Troubleshooting Short Stories … Slowly

 

Writing is one of the few human endeavours where it is possible to be better than you are.
— Fred Stenson

Thing-Feigned2It is possible, through editing.

Writers, according to author and mentor Fred Stenson, fall into two camps: those who like revising, and those who don’t. Stenson confesses in his book Thing Feigned or Imagined: The Craft in Fiction that he once belonged to the latter. He believed in the power of the first draft, the fluency, the propulsion, the headlong rush of it. He wrote his first novel at warp speed, but then he hit a wall. His next novel was rejected, and the next. Meanwhile, those plodding authors–des reviseurs–passed him by. He realized that he could not improve as a writer unless he learned to self-edit.

This book distills the “hindsight discoveries” Stenson has gathered over the years as author of a dozen books about the Canadian west, and since 2001, as director of the Wired Writing Studio at the Banff Centre. Although he speaks to writers, his focus on “troubleshooting” is of obvious relevance to editors.

But there’s a catch: you have to read the whole book. There’s no index, and no quick answers. Moreover, you won’t glean much from the chapters on story structure, characterization, and point of view unless you read the five short stories on which the discussion is based.

Not to fear, however, The stories — by Canadian writers Edna Alford, Greg Hollingshead, Diane Schoemperlen, Rachel Wyatt, and Stenson himself — are delightful.

The book is structured so that we read each story first, for pleasure, followed by Stenson’s analysis of how the elements of fiction work. This takes time, but it reminds me that editors are readers first. So let the stories cast their spell before you pull out your fiction-editing checklist.

Besides the stories, what hooked me was Stenson’s voice — forthright and funny, practical and wise. He’s not prescriptive, but he doesn’t shy away from sharing his beliefs. He even has a chapter on humour, a topic that books on writing fiction often ignore. His number-one rule: the protagonist must have a serious problem and feel real pain.

For writers, Stenson offers exercises at the end of each chapter under the heading “Your Process.” Writers who do the exercises should finish with a short story or two, and the know-how to self-edit.

When I said you have to read the entire book, I lied. If you must, skip to chapters 12 and 13, where Stenson reveals how editing is like “being better than you are.”

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