branches with dewdrops

Anatomy of a short story (Part I)

Writers are often pigeonholed into boxes: poet, novelist, romance novelist, biographer, historian, playwright, screen-writer… Until you’re famous (or at least critically ‘acclaimed’), trying to be a ‘writer’ in a broader sense isn’t going to win you any applause: you have to prove you’re good before people will grudgingly admit that it’s perfectly possible to be a novelist and poet and screenwriter too. And that’s fine – to a point. But there’s a big difference between aspiring to be a good writer across genres and saying you’re already one. Proof is definitely needed before you should go around saying the latter, but the former… Well, what’s the harm in encouraging people to strive to be good at more than one thing? Especially if, at the end of the day, it’s still writing.

Although I see myself primarily as a novelist and script-writer, I’ve recently set myself the challenge of writing some short stories. My goals here are twofold. First, short stories require a much smaller investment of time and energy to write. If I can produce decent work, I’ll be able to build up the publications section of my CV relatively quickly. Second, I want to practice being concise. I have a tendency to write flabby, waffle-y first drafts. It’s not the end of the world as they are first drafts and I do edit them into submission, but it would save a lot of time and energy and angst if my drafts were just a little bit trimmer to begin with. There are even signs that my short story writing efforts are paying off: The Bone Dragon was remarkably light on waffle. If anything, it was too concise (see http://thebonedragon.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/when-is-it-good-to-be-average/ for more on book length issues).

Short story writers sometimes claim that every word must count in their work and this is true: where there are fewer words, one misstep is more significant. But that doesn’t mean that using the right words and cutting out unnecessary ones doesn’t matter in a novel. If you’re doing your level best to write a really good book then of course it counts. You might get away with a bit more in a novel than a short story, but what you can get away with is not the same as what is good.

So on to the first issue when writing a short story: what is it going to be about? Now, there are lots of ways to go about writing a short story (or anything else for that matter). Some people start with plot or an idea or an image or a character or a situation or theme… But at the end of the day the point is that you need to start with something. And, pretty early on, that something needs to coalesce into a decision on what the story is going to be about (unless you’re one of those weird people who can produce good stuff when ‘writing blind’).

I absolutely loathe writing exercises that are narrow and prescriptive (I generally see these as calculated to put insomniacs to sleep), but quite a number of literary magazines have a theme for each issue. Generally, these are fairly broad (and it’s always a good idea to think outside the obvious box anyway) but let’s face it… Certain themes will appeal to only certain people. It’s better to submit to a publication that doesn’t use themes if you’ve got a good piece that doesn’t fit the current theme in a magazine you like than trying to manipulate your story to fitting the theme when it patently doesn’t. Just keep coming back to the publications you want to approach – eventually you’ll find a theme you want to write about.

Since I’m a psychologist by training, it’s perhaps not surprising that a theme based around the word ‘ego’ was one of those that appealed to me recently. This theme, perhaps more than many others, immediately threw up a common hurdle: how was I going to write something unique on this theme that would have a decent chance of getting accepted? In other words, how was I going to stand out from the crowd but in a good way?

Sometimes it seems to me that literary pretences are the way to go in certain publishing circles: making obscure references to little-read texts often wins you brownie points, at least among literary and academic circles. The ‘ego’ theme comes equipped with a host of inbuilt opportunities for this sort of pretentiousness. And, being me, I immediately decided that I wanted to work with that… but in a playful (i.e. contrary) tongue-in-cheek sort of way. From the start, I knew I wanted to bring in Freud’s seminal work but also draw on the cult sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, which combines Freudian theory with plotlines drawn from The Tempest – the hope being that while those with literary pretensions might coo over the Freudian hints, others in the know might smile at the less than ‘high culture’ (a snooty concept I despise) secondary textual references.

On the basis of those quick-fire decisions, the concept for the story politely presented itself, neatly turned out and ready to go. Freud’s theories depend on the relationships between the id, ego and super-ego. Simply put, the id is the unconscious: all our deepest fears, our darkest wishes and desires. It lives in a world of almost pure sensation, sensual and pleasure-seeking, impulsive, living for the moment. The id is what we think of when we think of ego: pure selfishness, all ‘me, me, me’.

 The super-ego is, in many ways, the opposite of the id: it’s our conscience, our sense of right and wrong, our understanding of moral values and social obligations. The super-ego is what makes us altruistic. It’s the ‘we’. The ego is somewhere in-between: it blends the inputs from the id and super-ego and controls our actions and decision-making. It’s part self-interest and part conscience. It’s the ‘I’.

And that’s the basis of the concept for my ‘ego’ story. As for how that played out in practice, please tune in again for Part II, which will arrive sometime in the next fortnight.

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