A. S. Byatt demonstrates the art of short story writing

The Story of the Eldest Princess, by A.S. Byatt is a fairytale.  Because the genre has been so successfully packaged for children for the past three hundred years, it is often forgotten that the original audience for these oral tales would have included adults, and that the tellers would have adapted their material to suit the circumstances of their listeners.

Yet writers have not forgotten.  Many of our best-loved fictions have fairytale characters and situations embedded in them.  Some are easily recognised, many are artfully reworked.

Occasionally writers celebrate the form openly.  Apart from their entertainment value, these stories provide us with an opportunity to study the craft.  Comparing and contrasting the approaches helps us expand our understanding of the endless writing possibilities.

DSCF4470 bSo, in this story A.S. Byatt  tells of what happens when the sky turns from the usual blues to a variety of shades of green.

In the early days the people stood in the streets and fields with their moths open, and said oh, and ah, in tones of admiration and wonder.

After a while though the novelty wears off, and the population look for someone to blame.  The buck stops, of course, with the King and Queen.  They consult with various minions, both ministers and witches and wizards, until finally someone thinks up a Quest.  Since it ‘was a positive action, which would please the people, and not disrupt the state’ that’s the solution they settle for.  The second princess volunteers, but:

The King said he thought it should be done in an orderly manner, and he rather believed the eldest Princess should go, since she was the first…Quite why that mattered so much, no one knew, but it seemed to, and the eldest Princess said she was quite happy to set out that day, if that was what the council believed was the right thing to do.

So she set out.  They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.

At this point, the princess pauses, and does what all the best adventurous heroes in fairytales do, considers her situation.

 She began to think.  She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess.  This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests.  What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.

She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.

She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

We, of course, are by nature reading writers, which means that we too have read a great many stories, hopefully many of them in the fairy genre, and so we too recognise this pattern.  This, we realize, is the moment when the narrative may break away from expectations, so that the questions of what, why and how can be freshened up.

Hmm, interesting, isn’t it?

An exercise to try for the fun of it – not for the claustrophobic.

A poet-friend of mine has been in hospital for seven and a half days, and expects to stay there another week.  ‘Four wall sickness applies,’ Mike says.  I’ve not heard this expression before, but think I get the gist.  She says that what’s keeping her sane are books and her laptop.

One friend has offered to bake her a cake with a file in it, which set me thinking about the nature of our reading escapes.  I’ve travelled through space and time thanks to stories: I’ve also escaped from some tedious travelling experiences in the same way.

There are many valid questions we can ask ourselves about technique and theory in writing.  Those tend to be specific, and engaging with them can help us to progress.

One of the commonest question that comes up in both my reading and my writing groups is, What makes a good story?  I think this is an inspiration-blocking question for writers.  The possible answers are as varied as the number of readers who are out there.

But, here’s a fifteen-minute exercise that comes off the back of it.  The aim is not to think too hard about this, just go where inspiration takes you.off the camera hard-drive 020

  1. Imagine you are imprisoned.  Your bodily needs are catered for, but you are held within a small cell with nothing but plain-painted walls to look at.  You have not committed a crime, so you have no need to worry about trials or punishments.  You have no pens, pencils or instruments to scratch words into surfaces or dig your way to an escape.   What faces you is time and idleness.
  2. As a special dispensation, you are allowed three reading books.  Which titles would you chose?  List them: they’re yours now.
  3. Time passes, and you’ve read every word of them, including all of the publication details.The walls are as bare as ever.  You’ve done handstands against them and meditated.  You’ve bounced on the mattress until your legs turned to jelly, and there are still hours and hours of light-time when you’ve nothing to do.  What sort of book would it take to transport you out of this situation?
  4. List a few subjects.
  5. Since you have so far been a model prisoner, your guard is pleased, and decides to give you a treat.  When you wake up one morning you find a cardboard box has been placed in your cell.  It contains four paperback novels by authors you’ve never heard of.
  6. Invent names for the authors.
  7. Chose one author.  What is the title of their novel?
  8. Do the same for the other three.
  9. Which title sounds most intriguing?  Name the main characters in it.
  10. Write a short synopsis – one paragraph – for this title.
  11. Now write a list of titles for the chapters within the book.

Well done.  You have just completed a rough plan for a novel.  Who knows, you may have been inspired to start writing it in full.

You are free.  The walls of your prison have disappeared.  All you need to travel now is your notebook and pen/ laptop.DSCF5507

Happy writing.

What happens next?

So you’ve started a new story.  The characters are in an interesting situation and you’ve ideas about what will happen to them.  Great, stop reading this and get writing.

It’s wonderful when you’re on a role, isn’t it?  Ideas spilling out so fast you can barely get them written down in time.  Going with first instincts can feel like an adrenalin rush. Events build to a climax, and wow, you’ve got an ending.  Phew, what a feeling that is.  It all worked out.

Or did it?  When you go back to your writing after you’ve cooled off does it still please you?

The best test you can make of your writing is to attempt an impartial view of it.  Ideally, we follow the principles of the best wine makers, and once the fermentation process is complete and the words are sealed in their cask, or bottles, we put them away to mature while we start work on our next batch.  In writing terms, this means read other writers, or start on a new project.

Fragment from Hector Hanoteau, (1823 - 1890) The Wine Taster.

Fragment from Hector Hanoteau, (1823 – 1890) The Wine Taster.

Ideally it is much, much later that we go back and taste that earlier vintage.  I think we need at least a week, preferable a month (maybe several) before we get good distance.

I realize that this is far from realistic.  Mostly we’re creating pieces of writing for specific deadlines, and we can’t allow that kind of time.  If we’re lucky someone else will proof-read for obvious errors (if really lucky, they might provide some criticism, and we might have time to consider it) and then we submit it.

Considered criticism is good, you can’t have enough input from ‘ideal-readers’ (see Stephen King definition).  Okay, we don’t all have access to trustworthy readers.  Too many of us have only good-intentioned love ones who offer unconditional enthusiasm.

For the ambitious writer though, this critique period is no time for kindness.  What’s needed is the cool ruthless quest for story.  Have you pushed the characters to their limits?  Have you explored enough angles on the situation to be certain that the one you’ve chosen is fully exploited?

It can be hardest to tell this when you are still emotionally connected to the writing.  So I suggest you dig back through your files for something that is at least a year old.  Ideally, chose something you either submitted, or planned to submit: something that when you see the document title, you can barely remember what it was about.

Forget who wrote it.  Read it, objectively.  There’s no room for pride or embarrassment, you are about to critique your work.  Not sure how that works?  It’s easy, just keep asking yourself questions.  Here are a few you might start with:

  • What do you think of the first line?
    • Does it make you want to read on?
    • Are you intrigued or enticed by it?
  • Are the characters believable?
    • Do you care what they say?
    • Are you happy to be spending time with them?
    • Did you care about what happened to them?
  • Is everything that happens in the story world believable?
    • Or, are you irritated by how things happened?
  • Would you be happy to recommend the story to another reader?
  • Do you wish something more had happened in the story, even if you don’t know what it was?

Clearly this is a general rather than specific approach to story-reading.  Questions should arise from the text, rather than from a random list.

If there is one question above all others that matters, it’s the last one.  Not because I’m assuming there must be changes you should make, rather because it can help to give you confidence in your writing if you feel you’ve fully explored other possibilities.

Some thoughts on why writers should read fairy stories

This week I’ve been reading The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, by A.S. Byatt.  It’s both the name of a collection of five fairy stories published in 1995, and the title of the last story in that collection.  I could discuss the whole book.  There’s a lot going on between these pages, but in the interests of brevity, I’ve decided to focus on the title story.

the-djinn-in-the-nightingales-eye-2To be picky, this one is probably closer to being a novella than a short story, though since the definitions for either of these modes of writing seem to be flexible who am I to quibble?  Besides, for writers who don’t have to confine themselves to competition or submission guidelines, I suppose the whole classification by word-count thing is irrelevant.

What matters is quality.  Well, in my humble and only slightly biased (slight being an entirely subjective unit of measurement of course) opinion, each story in this collection is a gem.

The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye begins with a traditional fairy-story phrase, and then goes on to list the usual trappings: the dreams that initiate quests, the magical attributes that enable the protagonist to overcome hurdles, and the amazing wonders that materialize along their way.

Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jeweled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.

Think about it, that ‘Once upon a time.’  It’s ageless, isn’t it?  It is the start of a thousand and more tales that trace their lines back beyond the moment of writing to firesides and gatherings all around the world.  It’s the link between what got fixed onto pages and the shifting, adapting tales of the traditional bards and storytellers they came from.

Byatt’s narrator first removes our sense of time, and then re-places us, making our view of today slightly aslant.  That repeated ‘when’ keeps us aware we are in the past tense, but her choice of images belongs to the near past.  Airplanes and scuba diving, the study of marine-life, of the variety of our modern diet, these are things we often take for granted.

How does the fairy-story fit into the modern world?  Byatt gives us a protagonist whose ‘business was storytelling.’  She’s an academic, a narratologist:

…whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians.

If you’ve wondered who reads fairy-tales today, Byatt’s just told us.  We most of us do, either through the media or in the pages of our novels.  The stories get updated, twisted a little, and that’s good, isn’t it?  It makes me feel that writers are still connected to the oral tradition, moulding their material to suit the audience.

This is not just a story about reading, it’s a story about telling.  Who tells, how they tell, and what they tell are all included.  If you’re someone who believes that fairy-stories are for children, this story might make you investigate further.  It is an adult tale, both in form and content, and that’s as much as I’m willing to tell you.

If you’re someone who already enjoys a good tale, and you haven’t stumbled upon this one, then why not set yourself the task of reading it?

If you should be a writer in search of a story, this one might make you look back to some of your childhood favourites for inspiration.