Chapter 1 - Where do I begin?
In this chapter, you will learn:
• how to disregard your own excuses for not writing
• how to begin a story
• the advantages of writing in the first person
• the advantages of writing in the past tense
• how to end a story.
‘Where do I begin?’ you are probably wondering.
You begin right here, by writing a short story.
Did you gasp at that? Shudder with alarm? Were you not expecting to start writing so soon?
Perhaps you have other things you need to be doing – a floor to sweep, or clothes to take to the cleaner’s. Weren’t you supposed to be polishing the soup spoons today, filling in your tax return, changing the batteries in your toothbrush, painting the bathroom, defragmenting your hard disk or phoning the builder? Have you taken the dog for a walk, cleaned the car, repotted the geraniums, picked plums or blackberries and made them into jam?
It’s amazing how domesticated some of us become, when the alternative is writing.
Writing is a strange business – people long to do it, get hold of books on how to do it, complain about ‘not having time’ to do it – and then when they do have time, they start remembering all the other things they have to do first.
The reason for this is partly fear: fear that we won’t be good enough. Fear that we may turn out to have nothing to say. Or too much – what if I am not a writer at all, but a sufferer from logorrhoea (excessive flow of frequently meaningless words)?
Perhaps it is the very ordinariness of writing that inhibits you. At its most basic, it is a skill that most of us have – indeed, any adult who doesn’t have it is, quite rightly, recognized as being disadvantaged. Anyone can write, anywhere – what’s so special about you, you may be wondering, that you should start thinking of yourself as creative, that you should grab this time and space to start making up short stories and writing them down, in the hope that one day they will be published?
The answer is in the question: what’s so special about you is that you have decided to do it. That makes you special – special enough to set your own priorities. We all have the same number of hours in our day, though not, of course, the same number of days in our lives. When you finally come to the end of yours, what do you want people to say about you: ‘What a wonderful person he was – his soup spoons sparkled’? ‘Hers was the best-exercised dog in the neighbourhood’?
Or ‘He/she wrote some brilliant short stories – and got them published’?
When are you going to write those stories, if not now? You must have some time, or you wouldn’t have got this far with the opening pages of this book. In a moment I am going to ask you to stop reading and start writing.
Some of your friends, on hearing that you won’t be coming out this evening because you are writing a short story, may try to dissuade you. They may be secretly envious of your single-mindedness. Other friends will be pleased that you are doing something that is important to you, even though it does not, at the moment, include them. You don’t need me to tell you which of these friends are real friends, and worth hanging on to.
Clear some space in your life. Cancel other engagements. If anyone is making demands on you, tell them you are not available.
Go into a room and lock the door. Alternatively, head for the nearest café, library, pub, or park bench – anywhere where you can be comfortable and free from interruptions. Take with you a pen and paper, or whatever piece of electronic writing kit you are at ease with.
What happened to you yesterday? Quite a few things, probably. Some were ordinary, part of your normal routine: others were more surprising, unexpected, delightful, annoying. Choose one of them and write about it. Begin with the words ‘Yesterday I…’ and give an account of one thing that you did, or that was done to you.
Keep it small. You’re not writing your entire life story here – just about one particular thing that happened on one particular day. A problem that you solved, or failed to solve, or made worse. A desire that you satisfied, or didn’t. An attempt that was made to persuade you to do something that you didn’t want to do.
Keep the story short. A single sheet of A4 is plenty. Don’t worry if your story seems humdrum and ordinary, or, alternatively, if it is eye-poppingly scandalous, revealing something about you which you would prefer that other people didn’t know.You don’t have to show the story to anyone.
Never give in to pressure to reveal how much of your fiction is based on fact. Being a fiction writer doesn’t mean you’ve forgone your right to privacy. If people want to know more than you want to tell them, just say ‘it’s fiction’ and change the subject.
Aim to finish this first story at a single sitting. Don’t worry if your language doesn’t seem literary enough, formal enough. It’s fine to write the story as you might tell it to a friend: if your language is good enough for him or her, it’s good enough to go on the page.
Yesterday I got a phone call from a market research organization. Would I mind taking part in a customer satisfaction survey about my bank?
Mind?, I thought. Mind? I’ve spent half my life trying to get through to my bank to ask them what’s happened to my cash ISA. I’ve spent a quarter of my life on hold, listening to a silly tune. My bank won’t talk to me, but they’re employing someone – paying someone – to ring me up and ask me what I think of them.
‘Just a few questions,’ the market research woman coaxed.
‘Bring em on,’ I replied.
‘Well, it won’t be me personally,’ she said.
‘You mean you’re going to put me through to the manager? At last.’
‘It’s an automated survey,’ she explained. ‘You answer it on your telephone keypad.’
‘The story of my lost ISA would be wasted on a telephone keypad. Let me tell you. Five months ago…’
‘Thanks for taking part in our survey,’ the woman interrupted. And the next thing I knew I was listening to a recording which wanted to know whether I was extremely satisfied, quite satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, a bit dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied with the layout of the furniture in the public areas of my local branch. I hung up.
It’s not finely tuned or highly polished or earth-shattering. It won’t win a prize or bring about a reform of the Financial Services Act, and it certainly won’t locate the narrator’s cash ISA. It’s just a quickly written account of something that happened yesterday, a tale which allows the author to let off some steam at the same time as drawing your attention to the fact that short stories are all around you, each of them with a beginning (the phone call), a middle (the conversation), some backstory (the lost ISA) and an end (the narrator hangs up).
Here’s another example:
Yesterday I saw him in the street. At first I didn’t recognize him, probably because he was fully clothed. Normally when I see him, he is stark naked except for his underpants.
I glimpse him through the window of his ground-floor flat when I walk past on my way home from my evening class. I don’t deliberately stare, but it’s hard not to look when his kitchen is all lit up and there he is, an old, bald, semi-naked guy, cooking with a frying pan at ten o’clock at night.
He cooks egg, bacon, sausages, fried bread, the works. He’s quite seriously overweight, which is hardly surprising if that is his idea of a late-night snack. His belly bulges over his Y-fronts, dangerously exposed to the spitting fat. I feel sorry for him.
At least, I used to. Until yesterday, when I saw him in the street, holding hands with a woman. I won’t say she was a beautiful woman; she was quite ordinary really, about his age, scruffy like him, and with grey hair. But you could see from the way they held hands that they were totally wrapped up in each other.
He glanced at me as if he thought he might recognize me but he was not sure where from. And then he turned away as if he didn’t really care – he was much more interested in his companion than a random stranger walking by. And it dawned on me that maybe his midnight cook-ups weren’t comfort food at all; the only comfort he needed, he was getting from her. The food was a post-sex snack. And the look he had given me was indeed one of recognition, recognition of the woman who walks past his window late at night, always on her own, while he is warm and snug inside, preparing love-food for himself and his darling, to replenish their energy before they get back to whatever they had been doing, while I hurry home alone through the darkness.
Now it’s your turn. Begin with the words ‘Yesterday I …’, and off you go.
‘The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.’ (Walt Disney)
When the narrator of your story has dealt with his or her dilemma, conflict, desire or predicament, and resolved it – or when they have realized that it cannot be resolved – stop writing, and pat yourself on the back. You have written a short story. Well done.
And before you dismiss me as an insincere flatterer – I can’t see what you have written, so how can I have a valid opinion on whether it is well done or not? – let’s have a look at what writing that story has taught you:
1. The only way to write is to write. To put it another way – and at the risk of sounding like an ad for trainers – just do it.
2. Use the first person. Not all stories have to be narrated by ‘I’ – we’ll be exploring alternatives elsewhere in this book. But writing as ‘I’ (whether or not that ‘I’ is really you, and whether or not the story is true) comes naturally to most of us, echoing the way we speak.
If you write as ‘I’ you won’t be tempted to go wandering off into other people’s minds: you know that you can’t know what someone else is thinking. You also know that you can’t give first-hand descriptions of events at which you were not present, so you won’t be tempted to try that either. Using ‘I’ means keeping things nice and simple, which is what you need if you are a beginner riddled with uncertainty and looking for the slightest excuse to get back to polishing those soup spoons.
3. Use the past tense. Again, it’s not the only way, but it’s a good way to start. By beginning your story with the word ‘yesterday’, you commit yourself to describing events that have already happened, rather than those which are happening now. This makes for simplicity. Simplicity is not the same as ease, but it should add to your confidence that you can write short stories.
4. How to end a story. Some new writers fear that once they start writing, they won’t be able to stop. What if you can’t find an ending to your story? What if it goes on and on and on? What if it turns into a novel?
A short story turning into a novel isn’t the end of the world, but if you don’t want that to happen to your story, stay focused on one person in one situation of difficulty or uncertainty. Let that person work to resolve that difficulty or uncertainty, or else discover that it isn’t going to be resolved.
At the end of my first example, both characters are frustrated
– the market researcher hasn’t got her answers, and the narrator is no closer to tracking down her ISA. But it’s the end of the conversation, and therefore of the story. At the end of my second example, the narrator realizes that the pity she feels for the man might more appropriately be directed towards herself.
To keep your stories short and tight, limit your time and space. Take a single sheet of A4, write the title (or provisional working title) of your story at the top and write THE END at the bottom. Then start at the top and write the story, aware at all times of how close you are to the end. Or decide on a fixed period of time – say 15 minutes – and set an alarm clock, egg timer or stopwatch to that time. Decide that when the time runs out, the story must end. These mental disciplines may make for some overly abrupt endings, but they will get you into the habit of writing stories that are short.
Now that you have written your story, what should you do with it?
- show it to someone
- delete it (not recommended – even if you hate it, it almost certainly contains something that you can reuse)
- enter it for a competition
- post it on your website or blog
- put it to one side and come back to it later
- write another one (recommended). It could be about something else that you did yesterday, or it could be something you didn’t do yesterday, written as if you did.
- Yesterday I killed a man.
- Yesterday I killed a goldfish.
- Yesterday I ate a pound of onions.
- Yesterday I locked myself out of my flat.
- Yesterday I realized that I love you.
- Yesterday I went to a meeting of an assisted suicide group.
- Yesterday I had a visit from the bailiffs.
- Yesterday I bought a pregnancy testing kit.
- Yesterday I woke up to the smell of a fox.
- Yesterday I led a convoy through the mountains.
- Yesterday I sacked my best friend.
If any of those happens to be true for you, leave it out. Choose another one, and write the story as if it were true.
Alternatively, if you think you’ve done enough short story writing for one day, it’s fine to go off and join your friends in the pub. Or give those soup spoons a polishing they will never forget.
10 THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
1. Short stories are short.
2. And they are stories. Something has to happen.
3. When it has happened, end the story.
4. If you are a beginner, restrict yourself to the first person and the past tense until you are more confident.
5. Let the narrator tell the story as if they were talking to a friend.
6. Centre your story around one person in a situation of difficulty, and show how that difficulty is resolved or not resolved.
7. If your factual story seems to want to turn into fiction, let it.
8. And vice versa.
9. But don’t give in to pressure to say which is which.
10. Value friends who respect your writing.