There's no time for small talk in short story writing, says Laura Jean McKay. Ahead of her upcoming online Beginner Short Story Clinic, we talk to Laura about what draws her to the short story form.
You have talked about the importance of ‘being active in your writing practice’ – can you elaborate a little on what shape this takes in your writing life?
When I was 12 I realised that the saxophone – the instrument that had sound-tracked the 80s – was never going to go out of style and I took it up, much to the misfortune of… well... everyone. I didn’t even make it through the intro of 'Careless Whisper' before I put it aside (along with the rest of the world).
Writing is very much like learning an instrument. We can all make a honking sound, but to create something interesting takes time, effort and a lot of missed chords. This is especially so with prose. The very act of putting one word after another for thousands of words is time consuming. You need stamina to keep it up and even extra to make it good. Practicing every day or several times a week, even if for only 25 minute bursts, is how to I try to stay active as a writer. That way the story is with me all day, working in my head until I can get back to the page.
What is it about short story writing that inspired you to write so extensively in this medium, as opposed to longer form writing?
Well, I’ve never been very good with small talk. I’m private, but I’d much rather give someone a hug and enquire about the state of their heart and mind than what they do for a living. Probably why I was also hopeless at dating. And very likely why I love the short story. What a straight-to-the-point form! Its history and its future stretches off in either direction but the final version, the bit that gets read is right now: structured, yet intense; present and to the point. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word, every full stop needs to work for a short or it needs to go. There’s beauty in that brevity.
Your upcoming short story clinic is a feedback-based course – what are the key components of constructive feedback?
Feedback is one of the most valuable parts in the writing process. It can be affirming, surprising, challenging and terrifying. There’s no bad feedback, just bad communicators. If someone offers feedback that you don’t like, or don’t agree with, try taking out their words and just highlight the section they’re commenting on. What is it about this part that has pulled the reader up? Is it a great section that just doesn’t belong there? Does the voice falter? Does the dialogue ring true? In turn, when giving feedback, there’s a tendency to feel that you need to provide all answers (I do this). Great fiction asks more questions than it answers, and great feedback does too.
Do you always turn to the same people for feedback on your writing? Have you ever had helpful feedback from a surprising source?
For longer works, I usually have three readers that I was lucky enough to meet through writing courses, festivals and groups. I trust them with my life and my manuscripts, and in turn they sometimes trust me with theirs. These people are brutal in their honesty and wouldn’t let me put something out until it was the best I could make it – that’s why I trust them. I’m extra specially lucky that one of the readers is now my partner, who edits almost everything I produce.
It can be very scary to seek feedback, especially from new people. Recently I was at the Kampot Writers Festival in Cambodia with Sharon May, an author whose work I’ve long admired. Over dinner she asked me about the novel I’m writing (I tried not to hide under the table with fear) and she proceeded to give me all this incredible and much needed advice. I grabbed a napkin and started scribbling.
Are there any particular authors, short stories or collections which have been an inspiration to your writing?
Australian writing has seen another short story collection boom in recent years. I’ve just finished Ellen van Neervan’s 'Heat and Light', which is one of the most extraordinary collections I’ve read. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s 'Foreign Soil', Josephine Row’s 'Tarcutta Wake', Nic Low’s 'Arms Race' and Ryan O’Neil’s 'The Weight of a Human Heart' and are so brilliant. I always have Margo Lanagan’s 'Black Juice', Janet Frame’s 'The Lagoon and Other Stories' (NZ) and Raymond Carver’s 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' (US) within arms reach. Next on my list is Melanie Cheng’s 'Australia Day' – I’ve heard great things!
The short story form lends itself more readily to performance and podcasting than novels – do you think this is providing a new and wider audience for the medium?
The movie 'The Arrival', from Ted Chiang’s short ‘Story of Your Life’ is an example of how the short story can be beautifully adapted – more so, I think, than the novel. There is something about the short story form being such a complete world that it lends itself readily to visual and audio. I would love to see more story readings on radio and podcast and more adaptations into theatre and film. There are so many great shorts out there – come and get them!
About Laura Jean McKay
Laura is the author of ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ (2013), shortlisted for three national book awards in Australia, including the Asher Award in 2015. Her work has appeared in ‘The Best Australian Stories’, 'Award-Winning Australian Writing' and 'The North American Review' and she won the Alan Marshall Short Story Award in 2011. Laura is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.