So, via Neil Gaiman’s blog, I read a short interview done with Paul Cornell, on the SFX magazine web-site. It’s an interesting little interview, and I enjoyed it. I ike Paul Cornell. I’m not actually a fan of Doctor Who (I’m not NOT a fan; I’ve just never actually watched it, that’s all) but he does Captain Britain whose first issue was terrific (for the ten minutes it was available before selling out) and I like him. He has a nice blog too.
But back to the interview.
It’s interesting, because I quoted a single part of it to a friend in e-mail and said, “i don’t work like this at all. I work almost exactly opposite,” and it was true. And then I continued on reading the interview and realized that he and I stand contrary on almost every single point, with regards to short story writing, my most favoritest field of writing.
Which, I hasten to add, is not the same as me saying he’s wrong in his working method. No more than I’m saying I’m right. It’s just an interesting difference.
SFX: Can you just sit down and bash out a short story if you’ve got a good idea?
Paul Cornell: “You can do, if you’re willing to keep chucking pages of stuff that you suddenly realise don’t go anywhere. Some really bad, and usually unpublished, stories are the ones where the writer isn’t willing to do that chucking, so has to conjure an ending up out of what they’ve already written, whether or not it works. That reads like bad improv. If you plot first – and with a short story that could just be knowing what the ending is – then you’ll only have to chuck lots of little plot paragraphs as you replot, and not piles of prose as you rewrite.”
I disagree. Or at least, I don’t work that way (which is hardly the end of the world). I’ll usually have a short story idea — sometimes an ending, sometimes not, sometimes nothing but a title and an opening line — and I’ll go from there. It’s not total improv, not all the time. I have a story in my head now where I have the ending and I have the gray shapes of the things that happen before it. They’ll clarify as I approach. I know, from long experience writing short stories, that the quality of the gray shapes I have is enough to allow me to write the story to completion (whether it’ll be good or bad is another subjective matter entirely).
And further, I don’t really re-write short stories. I’ll modify now and then. Sometimes, if I missed the point, I’ll dump the story and go off and be busy for a week, a month, years, and then maybe do it again if I know how.
Sometimes I DO improv stories. I’m sure there’s at least one person reading this post who can grumpily tell a story about going away from an instant messaging conversation they were having with me, only to return after awhile and discover that, having gotten bored, I wrote half a short story in the chat window. That’s fun. Mostly, it’s just flexing muscles.
SFX: The first draft of a piece of writing is not enough, you have to edit. How do you know when you’ve revised your story enough?
Paul Cornell: “You get a feeling for when you need to stop. I tell you what, though, if you’re reading this thinking you’ve got that feeling: you haven’t, go back and do another draft. You need many drafts. Many drafts. This process is about rewriting, not writing. It’s not about inspiration and dreaming, it’s about craft, like working a piece of wood. Start every new piece of work from the top, editing as you go, and you’ll smooth out the start, which is the most important bit. Keeping in your head a need to say things in the fewest possible words will help too. You’ve noticed you used ‘that’ this time? ‘He saw that she was moving.’ Get rid of it. ‘He saw she was moving.’ (You can always get rid of ‘that’, except when you can’t.)”
Again, with short stories, I don’t tend to work that way. With novels, I wind up doing a fair number of drafts (by me, “fair number” is “anything under three or four” at the extreme most) but with short stories, it tends to get a first draft and a polish. If it needs a second draft, then it probably means I need to re-write the whole thing, bottom-to-top again. It’s a whole piece of cloth, I can’t just cut out bits and sew in new bits. I don’t know how. I have to make a whole new piece of cloth that’s maybe closer to the color I was originally intending, you see?
Anyway, it’s just stuff like that. It was interesting to me, that interview. We agreed in a few places (I agree with his answer to the first question, about hooking the reader, wholeheartedly; and I agree that if you get halfway through a story and a find a better idea, you should start again. And I agree with his explanation of how novels differ from short stories).
And anyway, he’s currently on top of the world with Doctor Who and getting good reviews with Captain Britain’s wonderful comic, so I suspect if you had to listen to one of our opinions, you’d probably want to go with his.
Anyway, that’s my thoughts for the day. So thunked because I’m doing quite a lot of short story work these days for Big Secretive Mystery Project (which, this article being time-stamped to appear on Monday, you may be just about to hear about, or have already heard about). It’s on my brain.
What do you think, then?