Ryan O’Neill knows how to write a short story. His fiction has appeared in The Best Australian Stories, The Sleepers Almanac, Meanjin, New Australian Stories, Wet Ink, Etchings and Westerly. His work has been shortlisted for the Age Short Story Prize and he currently teaches at the University of Newcastle.
This month, we are publishing Ryan’s new collection of stories, Their Brilliant Careers. A playful set of linked stories, this comic tapestry of the writing life takes Australian writing in a whole new direction. In this revised version of one of our most popular articles, Ryan shares his secrets for novice and experienced short story enthusiasts alike.
A few years ago I spent a lot of time looking for writing tips to use in one of my short stories called, “Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story”. One thing I discovered is that just about every writer who has ever lived has some advice to give on writing, and that it’s very rare for any two writers to give the same advice. In fact, most of the time they contradict each other. At the risk of adding to the confusion, I’d like to offer my own suggestions to help in writing a short story. However, it should be borne in mine that any writing tips, whether from Kurt Vonnegut or Dan Brown, may best be taken with a pinch of salt because what worked for them (and me) might not work for you.
1. Get into a routine.
This is the dullest of writing tips, but I believe it’s the most useful. The best writers are the ones who write. By this I mean they don’t talk about writing, they don’t email their friends about writing, they don’t look up writers on Wikipedia, they don’t update their Facebook pages on the new story they are working on, they don’t tweet about their latest draft. They sit down every day and write. If it’s a thousand words, great. If it’s a hundred words, great. If it’s a dozen words, great. But they write.
I have a theory that it is impossible to write a decent short story unless you have read a lot of great short stories. Try to read as many short stories as you can, and not only from contemporary writers. Read Poe, Maupassant, James, Chekhov, Carver, Mansfield, Borges, Woolf, Kipling, Barth, Salter, O’Connor (Frank and Flannery), Salinger, Yates, Jolley and Greene. These men and women are the greatest teachers a short story writer can have. You’ll learn all you need to know about structure, characterisation, setting, plot and everything else, and you’ll also have a great time. With any luck, something of their stories will stay with you when you write your own.
3. Don’t look back until the first draft is complete.
The most important thing to do is to get the first draft down. It doesn’t matter if it’s terrible. All first drafts are terrible, more or less. There will be plenty of time to fix problems later. (See tip no. 5.) Don’t fall into the trap of endlessly writing and rewriting the first paragraph, and never progressing any further. Even if you think it’s awful, hold your breath, grimace, and write on. A dreadful first draft can become a great story. An unfinished draft can’t become anything.
4. Nothing should be sacred in your story.
You may have started a story to explore a certain theme, or had a fantastic idea for a certain scene, or to showcase a great character. But stories can grow in unexpected ways, and though you may think that this scene, or theme, or character is absolutely essential, it may not be. Sometimes there are parts of a story, no matter how well written, that become redundant as the story is redrafted. You may be convinced that a particular scene is critical to your story, but if you are stuck, try taking it out. Paradoxically, when you remove good writing from a story, it can, on occasion, make the story even better.
And rewrite. And rewrite. If you think you have finished your story, you haven’t. Read it again, and rewrite it. Read it backwards, and rewrite it. Read it aloud, and rewrite it. Sing it, and rewrite it. Give it to a friend to read, listen to their feedback, then rewrite it. Cut and paste every paragraph onto a page of its own, and rewrite it. Congratulate yourself on finally getting to a stage where nothing in the story can be improved. Then go over the story once more and find something to improve. Rewrite it until you are physically repulsed by the very sight of it. Only then is it finished. (Maybe.)