Taking place across all 33 of London’s library services from February to June 2022, City of Stories Home celebrates libraries as the place to make and share stories in our local communities.
London writers Amer Anwar, Natasha Brown, Jarred McGinnis and Caleb Azumah Nelson have created read, think and do top tips to inspire you to write your own short story on the theme of home.
Top tips on writing your short story by Jarred McGinnis
TIP #1: Write it, Make it Better.
THINK: Just kidding, read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write and https://granta.com/in-conversation-george-saunders-and-natasha-randall/ then think. I want you to think about Georgie Baby’s key points that writing (probably art in general) is iteration plus intuition. That process of being inspired, listening to the pure voice that every tweet, rejection email and creative writing workshop is trying to squish. Quiet all else and write what intuitively you know to be right. That’s Step 1. Step 2 is the iteration. The editing. The going back over and making it better or at least less bad. Then Step 1, Step 2, Step 1, Step ad Infinium or until you can’t stand the story any more. This may take a month, a year, ten years. I told you it’s all uncertainty and dread. Keep working.
DO: Go back to ‘Sticks’. There is not one boring sentence in the lot. Each and every sentence has some oddness or humanity that compels you. Write sentences like these. Don’t worry if there is any sense to them or narrative. Just write a bunch of sentences that have never existed before. Then read what you have done and ask yourself questions about what you’ve written. Is there something you want to know more about? Well, your readers probably do to. That’s what Saunders is talking about when he talks about iteration and revision.
Tip#2: Be precise, Be Concise.
READ: Lydia Davis is about as concise and precise as you get. Here’s her work: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/three-very-short-stories-by-lydia-davis
Even better here is her work and her walking you through the creative decisions that made that work. This is priceless stuff here. To have a writer stepping you through her thought process. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/07/lydia-daviss-very-short-stories/372286/ and https://yalereview.org/article/changing-my-mind where she decides that an early version of 106 words (including the title) is too wordy.
THINK: Concision is MAKING EVERY WORD COUNT. This is particularly true of the short story. It’s the ole chestnuts of not using adverbs, not faffing around with overly long descriptions. Elements of Style makes convincing arguments for why you should swallow those chestnuts. English is particularly fecund when it comes to vocabulary, use it. Precision is SAY WHAT YOU MEAN. This is the main problem with stories I reject when I’m reading for competitions. You should know the world and its characters intimately even if it never gets on the page. That understanding and the ability to draw up details is key. A bird fell from the sky vs. A robin fell from the sky is one word of difference but there is additional fidelity and precision in sentence two, IMO.
WRITE: Write something. Write anything. Then I want you to cut it by 25%. It doesn’t matter how long. Did you write 1000 words? Don’t stop editing until it is 750 words. Cut and rephrase. Think about where you are repeating yourself. Think about where you are being unnecessarily wordy. Doesn’t matter if you wrote 100 words. Cut it to 75. 100000? I want under 75000. How does the story read now? Anything that is really missed or does it still work? If you are really brave, do it again, another 25% gone. See what happens to the story. At what point does it break and no longer carries the meaning you meant.
Tip#3: Follow the basics. Steal from everywhere.
READ: Surely, you’ve read STEPHEN KING, right? Well, here’s some writing tips from him to read: https://www.dorrancepublishing.com/authors-rules-writing-stephen-king/
THINK: King gives you some pretty solid advice here that I’d think you’d find in every bit of the shelves of a bookstore. It’s a bit exhausting to see the false dichotomy of best-selling and literary. As an author you should be looking to steal from everyone. Boring doesn’t make it literature. Reading it in one go, doesn’t make it light.
WRITE: Write outside of your comfort zone. If you write literary fiction, try some genre. What makes genre fiction so popular, so readable, so page turnable? Isn’t that a good thing? If you write genre, what are you missing? Are you sacrificing realistic characters to serve the clockworks of plot? Can you have your cake and eat it too? I want you to be open-minded.
BONUS STEPHEN KING ADVICE
The tie goes to the author. At the beginning of my learning to write, I read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I figured that he might know a thing or two having pumped out a book or two per year for four decades. Largely, I remember the book leaning heavily on Struck & White’s Elements of Style but one great piece of advice was about how do you know what you wrote was right or good or works. Hahahah! You will never know, kids. Uncertainty and dread. Uncertainty and dread. But! There will be times right after you write something that you are sure that you’ve spun gold. Inevitably, you’ll come back to it the next day or a month later and your sparkling prose is a Tesco bag full of mud. To be unsure is to work that much harder to make it better. Only bad writers are full of confidence. King talks about when getting other people’s opinions about your writing. It’s going to be hard to take feedback sometimes. There will be occasions that you are sure it’s right but every reader is flagging something wrong. King says you should probably have a good long look at where people are pointing out problems. Inevitably, they will be wrong about what exactly is the problem. The problem might actually be five pages earlier because you didn’t set up the scene properly. Treat feedback as a sonar ping. A rough idea that something in the general area around where they are pointing there is a snag for the reader. King goes on to describe a situation in which some readers think there is a problem but there are other readers who like it. This is okay. You are inevitably not going to make every reader happy. They all want different things. In these situations, Kings says the tie goes to the author. You are probably okay. It doesn’t hurt to look over the text again to make sure you are indeed happy but Stevie K says, ‘tie goes to the author’.
About Jarred McGinnis
Jarred McGinnis’ acclaimed debut novel ‘The Coward’ was published by Canongate (July 2021). It was chosen for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club and BBC 2’s ‘Between the Covers’ show. In 2021, he was chosen by The Guardian as one of the UK’s ten best emerging writers. He is the co-founder of The Special Relationship, which was chosen for the British Council’s International Literature Showcase. He was the creative director for ‘Moby-Dick Unabridged‘, a four-day immersive multimedia reading of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’ at the Southbank Centre, involving hundreds of participants. He also has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, but mostly he inspires the able-bodied by using public transport and taking his daughters to the playground.
Get involved with City of Stories Home
Read all the short stories and get top tips on writing a short story at: www.spreadtheword.org.uk/cityofstorieshome
Sign up for a free online creative writing workshop at: www.spreadtheword.org.uk/city-of-stories-home-workshops
Enter your story to the competition with the opportunity to be published in the City of Stories Home Anthology, be part of masterclasses and read your story at a celebration event at your local library: www.spreadtheword.org.uk/city-of-stories-home-competition
City of Stories Home is run by London Libraries in partnership with Spread the Word and is supported by Arts Council England and Cockayne Grants for the Arts.
Published 12 January 2022