Minimum words, maximum intensity

Friday, December 1, 2017
Wayne Macauley interviewed by Amy Adeney

Wayne Macauley headshot
Wayne Macauley

"In a short story everything has to be working towards exploring and illuminating your central idea with the minimum words and maximum intensity," says tutor Wayne Macauley. Ahead of his upcoming workshop, we talked to Wayne about what makes a short story great.

In your upcoming workshop, participants will examine what can be achieved in under 2,000 words that can not be achieved in a novel. What is it about the short story form that has lead you to write so extensively in this medium?

I’m primarily interested in the writing of intensity and extremes. I write novels, but even my novels are relatively short. I’ve never been particularly good at big scene and character setting, mountains of backstory. I’m interested in watching what people do under pressure, how they interact with their environment, the way their words, gestures and actions respond to the demands of the moment. So I guess the short fiction form is the one that best suits what I’m going for. In a short story everything has to be working towards exploring and illuminating your central idea with the minimum words and maximum intensity.

Where do you find inspiration for your short stories?

Anywhere and everywhere, and often from the most unexpected places. This is why every writer should keep a diary, journal or notebook of some kind. I’ve kept a journal for decades and it is my most reliable source of story ideas. Something I’ve read in a newspaper or online, something provoked by the fiction or nonfiction I happen to be reading, something observed or overheard, the left-of-field thoughts you get when walking, swimming, cycling, listening to music, cooking dinner, drinking. All these fleeting thoughts, images, ideas—the stuff that rises unbidden from the subconscious—if not captured in the net of words would otherwise escape and be lost. Any writer serious about their craft should carry this net around with them always.

You also work in theatre as a writer and director – does your creative process differ when writing for the theatre, compared with writing prose fiction?

Prose fiction writing is a solo affair; theatre writing is primarily collaborative. One always feeds into the other, but this remains the primary difference. The first means living with yourself and your thoughts for long stretches of time and making many small creative decisions alone, the second means hanging out with people and getting more regular feedback. Also, generally, with prose we tend to become more fixated with perfection ‘on the line’ while with theatre it’s a bit looser, less prescriptive, knowing that there is the intermediary stage of director and actors before the work is actually realised. The last big difference is that, the way publishing works, there is a much slower burn when it comes to finding your public, with reviews and responses spread out over a long period of time. By contrast, in the theatre, script development and rehearsals culminate on opening night where real people are sitting there, watching, listening, responding, and where your reviews are normally out within a matter of days. Also, as a general observation, I think theatre people tend to be of a type who need this instant fix, whereas prose writers generally are more willing to dig in for the long haul.     

Your workshop will also address the current state of short fiction publishing – what are some of the best channels for emerging short story writers looking to have their work published?

The important thing here is that every writer should make their work the very, very best it can be. Only after that should you be thinking about ‘the best channel’ to publication. In other words, don’t put the cart before the horse. As we know, there are lots of new online publication possibilities popping up every day but that doesn’t mean they should be your first port of call. If you believe you have worked hard on your story and that it is the very best it can be, then don’t aim low, aim high. Read high quality fiction, so you can see what high quality looks like. Read widely, and attentively. See what else is being published around you: magazines, journals, anthologies. See what work most appeals to you and why. Locally, look at Meanjin, Overland, Griffith Review, Island, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, the annual Best Australian Stories anthology—to name just a few. My advice is always that it’s better to pitch high and be rejected than to pitch low and be accepted. (If you want to become a better writer, that is.)

Are there any particular authors, short stories or collections which you would recommend to aspiring short story writers?

I would always start with Chekhov: every short story writer could learn at least something from him. And the great thing about Chekhov is that he was so prolific—even taking into account what is available in English there’ll likely be dozens of stories you haven’t yet tried. There’s something to be learned from Hemingway and Carver too, of course, although I am always a bit cynical about their excessive influence over ‘the modern short story’—and the hegemony of stripped-back American realism generally. To counterbalance that I’d read Gogol, Kleist, Poe, Kafka, Schulz, Borges, García Márquez. And, of course, as above, whatever of quality that is being published around you. One contemporary short fiction writer that I’ve been enjoying lately is Lydia Davis. Her most recent collection is Can’t and Won’t (Penguin, 2014), although The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Penguin, 2011) is probably the best place to start.

About Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley is a Melbourne writer who has had numerous works of short fiction published in a variety of magazines and journals. He is a former winner of The Age Short Story Competition and has appeared in the 'Best Australian Stories' and 'New Australian Stories' anthologies. His short fiction collection, 'Other Stories', was published in 2010. He has also published five novels: 'Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe', 'Caravan Story', 'The Cook', 'Demons' and, most recently, 'Some Tests'.

About Amy Adeney

Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.