Where There's Method...
Ahead of the official launch of The Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction in Paris at the end of the month, here's an extract from Tamsin Hopkins' fascinating and revealing article in the Review investigating her approach to writing short fiction…
I have different routines for the three basic stages of writing a piece of fiction, which I define as: finding the 'stuff' of stories, understanding what I've written, and polishing it up. For the first stage, there's no way round it, even if you've been ruminating on an idea in your head—you just have to write. If I'm not feeling particularly fluent, I try to ignore that and write anyway. Starting a story goes two ways for me: Disciplined and Undisciplined. The Disciplined approach is best. Probably.
Undisciplined goes like this: I work my routines, such as writing first thing in the morning, special pen, same brand of coffee and a favourite candle, but I have no set ideas or aims. I'm trawling for material through the caves of the unconscious to see what I dredge up. Anything is acceptable. This gets messy but I like it. I can usually come up with ideas but the real question is how do I know which ones are any good? I won't know that for some time, although I can tell early on which ones really don't have traction. Usually. I'll find a topic and go with it, no self-censoring and stories do come to light but I might like a nugget in one and take that to run with for another story, which means the first one goes off the boil and won't get finished. If I'm doing Undisciplined, it means I have to be disciplined in letting myself do that flitting about for a while. At some point I will find I've written however many thousand words which I'll want to develop.
How do writers fish for their material, keelhaul the imagination, dredge up the good stuff? Nobody really knows but I do the usual things to get going—I cluster and freewrite about nothing or anything, or about something specific, until something snags and then joins up and I'm off, no thinking where it's going or how long the story will be. It's not very efficient, as I have a lot of unfinished stories. I don't chuck them out though. Like all hoarders of fiction, I have confidence knowing they're there, a composting mulch of something indefinably peaty.
I also use prompts. There was one book with pictures and photos I responded well to but I lent it to someone and that was that. It's out of print now. I have several of those books with daily exercises and prompts to work through ('Imagine your best friend is a fireman. Now write how the fire feels etc, etc'). They don't do it for me somehow—I complete the tasks and move on. I am now in the process of compiling my own prompt books, or at least it's on the list and there's a large notebook and some pictures in a box with scissors and a Pritt stick. The plan is to make scrap books of things I'm drawn to (not long research articles—more immediate things like pictures, aphorisms, etc) which should in theory touch on 'stuff' which have been percolating deep down for some time.
The other thing I have used successfully are Tarot cards. When I was writing 'Sand Tranny' for Shore to Shore, I had a Tarot reader as the main protagonist and soon realised I would need to know how to read the cards in order to write well about them. You can tell if people are faking such things. Call it imposter syndrome but I have a personal rule: no bullshitting about facts. Possibly, I'm too scared too, I'll be making enough up as it is. I have to do research for my stories, I can't just wing it. I found a reputable tarot course. Enjoyed it. Then I did another. Now I know what the cards mean but I don't find them so good for storytelling anymore because the iconography prompts pre-set responses and the imagination is not as free, or not in the same was as before. What I used to do is this: turn one over, write down who the character is. Turn over another, write down what has happened—just by letting my mind range over the images and seeing what occurs to me. Next card—who's the antagonist? Anytime I was stuck, I'd turn over a card. But only one per question. It was good while it lasted.
Mavis Gallant used to inhabit a vision or idea and let it speak to her. Tessa Hadley advocates this method and I've found it produces good and dense writing. You can't force the pace though. The image may only transmit small amounts at each sitting. Or, that's all mine can.
That was the Undisciplined approach. If I'm doing Disciplined, then I'm writing to order. I still have my routine: show up—at the same time every morning—at the fiction place (the poetry place is elsewhere in the house, a different bookshelf, a different desk). Writing to order might mean writing to an external deadline or prompt but it can be self-imposed. I use the same processes to generate ideas but I already focus on how long the story will be (doesn't always work) and what it needs to be about (also doesn't always work). If I don't get what I need, I keep showing up at the desk for another story until I do. I wrote some of my river stories like that. Two of them are long—novellas really (without haggling over the definition)—and were written in a series of sessions with the arc pre-planned.
The central story in Shore to Shore is a novella called 'Cenotes' (freshwater sinkholes), about cave diving in the Yukatan peninsula which hinges heavily on Mayan mythology. That story is eighteen thousand words long and took over a month to get a decent draft writing most of the day, every day. It was written in rough notes whilst spending some time in Mexico and I knew I had something which I wanted to include in the collection but I couldn't get it to gravitate the top of my work pile and the publication deadlines were looming and I knew it still wasn't in its right shape. I had to be very fierce with myself about that one and write nothing else until it was done. It was planned and re-planned, shape and curves plotted, character studies and dialogues written out until I had something like an exam revision timetable with daily goals for writing and re-writing. This was the most forceful I've ever had to be with myself. It absolutely proved the adage that you must to show up, every single day and stay there until you're done. And it worked. People often tell me it's their favourite story.
I always do character studies and often do location research to ground the story. I do a lot of research generally. For 'Inundation' (an allegorical story written in a week when I was completely out of my mind with flu), I had previously researched all the sewerage issues and the tidal parts of the Thames, visited the Thames Barrier, checked which fish and plants can exist in which sections of the Thames and what the invading organic threats to the local ecosystem are, as well as researching over thirty mermaids and international river deities. It was fascinating.
After getting some sort of story into some form of existence comes the process of understanding what I've written and this is tricky. It can go on for a long time, sometimes years. Even the ones written to order can be about something other than what I thought the main focus was. When that happens, you can only hope to discover it in time. You write about a preoccupation and find that somewhere along the line you've edited it out and gone in a different direction. This is often a good thing and the story will be less obvious. Sometimes, somebody else tells you what the theme is and you recognise something about your own writing which you hadn't seen before. Or a character is lopsided and doesn't sit well but you don't know why until you realise what he wants you to change—his motivation is off, his dialogue isn't right, something is out of kilter with the whole story. I recently wrote a piece of flash in the voice of a young woman's boyfriend who was being bullied by her father but I couldn't get it to work properly. One time, when I was editing it and polishing away, knowing it still wasn't working, I realised it wasn't her father but her ex who had a problem with my hero. A few changes here and there and everything clicked into place. That A-ha moment.
Often, it's the ending that's not right and I'll probably assume this is the case until proven otherwise. Once I've caught on and changed the red light being thrown back up the story to a green one, everything improves. But endings are a huge area and one I find unsettling. I'll move them backwards to an earlier position, or extend them forwards by staying with the characters a little longer, or cut the structure up so the timing of the story changes to accommodate an ending I want to try. I often have several different possible endings to a story, which really means several different versions or similar stories to choose from, because other things will have to change elsewhere to accommodate those differences. If in doubt, trust to instinct and look at it again another time.