One of the first handouts I was given at University was a list of seven points that defined the short story. It had been compiled by Dilys Gater, in her book, Short Story Writing*. At last, I thought, learnable theory I could apply in my writing. Better still, someone else had worked it out for me.
Yet, for several weeks after that I was unable to finish a story outside of class-work. I never lacked ideas, my writers diary was crowded with characters, scenes and fragments of conversation, but they remained notes. I told myself not to worry, I was completing our set exercises on the mechanics of the simple linear plot, and that was what counted.
Until I took my results to the tutorial.
‘It’s got no life,’ my tutor said, handing back my assignment. ‘Start again.’
‘All this work?’
She waved aside my folder of notes and handouts. ‘Count it as background,’ she said. ‘Forget the rules, just write.’
There was less than a week to my deadline. Simmering with resentment I returned to my desk. I had no idea what to write. All I had was my main character. I began a fresh description of him. After all, I had to hand something in. As soon as I started to write him, things began to happen. They were not the situations I had planned, these were exciting.
Ideas flowed off the end of my pen. I had no time to worry about theories, but I was aware, for the first time, that I could see the story shaping as it evolved. I knew how the events were building, even thought I was not sure where they would go. Something wonderful was taking place, I was creating a linear plot as I went along. I was flying.
I understood then that my best writing could not be created using a formula, but knowledge would help me to get the best from my ideas. I recognised parallels to essay writing. Without training I could not have collated my notes into an academic argument. Yet, when I wrote essays I was not consciously following structure, I was following a line of related thoughts, and with practice, that same process would work for fiction. All I need do was concentrate in the right places.
*Short Story Writing (The “Writers News” Library of Writing) published March 1993