve used mythical figures and fairy tales; I’ve pared back the weather reports and the natural world. Except in the one story that’s set in a cabbage patch, obviously. And I’ve kept them all short and sweet. Even the one set in the Mariana Trench.
No, okay, I made that bit up. I told you I couldn’t be trusted.