Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Short Stories: An Editor's Advice

The Atlantic is an American magazine with a long and honourable literary tradition. Founded in 1857 by a group of eminent writers that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the magazine now publishes an annual all-fiction issue. One of the things that caught my eye in the latest edition (available on-line now) was the Editor’s Note, in which C. Michael Curtis explains how he selects the short stories included in each issue from the 5,000 or so submitted by hopeful authors. Curtis says he looks for ‘stories with narrative ambition, complex characters, and imaginative use of language.’ As for content, he says he prefers ‘stories that present readers with situations requiring resolution, inviting moral choice, finding ambiguity in life experiences we are tempted to simplify.’

Good advice for any aspiring writer, I’d say. But if that's not enough, check out Tim O'Brien's excellent article on how to write a successful short story, in the same issue. There isn't a magic formula. The essential element, according to O'Brien, is a vivid imagination.

And possibly having a pretend tail . . .

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Vonnegut Advice: Short Stories

I haven’t posted for a while, for a variety of reasons too dull to recount. But I happened across this advice from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut on the rules for writing short stories. According to Kurt, the way to write a good short story is to stick to the following eight points:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist.

7. Write to please just one person.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.

‘To hell with suspense,’ he says. Not sure I agree with that last one. Listen to what he says and decide for yourself.