Notes from the concrete mixer

-why I write what I write the way I write –

Look, folks, I am in full knowledge I am a lay preacher addressing the Lateran Council here, and am not at all sure I should be doing this. Still, the neck enters the noose now. Please be gentle with me.

If you go to Youtube, and search for “Jeff Porcaro and Rosanna“, you get to see the master as he explains how he did Rosanna’s wonderful drums. It’s worth checking out; as you may know, he was one of the truly great drummers. He says straight out, “I stole this beat from Bernard Purdie, and this beat I stole from John Bonham, and then I added my own kind of Bo Diddley shuffle backbeat.” So even the greatest of drummers liberate beats from others and cook up his own variant that is both new and ages old.

In the past, I used to annoy my immediate family saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if this happened…” and explaining it, but they got really mad at me. Then I tried to write small paragraph-length stuff to jot down the ideas in an ultra compact form, almost like flash fiction, but that did not cut it for me. Indeed, I regard those who have a knack for ultrashorts as nothing short of geniuses.

So, I went the Jeff Porcaro route. I read more of my favorite short story people, both in Finnish and English. I did not specifically copy beats, but their methods for creating ambience, sequencing, and other necessary household items, which I take to be the tools of the shortie art. One great star on my stellar map is Robert Heinlein, whose “October Country”  should be required reading to all aspiring shortie folks.

The Finnish master Veikko Huovinen wrote a shortie called “The Erotomaniac and the Nymphomaniac”, with the simple idea of what would happen if there were one of each in close proximity. He solved it by placing the two in different tribes in Iron Age Finland, and the final sentence is (loosely): “It is from this encounter we can declare the current population of Pulkkila to have originated.” In a story about five or six pages long, he deals with incisive portrayals of what makes one erotomaniac or nymphomaniac, and what is the effect on the tribe. What a silly idea! What a wicked exposition, and what a titillating afterburn.

Following his example, I usually start with “What if” too. I love trying to figure out people who wind up in situations you’d not think of straight away, and then try to write people into them so that the whole feels logical. Sometimes it works, oftentimes not that well, but the ideas for the stories usually are very concise. “Shaggy” came to be after I thought, “what would be an outrageous situation in Moominland?” Then I realized I could not have a Moomintroll kick someone in the private parts without Moomin, Inc. suing me. Upon remembering something from my childhood I relocated the idea and worked backwards from that until I had the path to the climax.

I have a morbid interest in transitions. As you have seen if you’ve read any three of my stories, two will have been on transition. Life to death, whole to broken, fast to slow, old to new – you name it. Maybe it’s because a transition is by definition a singular event and as such easy prey for a shortie. Writing about stationary things is for people who can really focus, but my machine-gun mind is not particularly well suited for extended periods of intense thinking.

For me, the essence of the short story is its ambience. If I (or anybody for that matter) get the ambience right, the main idea can be less solid. Setting ambience can give you acute migraine, but it has its benefits. Please see Penny’s masterful “Temporary Passports” for your illustrated introduction to ambience creation in two words or less.  And conversely, if the idea has wings, sometimes I want to get the thing written without working on the ambience too much. Ambience is something that can be grafted onto the semi-finished story, but then again, I like the dialogue between story and ambience and want to reap the profits of working on two axis at once.

Sequencing is my pain point. If you read “Maneschijn“, you’ll see immediately how it still needs work in getting the things to happen in the proper order to really pull off the central stunt. I put it out nevertheless, because the ambience seems right to me, and the idea (to me) has enough firepower. If I solve the central sequencing issue, it’ll be one of the better ones I have written – now it’s kinda sorta vague and I feel the story isn’t as strong as it could be. Sequencing can take me weeks, because I usually let the subconscious handle it.

The one thing I am good at in short story writing is pruning. I must be something of a sociopath, because I can take down long chunks of text and not feel like I am putting my firstborn through a Moulinex ChefMaster. I tend to ramble in the writing phase, and there can be lots to take off later, but the DELETE key never fails to cleanse the air and make room for thought. After all, a good short story doesn’t end where the text ends; it ends when the thought created by the story inside the reader reaches fruition, and a very good story will be there the next morning.

Some folks may shy away from shorties because they feel it hard to give minimal situational info to people, but when the author takes a leap of faith, the readers will take one too, and not question the setting. I have often scrapped entire paras when I found they contained nothing but superficial eye candy with no contextual impact. [Please kick me off the soap box whenever.]

I believe those who like the longer format would make fantastic short writers if they just stopped their train of thought at smaller stations too, instead of going cross-country. I do it because I have an attention span of a toddler. But if you can write an entire novel, you have to have the capability to spawn many ideas and therefore hold many potential short stories up the sleeve, as long as you have the nerve to whistle the train to a halt.

And the last bit I work in is similes and metaphors. This is the main challenge for me. I would love to have access to the extensive Finnish repository of swearwords in my shorties, but alas, I’ve found my Finnish writing is dry and stale. To overcome that, I am constantly jotting down similes and stunted ideas in my Moleskine, usually without a clue where I’ll stick them later. I seem to get ideas while vacuuming or mowing the lawn – the body may work but the brain is in a disconnected state and that is creative. Writing in English also makes me think outside the cultural context I could hide in if I wrote in Finnish. Consider this: I need to say “It was snowing so much outside that the whole sky was filled with snowflakes which were blown around by the wind” when I could say, “Pyrytti” in Finnish.

I wrote my first short story in English in 1996, and having just discovered it on an Internet archive site, I can say with moderate confidence I’ve developed somewhat since then. I try to see what comes out of the old cranium if I add one idea, sprinkle with ambience, leaven with curiosity, shake well and bake at 175°C for an hour. Results? Thick smoke usually, usable snippets sometimes, and even more rarely, readable short stories. Serve chilled with apologies for rambling.

~ by yearzerowriters on November 10, 2009.

3 Responses to “Notes from the concrete mixer”

  1. Fascinating insight Heikki, as you say I’m not sure that the majority of the above doesn’t also apply to novel writers.

    I was intrigued about you talking of ‘What if’ as your starting point often – bringing together elements that probably wouldn’t be readily thought of as converging and going exploring to see what occurs. I also tend to start from such a premise, but only when I can find the central metaphor (which you also speak of) to attach to the scenario – I have to have both elements in place before I can launch a new ship.

    For example and I have no idea where it came from, “A,B&E” came into being with the concept of an older woman among a Club 18-30 Crowd and the metaphor was she was a gangster’s wife on the run and hiding out there. Someone in fear for their life among this temple to (gaudy) earthly pleasures. Either stream possibly might have sufficed for a story, but somehow putting them together sparked off so much more possibility for me. I also find that the main character’s VOICE emerges pretty easily from the situation we set them up in.

    When you say ‘transitions’ I tend to think in terms of the liminal – not quite stepping through the threshold of transition, but hovering between the two. For me character transition in novels equates to Greek drama and outmoded notions of catharsis that I think keeps the reader at arms length from the character and the book and denies them the still resonating the next day you spoke of. This may be a difference between shorts and novels I’m not sure. But in a novel, I don’t think it is necessarily a character’s journey that sticks with a reader (unless maybe it is very much concerned with realism and is say a study of a descent into alzheimer’s, or drug addiction or whatever) – I think it is the constancy of the character’s VOICE that has more chance of being remembered. A voice that can insinuate itself into the reader’s mind, how they reacted to this event, what their feelings were after that happened etc. Of course as much as insinuating themselves into the reader’s mind, they may just batter and concuss their way in as well. As I say, I do think this is where shorts & novels may diverge.

    Thank you for sharing your processes though. I’m very interested that you can cite your sources and your inspirations. I tend to be much more instinctive and knowing what writers I’m trying NOT to write like, but it’s a lot more unformed than your craft.


  2. Murakami writes many of his stories about teenagers because he’s interested in transition. I’ve actually found the opposite, Marc – with shorts I like to examin a snapshot, a situation. But with my novels I’ve always liked the security blanket a transitional arc provides. I am aware that this is a habit in need of uprooting, though!

  3. @Marc – it may look organized, but organization only applies to the mop-up stage. The actual writing process is guaranteed to be just as fuzzy as anybody’s.

    With Tulagi Hotel, I was given the first chapter as in automatic writing. Then I worked two ways, to see how we got there and see how we got out of there. With short stories, there is no way to go but the moment, really.

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