LitQuake 2015: The Art of the Short Story

This weekend I attended LitQuake 2015’s excellent panel, The Art of the Short Story. Thanks to Mark Peterson for moderating Jodi Angel, Tom Barbash, Grant Faulkner, and Siamak Vossoughi. This is a summary of my largely paraphrased notes.

Siamak wants to appeal to the heart in all of his stories to walk away with a wondrous sense of having written. Grant added that you have to strive for vulnerability and then push further to tell a really great tale.

Tom characterized short stories as spiking moments of stress in their characters. He urged writers to ask: of an entire life, why does your story show this moment, this night? A story should create an unsustainable situation in the first two paragraphs, the tension should be inevitable — like a boulder pushed down a hill. Jodi added a charming literary sentiment from Nabokov: be sadistic toward your characters, but don’t steal their humanity.

Jodi, who writes stories from the perspective of teenage boys, does not believe in writing what you know. Grant suggested that writing what you know is about bringing your perspective of the world, to the world. The panelists agreed that it’s all part of the human experience that we all share.

Tom compared his process as the work of imagination (writing or drafting) being handed off to a craftsman (editing). He also encourages voracious re-reading; five to ten passes through a great story will make you see far more of what’s at work than one initial, enthusiastic read. Siamak sometimes starts a story on a Tuesday but doesn’t feel like the same person by Thursday; he and Jodi apparently only do one perpetual draft. Jodi aims to write an entire story in one sitting (which makes me wonder how much time she prepares, knowing it’ll be the only draft)!

When asked about why he writes stories of exactly 100 words, Grant made an interesting analogy to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. Whereas Hemingway’s words on the page are 10% of an iceberg, Grant’s miniature stories are 1%. This creates fiction with “sentences [that] can operate like chapters.” Tom added that white space in stories can function like chapter breaks in novels.

For Tom, the longest stretch of white space is also the most important — your story’s ending. Siamak feels that endings shouldn’t be sentimental while not being afraid of sentiment. It goes back to heart, vulnerability, and making the reader feel, though not necessarily something familiar or cliché. Grant suggested that flash fiction should end on a breath and have the reader take that breath with the story.

If you were in attendance and had different takeaways, please feel free to add a comment.

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