The universe of storydom

Where do writers get their ideas from? I wish I knew, I’d be queuing up all night. If my own experience is anything to go by, the trigger or prompt for a story – what Nabokov called the ‘throb’ of an idea – can come from anywhere: something you see, hear, read, think, remember, imagine. It seems beyond conscious control. It simply happens (or, more often, doesn’t).

Take a story of mine, ‘Pasterity’, that’s just been published in a book called Horology, a collection of fiction and poetry on the theme of time. The idea for that story came while watching Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In the movie the Woody Harrelson character, Gil Pender, finds himself in 1920s Paris, where he meets Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali and others. At one point he gives Gertrude Stein the manuscript of his novel-in-progress to read, which she later returns to him with a brief critique.

It was then I had an idea. How much better it would be, I thought, if the roles were reversed, if Fitzgerald, say, gave Gil the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to read and if Gil returned to the present day to find he still had the manuscript with him. More than that, if the manuscript of Gatsby was the only copy that existed and so it had never been published, was lost to posterity. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting plot? How is Gil to restore the manuscript to Fitzgerald? Or perhaps he should publish it himself: Fitzgerald’s vanished masterpiece, miraculously rediscovered. He might even consider passing the novel off as his own.

It wasn’t much but it was enough. Swap 1890s London for 1920s Paris and HG Wells’s The Time Machine for Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, add lucid dreams and premonitory dreams to the mix, find a way of bringing in An Experiment With Time by Wells’s wacky friend, the philosopher JW Dunne, and I might have something. By the time the story was finished it bore little resemblance to Woody Allen’s movie. It was a story in its own right.

I suspect this is how a lot of stories are born, by being bounced off other stories (like the Shakespeare re-imaginings mentioned in my last post or like my own ‘The Book of Ands’, which I bounced off Borges’ ‘The Book of Sand’). The universe of storydom resembles a giant extended brain, with trillions of interconnections between its billions of cells and each interconnection unique.

The long and the short

Most flash fiction, especially the shorter variety (say, 500 words or less), tends to focus on a particular moment in time, a single scene involving just a couple of characters in a narrowly-defined setting. This makes sense: 300-500 words isn’t a lot and you can’t be expected to squeeze a multi-scened story into such a cramped space.

However, I like to go against the grain, to see whether the form can accommodate a longer-style narrative spread over days, weeks, months, even years. For example a story of mine called ‘First’ – runner-up for the 2014 Fish Flash Fiction Prize – tries to tell the story of a whole life by the use of a series of brief annotated headings: Breath, School, Girlfriend, Job, Miscarriage, Affair, Suicide attempt etc.

Along similar lines I’ve just written another short piece which attempts to recount the story of a single day in a character’s life, a sort of micro-Ulysses if you will. No idea if it will be published – inevitably such a story involves more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ – but I’ve entered it for Reflex’s latest flash competition, which comes with a first prize of £1000.

I’ve also recently written two much longer stories, which I’m currently looking for a home for. But at roughly 17,000 words (50 pages) and 8,000 words (25 pages), these will be fiendishly difficult to place, especially the former of these. Fiction that falls between, say, 10,000 and 30,000 words is perhaps the hardest of all to get published (I’ve had two such stories published online, at WriteThis and Long Story Short, but nothing of that length in print). And this is a shame because such stories, once published, can often become classics. For example, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, The Little Prince and A Christmas Carol all come in at under 30,000 words and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is closer to 20,000. Size isn’t everything.

Returning to the subject of show versus tell, I’m halfway through Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, and am disappointed to find it heavily weighted in favour of the latter. As a result my attention is flagging. Smith is a writer I very much admire – I loved White Teeth and found all three of her other novels enjoyable reads – but my patience is wearing thin with Swing Time.

It’s the story of two mixed-race dancers born in London and the way their lives dip and swirl around each other over the succeeding decades in their own kind of slow-motion dance. For the first hundred pages or so I was firmly onboard – well-observed, smart, wise, Smith can write the socks off most contemporary British novelists – but increasingly it seems to be descending into a more discursive mode, telling rather than showing. This isn’t helped by the book’s weird paragraph structure, where a single paragraph often extends to two or three pages. Why Smith chose to present the book in this way I have no idea – perhaps she wants to be Proust – but it makes things tough for the reader, who longs for a little breathing-space. Needless to say, Swing Time has received ecstatic reviews.

As far as novels I’ve enjoyed recently are concerned, I’d recommend all of the following:

Ian McEwan’s wonderful, magisterial Nutshell, a modern retelling of Hamlet narrated by a foetus.

Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, another retelling of Shakespeare, this time The Taming of the Shrew (there’s a whole series of these – next on my list is Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest). All Tyler’s novels are terrific and this is no exception, having all her characteristic wit, concision and deceptive simplicity.

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, anatomising a near-future America riven by social and economic collapse. Demanding at times, it’s still a powerful and brilliant dissection of the zeitgeist.

Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, a short novel set in 1924 and consisting essentially of one long scene between a housemaid (and future writer) and the soon-to-be-married scion of an upper-class family, with whom she’s having an affair. Never previously a big fan of Swift’s, this book won me over.