The Short Story

My Life In Short Fiction

The first short story you remember enjoying.
Ive always loved stories but Sen Faolins story The Trout lodged in my brain in a peculiar way. We must have read it in primary school. Its about a little girl who finds a panting trout in a secluded well. The landscape of the story is an old laurel walk a lofty midnight tunnel of smooth, sinewy branches and its like a similar spot in my homeplace in County Dublin. At some point I started to believe that the story had actually happened to me; I adapted it into my own mythology. So much so that when I re-read The Trout as an adult it felt like I was reading my own history. Bizarre. Its a gorgeous piece of fiction and I often think about it.
The short story that made you want to write short fiction.
I couldnt say that there was just one. We read a lot of short stories in school and I was always reading at home. I started to write short stories because poetry wasnt enough for me and the novels I was attempting never went anywhere. Ive always loved the way short stories pan out the motifs, the tension. Its like watching someone dive into a dark pool. They go under, you see the ripples fan out and fade, but you know the diver has to come up for air at some point, so you wait for that. I fell head over heels with Anne Enrights collection The Portable Virgin around the time I was starting to write stories myself so, as a collection, I would say it egged me on; it showed me the possibilities of what a young Irish woman writer could do.
A story by the author whose body of work you feel has most influenced yours.
Again, its impossible to pick one writer or one story. Annie Proulx makes me brave with naming characters; Claire Keegan teaches me to slow my pace; I love Emma Donoghues language and energy; Michle Roberts has a delicate touch that I would like to master. But I do remember being directly influenced by ils N Dhuibhnes story Midwife to the Fairies it gave me the idea to use a folk tale in my story One Hares Foot . Ive come around to the idea that influence is a good thing, having resisted (or misunderstood it?) for a while. I love seeing what other writers are doing and what I can learn from them. My favourite story writers include Edna OBrien, Flannery OConnor, Michle Roberts, Claire Keegan, Sen OReilly, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, Annie Proulx, Emma Donoghue, ils N Dhuibhne, Tess Gallagher, Rose Tremain, Yiyun Li, Manuel Munoz and Ernest Hemingway. At the moment I am basking in the stories of Valerie Trueblood they have an absolute humanity; her stories are layered, learned, insightful, moving and witty. I wish I could write like her.
The story from your own body of work that most reveals something of who Nuala N Chonchir is.
Oh, this is a hard one. Well, I write a lot about the things that obsess and possess me: art, the breakdown of love, sex and the body. So if I have to pick one, it might be Madonna Irlanda from my collection Nude. The story is about a shy, self-conscious artist, newly separated from her husband, who goes to Paris and meets a fabulous man (another artist). They become friends and from him she learns about strength and forging ahead with her life and her art; he makes her braver.
Your all time favourite short story.
I love different stories for different reasons at varying times. But if I had to choose only one story for my desert island, I think it would be Flannery OConnors Good Country People. I just love Hulga/Joy as a character and it is so brilliant and comforting to me, as a writer, that Flannery OConnor wrote the story not knowing how it would end. With that perfect ending! You are pulled into the story and its mix of the funny and the deadly serious. She was a genius, she had such an ear.
This interview first appeared on Dan Powell Fiction in September 2011.

Tips on how to get started as a short story writer

I think the first thing any budding short story writer must do is read good short stories. Read your contemporaries - Claire Keegan, Yiyun Li, David Means, Wells Tower, Anne Enright. Read the greats - Chekhov, Alice Munro, Frank O'Connor, Raymond Carver. Read anthologies and journals that love and respect the short story form - The Stinging Fly, The New Yorker, Southword. Seek out publications from those publishers who support and publish short stories: Salt, Comma Press, Faber, Cape, Granta. It is only by reading the masters and mistresses of the form that we learn what good short fiction is all about. So, read widely and, while you are reading, write and write and write.
The short story is a personal form in the same way that poetry is - it deals, often, with the individual passions of the writer. Figure out what you love to read and think about, what excites you. Chances are those are also the things that you will love to write about. For me, those things include visual art and artists, sex and relationships, and the breakdown of love. Throw in Paris and/or a river and I could write all day. Make a list of the objects, scenery, type of people - and their dynamics - and the places that interest you the most. Some of these combined will make good fodder for stories or, at least, good jumping-off points.
What will make your short story succeed? Well, resist the urge to write about the mundane. Ordinary things happening to ordinary people rarely make interesting reading. Something must happen in your short story; not something huge or life-changing, just something that's maybe out of the ordinary for that particular character. So, bear in mind that although the short story is an urgent, concise form it cannot be about nothing in particular. Usually, the story is about a small number of characters and something happens to one or all of them; that event brings about a shift in circumstances or outlook.
Put a notice over your desk: 'What happened next? Or what happened before?'. This will keep you focused on the crux of your story - the tension. If you are floundering, read this notice aloud to yourself and write down your answers.
Don't shy away from creating scenes - readers love to hear dialogue, particularly difficult conversations. Let us hear and see your characters speaking and reacting to each other. It is probably best not to provide oodles of background information. Set the scene briefly, then cut to the action. As Jim Dickey said, 'If the story is about a bear, bring on the damn bear.' There isn't room in the short story for piles of personal history, long descriptive passages or lots of characters. Keep it all to the point. Raymond Carver aptly advised: 'Get in, get out, don't linger, go on.'
There is an immediacy to the short story that is unique to the form: it should open quickly, have a relevant mid-section and move at a good pace to the end. As I've said, there isn't room for lots of characters, reams of back story and endless wads of descriptive prose. You want to intrigue your reader, not bore them. The details of the story need to be drip-fed in digestible and interesting lumps. Do what Charles Reade recommended and 'make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait.'
Stories possess an intensity that is just not possible in the vast space of the novel. They often contain a delicious surprise - they are beautifully unpredictable when done well. Lovers of the short story hope to be moved in some way by what happens in stories - they want the hairs on their neck to stand on end with the unknowable yet perfect beauty of the story they are reading. Readers of literary short fiction do not mind discomfort and they enjoy characters who are mavericks - be daring in what you write, don't censor yourself.
Short story writing is fairly instinctive, mostly you don't need to plot and plan meticulously. To paraphrase Haruki Murakami, if you plan everything in a short story it will never find its own way. So you mustn't worry if you start to write and don't know where things are going. Just write your way into it - tell the story to yourself - and see what your characters get up to. What you are aiming for is some sort of tension - remember, something must happen! You want to seduce the reader; to have her believe in the small world you have created.
Be specific in your writing always. The more concrete detail you have in your work, the more real the story will seem to the reader. Unique and specific detail in stories makes them more vivid and interesting. Name things: give proper names to settings and characters as much as possible. Good naming anchors the reader to the story.
All writers love language and words - as a writer you delight in unusual word pairings and odd sentences. Don't be afraid of your own language: the vernacular of your childhood or your home-place is full of authentic turns of phrase: use them. Mine your parents' - or other older people's - store of words for interesting sayings.
Each part of a short story must fit with the rest: so the tone fits with the language which also fits with what happens to the characters. This creates a unity within the story that is like the unity within a poem: everything works together to create a pleasing whole. Read some poetry to see how words and intent and content can meld together perfectly.
Readers pick up books to be entertained, to learn and/or for escapism; they want to feel along with your characters. Your story should resonate emotionally with the reader and will ideally have the power to smack her with its truthfulness. Flannery O'Connor said that stories should be 'short but deep', so the something that happens in the story will ideally illuminate the human condition in some way. Just because short stories are short doesn't mean that they can't be profound or make a deep impact - you can say a lot in a handful of pages.
The short story writer loves concision and brevity; she is willing and able to trim her sentences and paragraphs, to get the best out of them. We all overwrite to start with - this is normal. You just have to learn to edit well.
As a writer, I empathise and agree with John Banville's feeling of separateness with life, which he often mentions in interviews. It's what makes a writer in the end: a sort of aloofness, a feeling of not-being-wholly-in the world. The writer is an observer on the sidelines: she is unobtrusively nosey and notes everything; she gathers up all the bits that other people miss and throws them into the mix of her stories. Joseph O'Connor noted that 'a writer is always quietly looking and thinking. Not willing inspiration but just being open to the world. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination. It's letting in ideas. It's trying, I suppose, to make some sense of things.'
Most writers procrastinate but you can feed your inner writer with good things. Stephen King says that 'writing is at its best - always, always, always - when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer'. If you are struggling to find inspiration, or if you are trying to force a story out of yourself, move away from your desk. Take yourself out for a walk, or to the theatre, or a gig, or an art gallery. Freshen your mind with a good short story by your favourite writer. Hopefully, when you return to the page, you will have something new to offer yourself and your writing will be 'inspired play'.
Writing is an apprenticeship; it takes lots of practice - years and years worth. But hard work and tenacity pay off, so stick with it and you will improve your art and be published. Good luck!
Recommended reading:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft - Stephen King (New English Library, 2001)
Self Editing For Fiction Writers - Browne & King (Harper, 2004)
Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story - Vanessa Gebbie (ed.) (Salt, Nov 2009)
The Portable Creative Writing Workshop - Pat Boran (New Island, 2005)
Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular - Rust Hills (Mariner Books, 2000)
Making Shapely Fiction - Jerome Stern (WW Norton, 1991)
This essay first appeared on writing4all.ie in 2010.