Mastering the short story

Thursday, June 14, 2018
Laurie Steed interviewed by Sharona Lin

PHoto of Laurie Steed
Laurie Steed

Just because they’re short, doesn’t mean short stories are easy to write. Award-winning short story author Laurie Steed is runs short story courses for those seeking to improve their mastery of the form.

Ahead of his upcoming online Intermediate Short Story clinic, Laurie shared some of the short story knowledge he has developed over the years with Sharona Lin.

You’re an award-winning literary fiction writer – how did you start writing what you write now? Do you have a particular writing routine you stick to?

I always liked Amy Espeseth’s afterword in her 2012 novel Sufficient Grace that she had written only ‘the story she was given to write’. My life to this point often gives me pause for thought. I believe that it’s not always the traumatic events that influences writers to start writing, more a need to better understand the world in which they find themselves. In this respect, there’s much I do not understand. With each story, I come closer to understanding, I think. In writing, there’s much scope to see things one might otherwise remain blind to for months, years at a time.

During my PhD I’d work each weekday from 9-5, and some Saturdays too. I now have a baby boy, so my routine has had to be more flexible. With that said I still write three days a week minimum, with Saturdays again being most often the day I truly clear my head and am able to give my writing everything I have.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt when it comes to writing short stories?

I think it’s important to be brave, vulnerable, and to be let the story head in new and exciting directions in the process of revision. There are many good, competent, or otherwise valid stories in this world. There’s far less innovative, iconic and unforgettable short fiction. As such, I try, wherever possible, to aim high, in the hope of surprising myself and the reader.

How much do short stories really differ from longer stories, apart from length?

That depends. If you’re talking about how much short stories differ from novels or novellas then there’s much to set them apart. In terms of longer short fiction, it’s often a question of scope. In his book Memory Wall, Anthony Doerr creates mini-masterpieces, which, by accepted standards, are still longer than most traditional short stories in terms of their word length. They also often chart longer timeframes and more intricately weave certain symbols throughout the narrative. From there we should also consider flash fiction, which hones focus so sharply on a moment or incident that a short story seems positively verbose by comparison.

In each case there’s a need for a memorable, identifiable character. And there’s often a moment of literal or emotional progression…or not, if that’s the point of that particular story. As writers of the short form, we’re perhaps the closest thing left to visual artists in the literary sphere: in the shorter form, it’s allowed, if not encouraged to intelligently break the rules in pursuit of a more powerful narrative.

Can you explain what the “third option” is, and its application to narrative?

The third option is a term first brought to my attention by short story writer and teacher Sean Ennis during the Advanced Fiction online workshop through Zoetrope: All Story Magazine. In layman’s terms, it’s about finding an interesting and innovative midpoint between the two extremes of narrative progression.

Let’s take a traditional ‘boy-meets-girl for a blind date’ scenario. The first option would be that the date goes well. The second option has a chaotic, catastrophic and wholly unfulfilling first meeting. What would be the third option?

It might be that the man is or was a woman, or is halfway through changing from one gender to the other. Perhaps their first date is where one of the people first met their ex-wife, or broke up from their last boyfriend or girlfriend. Or they’re meeting, unbeknownst to them, on a day in which the world, their world, or their way of life irrevocably shifts.

These are all just examples of course but hopefully they give some small idea of how this third option opens up narrative possibilities that were otherwise hidden beneath those familiar narratives and experiences that have already been charted in films, television and literature.

A common piece of advice for writers is to read a lot of what they want to write. Do you have any recommendations of great short story writers – contemporary or classic?

My own favourites are fairly diverse. I read of a lot of Etgar Keret, Lorrie Moore and Peter Goldsworthy’s short fiction when I first started writing. Soon after I found JD Salinger’s Nine Stories and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, as suggested by Sleepers Publishing Creative Director Zoe Dattner. To this day, they’re two of my favourite short story collections: exquisitely rendered tales of longing and loss that, once read, are difficult, if not impossible to forget.

More recently, I’ve been heartened to watch the short form flourish in Australia. In this respect, I very much enjoyed Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart, Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing, Jennifer Mills’ The Rest is Weight, Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat, Patrick Cullen’s What Came Between, Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Inherited by Amanda Curtin, An Unknown Sky and other stories by Susan Midalia, Heat and Light by Ellen Van Neerven and Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke.

What would be your advice for aspiring short story writers?

My most practical advice to any aspiring short story writers would be to take your work incredibly seriously, and to not take yourself too seriously. The path of the short story writer is littered with moments of mortification, be they an incorrectly attributed piece (to this day I am not and will never be Laurie Clancy), a reply that never comes, or a reading to a room filled with people who came for the free wine, the heater, and the hope of talking to someone far more important than your good self.

In all of this, the work is what’s most important. If you aim high in terms of how you want your work to succeed, then that’s perhaps your greatest triumph. The pursuit of your name in print is a natural if fairly primal urge, to be endured and at times celebrated. But that alone will not sustain many in the long run. Far more important is a willingness to write bravely and intelligently of complex subjects; to write your truth, in your words, from your experience; to connect with your readers; to earn their trust; to echo their world, thoughts, hopes and fears.

About Laurie Steed

Laurie Steed is an author of award-winning literary fiction from Perth. His stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in Best Australian Stories, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island, The Sleepers Almanac and elsewhere. He won the 2012 Patricia Hackett Prize for Fiction and is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from The University of Iowa, The Sozopol Fiction Seminars, Varuna, Writers Victoria, The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre and The Fellowship of Writers (WA).

About Sharona Lin

Sharona Lin is the Program Intern at Writers Victoria. She is the founder and editor of Pop Culture-y, and also has opinions on Twitter.