Thoughts on Vanessa Gebbie’s Short Circuit

Sunday travel on East-Midlands trains is a trial, with the journey to St Pancras taking twice as long as during the week. The one advantage of this is that it provides some quiet time for reading. The weekend before last I received my copy of Vanessa Gebbie's new book, Short Circuit, a collection of essays on writing short stories. I read the book over the weekend and finished it on my epic crawl to London.

Short Circuit is a very good book. It was refreshingly free of mysticism, offering practical advice and techniques. Being a collection there are many different voices, some even contradicting one another as Vanessa has pointed out. Not every piece in the book spoke to me, but I don't think it should have done – I imagine every writer could find something useful in this collection. Some of the things I found most interesting are below:

  • My favourite piece was by David Gaffney. Gaffney has written two collections of microfiction, Sawn-off Tales and Aromabingo. Microfictions fascinate me, and I've found homes for a few sub-100 word stories. Not all of my pieces have worked, and Gaffney offers some interesting advice on structuring tiny stories. Most useful was his suggestion to put a microfiction's ending in the middle to avoid the punch-line effect. Great advice, and something I can use in my own work.
  • Alex Keegan's piece, '24: The importance of theme' was very interesting, starting with a discussion of theme, then discussing how theme can be explored through the use of character. It's a compelling argument, and gave me some ideas for fixing a few stagnant stories.
  • Elaine Chew talks about the epiphany ending for short stories, "sudden or dawning change upon or realizations of inner truth for a protagonist based on the events of the story" Chew questions how realistic an approach this is, how such stories often rely on time stopping as the character is changed. With such an ending the reader does not see any resulting change in the character's actions. Using a story by Lorrie Moore as a model, Chew suggests a series of epiphanic footprints are more realistic, "the dribble-down effect of a life-changing realization."
  • Paul Magrs essay was fun, a quirky list of thoughts on creative writing, written at the end of a term teaching workshops
  • The most fascinating piece was Sarah Salway's discussion, 'Stealing Stories', particularly in light of the scandals this summer. Salway focusses on stories heard from family and friends, or found in newspapers. In her introduction, however, she quotes TS Eliot's line that "Mediocre writers borrow, great artists steal", comparing such theft to stealing a car: if the car is stripped down or resprayed, it will be unrecognisable to the original owners. Which seems to support the view that theft, particularly of virtual goods, doesn't count if no-one notices that a crime has been committed. It's a fascinating and provocative essay, which amusingly practises what it preaches.

Short Circuit is a fun book. It's certainly given me more techniques to work with than most writing manuals I've read. Well worth the time.

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