I never have a plan for a short story. I start with either an image or a one line idea. For ‘The Sparkle of the River Through the Trees’, which started out as ‘Coming Home’, then became ‘The Sparkling of the River Through the Trees’, before I finally settled on the present title, the story started with an image. Maybe three or four years ago now I was on a train in Northumberland, and I saw a soldier sitting in a chair opposite. He had his head in his hands, and though he was immaculately attired, he looked completely exhausted. This image stayed with me for years. And then I got around to writing the story. It started out as being about a soldier, but became something else in the writing.
Writing stories is hard work, but I find that they come quite easily. I think it was Bukowski who said that if you find writing difficult you should be doing something else. Of course, the longer you write stories, the harder it gets, in some ways, because you are always trying to stretch yourself and improve.
I write the first draft of a story almost without thinking. I believe in the power of the subconscious. And I write pretty fast. I rarely write more than 2,000 words in a sitting though. If I do I’m shattered. Usually it is more like 500 – 1,000. Then I go for a lie down or hit the bar. This story was written on two or three successive mornings. It is rare that I add very much at all to a first draft. I’m usually just taking superfluous stuff out and tidying up the sentences. I find it is easier to retain unity that way, and stay faithful to the initial impulse. If I faff about with it too much (and it is the same with poems) I tend to lose the gist of what it was I was trying to write about.
Of course, my approach isn’t the same with every story. Sometimes it takes years before they are right. Sometimes you have to totally forget about them and come back with fresh eyes. The approach to writing one story is contradicted by the approach to writing another.
A word on setting. I have a short story cycle called ‘The Fold’, where I’m very specific about place names throughout. I used this as a way to connect the stories. With ‘The Sparkle of the River Through the Trees’, a stand alone story, I again used a Northumberland setting, but didn’t specify that at any point. I think both of these approaches to setting can work, and both approaches have ways of making the story universal to the reader.
There are many different kinds of stories you can write. William Boyd specified seven. That’s an attraction of the form. You can be more, or less, explicit. For this story I used an aspect of Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle, in the sense of never at any stage specifying what the story is about. The title is, among other things, suggestive of such an approach. This can be risky, particularly with readers more familiar with novels, where there is more explication. I’ve lost track of how many times people have said ‘nothing happens’ with regard to a short story. I always tell them to read it again. I like having to think about a story beyond its end. I don’t like everything tied up in a bow. When that happens I think, ‘great, that’s nice, well done, very clever. But why would I ever want to read this story again?’
As Chekhov said, stories are more about questions than answers. Exploring the human condition or, as Flannery O’ Connor said,’the mystery of existence’. Questions, not answers. And empathy. That’s what literature is about for me. Empathy. Walking in someone else’s shoes.
Neil Campbell is from Manchester, England. Twice included in Best British Short Stories (2012 & 2015). Three collections of short fiction, Broken Doll, Pictures from Hopper and Ekphrasis. Two poetry chapbooks, Birds and Bugsworth Diary. First novel Sky Hooks out in September 2016. @neilcambers
You can read ‘The Sparkle of the River Through the Trees’ in the new issue of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
© Neil Campbell, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.