For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Writing Habits, Part 1.

Writing Habits, Part 1.

In the weeks since our last installment of advice, authors Marie-Helene Bertino, Jennifer Mills, and Andrew M. Milward discussed their work and recommended short stories. This week they share writing advice.

Writing Through the Days

Hemingway said to stop work everyday when you have a clear sense of what you are going to work on the next day.  When I do this, my work on one day is able to hold hands with the next day, it forges a mental bridge, and I never really leave the creative space while I have dinner, drinks, go on with the business of my life.  So even when I'm not putting pencil to paper, somewhere I am still figuring things out.

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Marie-Helene Bertino

Author of story collection Safe As Houses, winner of 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and longlisted for this year's Frank O' Connor award.

Suicide: Avoiding the Trap

Yeah, suicide’s tricky. Too often, especially for young writers, it’s used as a crutch, an easy way to get out of a story you don’t know how to end while giving it a certain amount of faux-gravity. In general, it’s far more interesting to make your characters live than to kill them off. That said, rules are made to be broken and there are plenty examples of how it can work well, from Faulkner in Sound and the Fury to recent novels like Teju Cole’s Open City and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. Two of the stories in my collection deal with suicide and they illustrate two different ways I handled it. In “Quail Haven, 1989” the suicide happens to the narrator’s father, a periphery character. In “Two Back, 1973” the main character commits suicide, but we know from the first line of the story that he’s going to die. So these are two ways I’ve dealt with it: 1) have it happen to a periphery character so that the suicide doesn’t become the story; it is woven into the narrative through its effect on the main character 2) foreground that you’re going to kill off the character so that, again, the suicide doesn’t become the story or some cheap way to get out of a story. Undercut the surprise that a character is going to die so the focus stays on the character and the narrative doesn’t become overwhelmed or overshadowed by the death.

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Andrew Malan Milward

Author of story collection, The Agriculture Hall of Fame, winner of the Juniper Prize in Fiction.

Observations and eavesdropping

Sometimes I’ll sit on a train with my headphones in but no music playing, just so it looks like I’m not listening. Whole stories can unfold in train carriages. It’s important to pay attention to sensory information, using all five senses, and take notes, because you never know when you are going to need a particular detail. If you don’t write about other people, really listen to how they talk, then all your characters will be versions of yourself, and you might as well go home.

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Jennifer Mills

Novelist, poet, and author of story collection, The Rest is Weight. 2012 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.

Writing Exercise

One I like to do early in the semester with students is to read aloud George Orwell’s wonderful essay “Why I Write” and then have them do their own version. It forces them to think about the big capital-M Meaning questions that are easy to not think about, like: what is fiction, how’s it different from poetry and nonfiction, why do I feel compelled to do it, how has that changed over time, etc.?

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Andrew Malan Milward

Author of story collection, The Agriculture Hall of Fame, winner of the Juniper Prize in Fiction.

Opening sentences

It was the summer I started a joke about short stories with long opening sentences, just after I had passed my undergraduate writing degree with straight distinctions, no prospects, and a voice identical to those of my contemporaries, who like me, spent most of their days drinking and looking out into the street with a notebook, wondering why they couldn’t think of a punchier opening sentence, one that contained just one simple image, a pure image that would introduce the metaphorical world of a story, and instead could only take down notes in streams of consciousness which felt significant, but only because they were the first sally in a battle against the terror of the empty page, the page that threatened to accuse them of having nothing to say...

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Jennifer Mills

Novelist, poet, and author of story collection, The Rest is Weight. 2012 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.

Workshops

Every summer I run a workshop for emerging writers for One Story, and it is modeled after the wonderful workshops I experienced at Brooklyn College.
I learned there that a student should leave a workshop feeling inspired and challenged to revise their work.  It is just as important to hear what is working as it is to hear what is not working as well. We are here to help others get to where they are going, not to where we think they should be going.  So, if you are in a workshop that is too negative, where the atmosphere is toxic and people seem cutthroat, comfort yourself with the fact that this is an atypical, badly managed workshop. That you are still a genius!  Then, find another one.

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Marie-Helene Bertino

Author of story collection Safe As Houses, winner of 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and longlisted for this year's Frank O' Connor award.