The best place to start this blog lark is with a quick explanation of its title - why 'Scallops'?  
It came to me in a dream:  short stories are like scallops!  Similes and metaphors don't usually come to me in my sleep, I wish they did,  but on this occasion  I had watched rather too much of Hell's Kitchen before bedtime.  At some point, the wannabe chefs had competed to free perfect scallops from the gelatinous mass inside the shells. Craggy-faced Gordon was not pleased if any scallops had been spoiled in the process which, of course, most were.

A short story should also be small and perfectly formed:  it is the result of the skillful cutting down of a large, slippery concept in to a small, firm morsel of art.  As a writer still learning her craft, I know how easy it is to mutilate a good short story.  But I am hoping I'll get better with practice and - fingers crossed - that'll happen before my face turns too craggy...

Monday, 19 April 2010

Pillars and Bricks

I don't know what compels me, but I always make the mistake of reading my first draft to my fella, which invariably he loves.  But then I blow it later by reading him the latest draft, which invariably he hates and - for someone so easy going - he gets quite cross.

This happened again on Sunday over a very late lunch at Lori's Diner.  After some heated exchanges and much emphatic waving of french fries, he cooled down enough to explain his frustration rationally.  

His analysis was this:  the 'creative dump' of my first draft produces a story with solid pillars but some unrefined brickwork.  In subsequent drafts, instead of tinkering with the bricks, I tear down everything and start again. What I end up with is a technically well-constructed facade that masks what has ultimately become a flimsy story.  Somehow, in the crafting process, I destroyed the interior strength that existed in the initial rendering of the story.

The story that prompted this outburst is Guinea Pig.  Swallowing my pride and admitting he was right,  I went back to rediscover what it was that drove the story in the first place and in doing so realised the subject matter had darkened with each draft.  It's not supposed to be a pleasant story but it had become too dark and the theme of acceptable cruelty was too hard to see.  So I knocked out a lot of bricks and voila!   Restoration complete.  And, like all good restorations, its true to the original but greatly improved.

I just hope it stands up to scrutiny from his Lordship...

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Piano Envy

Anibal Monteiro Machado's short story, The Piano, is as near to perfect as a short story can get. In my humble opinion.  It is precisely the kind of story I wish I was accomplished enough to write and  I encourage you all to seek it out.  

The story is about a family man who must sell an heirloom piano to make space in his house for his daughter and husband-to-be's conjugal bed.  He puts an ad in the paper and several potential buyers show up but are unimpressed by its quality.  Resigned to the fact the instrument has only sentimental value, the man offers it to his cousins as a gift but they politely decline.  Finally, frustrated but determined to do the right thing by his daughter, he recruits a team of local boys to carry it to the sea.  The local people are horrified that such an object is being discarded but none of them are willing to take it in, and the police want to charge him for illegal dumping.  Eventually the piano is taken off by the sea. 

I won't spoil the ending, in case you find the story.

So what makes it so damn good?  Well, here are just three reasons:
a.  The story is a perfectly balanced and subtle blend of the comic and tragic.  We really feel for the man's disappointment in finding out that his beloved family heirloom is nothing more than a heap of junk.  And the process he has to go through to get rid of it is funny and touching.  

b.  The personification of the piano is brilliant.  I found myself as desperate as the protagonist for it to be saved by someone, anyone.  By the end, it really feels like he's euthanizing an old relative.  With his skill, Machado shows us the ultimate superiority of the written word.  It is impossible to imagine how the piano could be so well humanised by any means other than  words.  It would take an exceptional director to effectively put this on screen or on stage.

c.  Freedom is the big theme in this story but it's totally unobtrusive.  The story is set against the backdrop of WW2 which has compressed the world and curtailed the freedom of all its inhabitants.  In the end, we sense that the piano is in fact fortunate:  it can float free and its parts can travel wherever the currents take them.  It is so difficult to have a big theme and not let it get in the way of the storytelling.  In the anthology where the story appears, the editor claims the ending is weak (dismissing it as O'Henry-ish) but - in my view - the neat, humourous ending is a strength.  It prevents the big theme, which becomes apparent towards the end, from hijacking the story for its own political ends.  As it is, Machado has given us enough to ponder, if we so choose, without ramming it down our throats.

It's this last point that makes me envy Machado's prowess.  I like themes but seem utterly unable to avoid bludgeoning my reader over the head with them; as my trusted friend and psuedo-editor is always pointing out.  I'm patronising apparently, unable or unwilling to trust my reader to make connections or reach their own conclusions.   On these grounds, my editor has - quite correctly - told me to give my story, Boxed In, a complete overhaul.  Fortunately, I have Machado's model of near-perfection to help me out.