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Writer's Block - Writing the Short Story
The Psychological Difficulties of a Writer
Lesson 3 in the Short Story Course tutored by Dr. Hilary Johnson described the proverbial ‘writer’s block’ and the reasons for it. The lesson outlined seven such reasons.
- The writer may fear his lack of style; his failure to write ornate, impressive language, but that is not style. It is merely stylishness. Style comes from having something to say and saying it in the most simple and clear way.
- The writer may dread the effort of writing. He is not alone. Joseph Conrad: “I have never known the pleasure of writing – only the ardour that drives me to it.” Anatole France: “To me writing is horribly difficult.” John Galsworthy: “Writing is a patent calling, glamorous now and then, but with fifty minutes of hard labour and yearning to every ten of satisfaction.” The course suggests reading 200 words of the writing of a good author out loud for inspiration. Or writing just about anything that comes into your head. ,
- The writer may be waiting for inspiration to strike. If so, he might find himself waiting forever. Like any other art, writing requires talent, tuition, practice and hard work.
- Writers such as university students, used to penning informative essays may find it difficult to write stories that are read just for pleasure.
- The writer may be daunted by his lack of academic qualification, but plenty of fiction writers don’t have university degrees.
- The writer may be distracted by noise. While some writers can tune out of surrounding noises such as people talking, TV or radio, others may be too sensitive. Even the ticking of a clock can disturb them. The writer needs self-discipline.
- The writer may be hampered by the disunity of his ideas. In such a case, he should give it a break and the solution may come to him eventually. Consider Darwin, who while pondering the theory of evolution, and not yet having formulated a thesis, happened to read ‘Principles of Population’ by Malthus and discovered an idea that helped him to arrive at the theory of Natural Selection. Or you could get that elusive idea that will fix the holes in your plot in a dream. I did.
The exercises asked for a short story of not more than 3000 words based if possible on the plot submitted for Lesson 2 and to state in not more than 150 words what the student considered his greatest difficulty in writing short stories.
Dear Mrs. Johnson
Short Story Course Lesson 3 May 12, 1990
Thank you for sending me that cutting from ‘Best.’ The good news is that I’m buying this magazine here. One of the issues even has an SF story in it.
Right now I’m working on an SF novel for children above 12. This is for an all India writing competition and I feel very sure about winning it. The novella which won the second prize in this competition last year is very trashy. I plan to bas my story on Earth, beneath the sea. Earth is overpopulated and scientists are experimenting with adapting human beings to live under water. My heroine is fifteen and her genes have been modified so that she has lungs that breathe water, webbed toes and hands and a tough, shell-like skin, etc.
The high point of the story is her friendship with a dolphin. I have always been fascinated by dolphins and I have a great book to refer to at hand – ‘Dolphin Dreamtime’ by Jim Nollman.
Oh, by the way, I sent a ghost story – ‘Girl on the Moon’ to ‘Best.’ It is a subtle love story about an Italian woman who committed suicide 400 years ago. The fact that she’s a ghost and how she killed herself is only revealed in the end, of course. I got the idea from an article in Omni magazine about a woman who killed herself by drinking a poisonous oriental perfume given to her by a heartless lover. On full moon nights, people smell a strange scent in the house and sometimes they see this luminous figure standing at a window. I shall send it to you soon.
The British Science Fiction Association wrote back to me and I have sent them 18 pounds for my membership. Very exciting to learn that Arthur C. Clarke himself is the President and that famous writers like Michael Moorcock are members. Thank you for sending me the address.
I have also written to Caroline Upcher of Hutchinson. Now that I’m writing a novel (if Penguin UK approves, I’ll be writing another soon), could you give me any guidelines? It is a little difficult to write a novel when you’ve only written short stories.
In your last letter you mentioned that a writer was judged by the work she had sent in to the publisher and also ‘the quality of the letter’. I thought that one has to keep letters to publishers very brief and to the point. Being a direct mail writer, I could do a very interesting letter, but is this worthwhile? I know this letter doesn’t read too well, that’s’ because I haven’t made a draft as I usually do.
Definitely imagery is very apparent in my work. I think vivid imagery is very important if you’re going to make a lasting impression on the reader. And, as you say, the other senses are as important. I didn’t realise that my stories are subtle until you pointed it out and I agree that I should stick to my own style. It fits in with my personality too. Indeed, I have ended my seal story with Pandora’s plunge into the sea. That had been the idea originally. I’m sending it to you. Please let me know whether I could send it to ‘Interzone.’ If you could send me Brian O’ Nolan’s book (you had mentioned that my style reminds you of his), I could send you the money for the book. Do let me know if it’s available and how much it costs.
Short Story - The Golden Comb
Pandora had a strange dream. She saw the sea foam and churn, the waves leap and dance and from this tumult rose a golden chariot drawn by dolphins. It was Poseidon, god of the sea, splendid to behold, his silvery body gleaming with seaweed, his long beard streaming. As he thrust his iron trident at the clouds, lightning rent the heavens. Around his chariot swarmed the Mer Folk and the Seal Folk in their unearthly beauty, blowing on conches. Poseidon looked at Pandora and held out his hand, as though asking for a boon.
“I have nothing to give,” she said, “the sea has taken away he whom I loved best in the world.”
“The sea can also give, daughter,” thundered the god.
She woke with a start. The sea called to her in its raspy voice. Still dressed in her red shift, she got out of bed and walked barefoot to the beach in the morning glow. She knelt beside a mound of smooth, round, pearly stones. Here it was that she had come upon the drowned bodies of her parents a week ago. Her mother was grotesque in death. A Medusa with the seaweed twining around her face like snakes.
But her father had been just a pile of skin. In vain they had searched the stormy waters. She had not wept. Something had told her that he was still alive. Papandapoulos, his old friend had said , “You’re right, Pandora, I too believe he’s alive. We’ll find him, my child, we’ll find him.” Among the villagers, Papandapoulos was the only one who did not shun her for the webs between her fingers and toes.
Phyrgia had hated and ridiculed Pandora for this mysterious deformity. “You’re no child of mine,” she would scream. “Look at me! Do I have webs between my fingers and toes?”
From the creamy cliffs above her, the cicadas called. Pandora’s red shift billowed in the sea breeze which left a salt taste on her lips, as if of tears.
She remembered the fishing trips with her father on their little white boat. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Time etched its passing on Phyrgia’s once lovely face, but he had seemed eternally youthful. The salt, the wind, the sea that smoothed cliffs, did not even touch him. Her heart knotted as she remembered his carefree laugh, the fish cascading in a flickering shower of silver over their feet.
Before he’d left for Cyprus with her mother, never to return alive, he had given Pandora a golden comb.
“It’s very special, Pandora. It was given me by a seal maiden,” he had said.
“Seal maidens!” Phyrgia had scoffed. ‘Why do you put such impossible ideas into the child’s head? She’s insane enough.”
But father and daughter had believed in the Seal Folk who could change into human form and walk the Earth and in the gods and goddesses who still haunted the ancient, crumbling shrines. He had taught her to ignore the world’s ridicule. He would often say: “Pandora, my daughter, you are destined for higher things because you believe.”
The sand was rough and moist beneath her knees. Tenderly she touched the place where his cast off skin had been, her lips moving in silent prayer. Then she rose, walked to the white boat and climbed into it. The wind whipped her long black hair, the boat rocked gently, sliding slowly into deep water. With a practised arc of her strong, tanned arms, she flung the net upon the startling blue sea.
The net was heavy when she hauled it in. Beneath the piles of silverfish and pink salmon, she saw something hard, something bronze, encrusted with the shells of molluscs. She held the small box in her trembling fingers.
“Poseidon’s gift!” she whispered, prying the lid open with a gutting knife. It was a book, its brown leather cover faded and frayed. Not daring to breathe, she opened it. She read:
“I long to take Pandora to the Seal Folk. She believes in them, thank Poseidon.”
“Oh my father!” cried Pandora, the tears welling up in her enormous dark eyes. She read on.
“I miss the Seal Folk. I visit them whenever Phrygia sends me for oysters. Foolish woman. She expects to find pearls in her dinner.
Poor Pandora. Phrygia hates her. She complains that people
My Pandora is beautiful and brave. I must take her away from all this.
There are skeletons on the sea floor around the Coral Caves of the Seal Folk. I suspect Kapoulos, Spiro and the old Andreas are among them. They’d gone missing three months ago. The cave is a well-guarded secret. And that’s just as well.
My beloved Pandora! The more beautiful she grows each day, the more Phrygia scowls and grumbles. She says she no one will marry my Pandora. At times I want to tell the child all about myself. But I’m afraid she might not understand. She is too young.
I am sailing to Cyprus with Phyrgia tomorrow. She wants to do some shopping. Ah Phyrgia, how changed you are from the time I first fell in love with you. To tell the truth, you have grown so vile and ugly with your evil ways that even Aphrodite’s girdle couldn’t make you lovely again.
I have given Pandora a golden comb Eurydice gave me. She was like a little girl when she saw it. She is so full of wonder, my Pandora. Some day when she’s older, I shall tell her what’s magical about it. If she only combs the sea with it . . .”
Pandora smiled a death-defying smile as she came to the end of her father’s half-filled journal. She waited till the moon shone palely in the red and purple sky before she took the golden comb from her bosom.
“Pandora, my child!” sobbed the waves as she plunged into the water.
Dear Ms. Saran May 29, 1990
Short Story Course, Lesson 3
Thank you for your letter of May 12 and for sending your third lesson.
I hope the SF novel is progressing well. It sounds fascinating and I am sure that you must have a very good chance of winning. If you do, then this will be an enormous boost to your career as a writer. Maybe sometime you could just give me a run-down on what you have achieved so far, publication, prizes won, etc., as I expect to be talking with an agent before too long and can pick her brains, even if she is not personally interested.
It will be interesting to see what happens to the story with ‘Best.’ Right now they are terribly overstocked and have been sending back stories, apparently unread, with a request to resubmit in about eight weeks time – but I hardly think they’d have done that with an MS all the way to India!
Glad to hear that you are now a member of the British SF Association and will look forward to hearing from how Caroline Upcher responds. Yes, covering letters sent with MS are normally brief and don’t give very much away, but anything more substantial, such as you would probably have written to Ms. Upcher, will reveal quite simply whether or not a writer can put words together. You probably know from your work that one can tell very quickly whether or not a person can write, just from reading a letter.
I’m not sure if Brian O’ Nolan’s ‘At swim Two Birds’ is still in print, but I’ll look out for it.
There are various books on novel-writing, including ‘The Craft of Novel Writing’ by Diane Doubtfire, ‘Writing a Novel’ by john Braine and ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’ by James N. Frey. All are in paperback, though I’m not sure if John Braine’s book is in print. However, they might possibly be available from a library. Diane Doubtfire’s is part of Allison & Busbys’ Writer’s Guides and would be available from them. It costs pounds 3.95 – plus postage, no doubt – and in the same series is ‘How to Write for Teenagers’ by Silwyn Williams at pounds 3.99. You may have a bookshop which could get these for you. The publishers are a division of WH Allen & Co. plc., Sekforde House, 175/9., St. John Street, London EC1V 4LL. The SF Society may well advise of books relating to their specific subject which are not widely available in bookshops.
Other than reading about novel-writing, the way to make the transition is, I guess, to do it! But a real help is to read as much as possible in the area in which you are interested. If you’re writing teenage SF, read it extensively. Most writers find that once they start on their own work, then they have to leave the reading behind for fear of inadvertently copying or being influenced subconsciously.
The ‘Golden Comb’ is very evocative, but I have my doubts about it being an ‘Interzone’ story. For one thing, they want stories of between 2-6000 words and this looks much shorter than that. (Do always make a point of noting the approximate wordage of your stories.) Also, I’m not sure that I would categorise this as science-fiction; it’s more a mythology-based fantasy, rather gentle. Structurally, I find that that the large proportion of the story which consists of the journal, well, maybe not all that large, but large enough, makes for a break in the narrative from which there is no recovery because the story ends so soon afterwards. It’s a touching, sweet story, but a bit on the fey side for that kind of magazine, I would have thought.
Best of luck with the novel and I look forward to your outlines for Lesson 4 soon.
Hilary Johnson, MA, PhD