Write Advice – author Lucy Caldwell discusses short fiction
Short fiction is the form for experimentation and pure creativity, and is allowing a new generation of writers to both break the mould and break into the industry. Here, author Lucy Caldwell talks to our Faber Academy alumni about why she writes short stories, point of view and the drafting process.
Short stories – and my short stories tend to be very short – I can keep alive inside me for as long as it takes to write them. I can concentrate on them. I can, if this makes sense, hold myself open for them.
Q – Hi Lucy, and thanks for joining us. Much of your output is in the form of short stories, but you’ve also published full-length novels. How do you decide what form your writing will take?
LC – Thank you for having me! Since having children (a little over four years ago) I have been writing pretty much only short stories. I have very little writing time, and there’s something about the slog of a novel, the marathon of it, that means you need to plug away at it every day or it just turns to dust and ashes on you. There’s something about having the mental or emotional capacity to contain the entire world of a novel, too, that I just haven’t had.
Short stories, on the other hand – and my short stories tend to be very short, around 2-3,000 words, and rarely longer than 5-6,000 – I can keep alive inside me for as long as it takes to write them. I can concentrate on them, I can, if this makes sense, hold myself open for them. The intensity of them and the intensity of my limited writing life at the moment seem to fit each other. That said, my novels have always been written in multiple parts and sections, different angles, different narrators, which makes them more akin to short stories than is sometimes the case.
As to the form of something, it’s generally there from the beginning for me, inseparable from the story or even idea itself. I have occasionally adapted my own work into different forms – a story into a radio drama, or a play into a radio drama – but I’ve never begun something in one form and switched forms part way through. Being in control of form has always been key for me – knowing the particular limitations and possibilities you’re working with… I’m not a massive planner, as I find that kills the joy of writing, so I trust my subconscious to get me there.
However, with my three novels, and my longer plays, I have always had milestones that I know I’ve needed to hit, and I’ve never started writing before having the ending worked out. Radio is tightly structured because the time limit is so prescribed for you. With short stories, on the other hand – Claire Keegan puts it brilliantly – it’s like freewheeling downhill. You can come to the page with a voice, an atmosphere, an image, and play with it, see where it takes you, see what unravels or unfurls…
I don’t see the short story form as constricting at all – the opposite, in fact. You can be so much freer to experiment, to try things out technically, to go emotionally right to the heart of an idea.
Q – Do you ever find the shorter form constricting in terms of an idea, or ever feel something is worth more in terms of length?
LC – I don’t see the short story form as constricting at all – the opposite, in fact. You can be so much freer to experiment, to try things out technically, to go emotionally right to the heart of an idea… In general, with all my writing, and especially short stories, I cut and cut and cut, and try to hone something back to just what it needs to be and no more.
However, if you write something and it’s tugging to be longer, go with it! If you’re struggling to get started, there’s no harm in writing short stories around your idea, or to explore it – you never know, they might reveal hidden links to you, or become chapters of something. Or maybe you need to get writing to get the story coming. Every writer will have a different way of working, every novel a slightly different way of coming into the world.
Q – Although publications like Mslexia have championed novellas, agents still seem to baulk at the idea, and my agent wants me to lengthen mine to a novel. Would that be a good idea?
LC – I love the novella form. Read Stefan Zweig on its potential, its perfection! It’s tricky to give advice in the abstract. If someone is giving you feedback that something feels too rushed or too elliptical and it needs breathing space or extra words, then listen to them – and test it against your own instincts – but don’t pad anything out for the sake of it.
Novellas are a great form. I’ve mentioned Zweig, and maybe there is more of a European tradition of taking the novella seriously… All you can do is write what you need to write and make it the best you can. It will find its way.
In my second-person stories I wanted to have the sense of a narrator talking directly to the character and the reader as a third party eavesdropping, or the sense of an older version of the character talking back to their younger self, in a this-will-be-ok sort of way.
Q – Do you produce stories intended for collections, or do they come one at a time?
LC – With Multitudes, I knew for years that I wanted to produce a collection, and the world of it was very unified – with a few tweaks I think it could have been published as a sort of novel-in-parts. The collection I’m currently working on is the same – it feels very tight, very unified, a lot about motherhood, in fact. I like to think of the collection as an album and chart the mood, tone, pitch or rise and fall of it as an entirety.
But I also write one-off stories, take on commissions when I think there might be a spark of something there and write many stories that never make it into the collection, or indeed print at all.
Q – At Faber Academy we’re often told to be wary of narrating in the second person viewpoint, but you use it often. What’s your relationship like with the second person?
LC – It’s the POV that infuriates me most, and so of course it is the one that I find myself using most often… I think it infuriates me because when it’s done badly, it feels like the reader is being corralled rather insistently into a corner or shouted at by an overzealous host. However, I find that (bear with me, I hope this makes sense) it can also create a greater sense of intimacy than you’d get in first or third person.
I use first person a lot because I like ventriloquising – there’s the playwright in me coming out. I try to disappear from my writing, and leave the space for the characters, the mood, the rhythms, the spell of it – I wouldn’t call myself a particularly stylish writer, so the thought of third person, where there’s much more of a ‘you-the-author’ telling the story, makes me freeze and feel very self-conscious.
But in my second-person stories I wanted to have the sense of a narrator talking directly to the character and the reader as a third party eavesdropping. Or the sense – in some of them – of an older version of the character talking back to their younger self, in a this-will-be-ok sort of way. It seemed to open up the possibility of greater tenderness in situations when first person narration would have been a lot more brittle, or closed.
I think I’d also say that it’s a case in point that there are no rules! Or rather, learn the ‘rules’ but don’t let yourself be ruled by them. Know when you’re breaking something, and why.
Knowing when to stop is a tricky one. You can overwork something, the way you can dough, so that it becomes stolid and airless and hard and grey.
Q – What is the drafting process like for you? Do you always know when to stop and when your stories are publication ready?
LC – Knowing when to stop… It’s a tricky one. You can overwork something, the way you can dough, so that it becomes stolid and airless and hard and grey. After a while, things sort of close over, too, and won’t let you back in. I couldn’t rewrite my early novels now, even if I really wanted to edit them ahead of a theoretical republication. I can only say I use my instincts and trust my first readers’ and long-term editor’s opinions. I am terrible at wanting something to be finished before it is, and I always have to battle not to send something off the second I have first finished it.
The advice on drafting I would give comes from a Paris Review interview I once read with, I believe, Joan Didion, who got it from Graham Greene – good provenance! I retype absolutely everything with every new draft. Every story, every chapter, every full draft of a play or a novel. So, I don’t make corrections on paper and get someone else to type them up, or the modern corollary, I don’t edit on screen. It’s too easy to let your eye slide over mediocre writing. And also, retyping is the closest you’ll come to encountering your work as a reader, work that’s the product of many different days, moods, work sessions.
Q – Lucy, this has been fantastic. Speak soon!
LC – Thank you!
This question and answer session was held with Faber Academy alumni. Follow the link to learn more about Faber Academy’s Write a Short Story in a Weekend online course, on which Lucy Caldwell is a guest author.