Robin Maharaj on the Short Story

Robin Maharaj gave an excellent talk on writing short stories yesterday. For those near Toronto, he is accepting manuscripts for evaluation until the end of November.

Writers of adult fiction and novel exerpts can send him 25 pages. Aspiring writers spend half an hour with the acclaimed writer-in-residence to receive feedback. Check with the Toronto Public Library website for details and to see if any time slots remain.

Maharaj’s workshop was very helpful and positive, although he warned us that most Canadian writers do not make a living from their craft alone. Tips and advice? Well, let’s just say that between 1:00-4:00 PM we got a short course that should keep us all writing for a long time.

He discussed structure, submitting work to contests and approaching literary magazines. To get a novel or short story collection published, he said, it helps to have some magazine credits or contest wins. For the names of contests and literary magazines, he suggested checking the internet.

My favorite source is Smith’s Lists, now hosted by the Writer’s Circle of Durham Region.

Maharaj also answered questions. Of these, the most interesting to me, was about voice. As a literary editor, Maharaj found he could often tell which author an aspiring writer most admired because his work sounded imitative. To develop your own voice, he said, the best course is to observe the world closely and keep writing. By practicing and keeping a writer’s notebook, it is possible to develop a voice that is unique because it reflects not just literary technique but also your beliefs, experiences, sense of humour and thinking style. You must write the story that you are most qualified to write and that you can write better than anyone else.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a unique subscription service. He writes short short stories and sends them to his subscribers worldwide. His stories vary from fables in far off lands to slices of contemporary life. He has won awards and keeps an interesting blog about his travels. He is currently living in England.

Because the subscription stories haven’t been published, Rogers can still sell first run rights to magazines. Bruce’s subscribers have the right to forward his stories to friends but not post or publish them. Now that’s Guerilla Marketing!

I wonder if I would be up to the challenge of writing two postcard stories every month. It seems like a valuable discipline, purely from an artistic point of view. I also wonder if anyone has ever done this on a casual basis, among friends.

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

I first discovered Gaiman’s work through the excellent British TV series Neverwhere. It’s a compelling fantasy about an ordinary fellow, drawn into a magical world under London’s streets. This nightmarish world is populated by, among others, a minotaur, an angel, energy-draining Goths, street people and a damsel in distress. Half of the intrigue for viewers is working out the character’s various agendas and the logic of the magical forces driving them.

Enjoying Neverwhere lead me to read Gaiman’s 2001 novel, American Gods, which won the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, SFX, and Locus awards. American Gods is a fantasy novel set in contemporary America, which remains unaware of the legendary gods converging there. The hero, Shadow, is a stranger to his own identity. He struggles to untangle himself from a web of supernatural forces, often one step behind the reader. Very entertaining.

This morning I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s upcoming collection of short stories: Fragile Things. It has been an up-and-down ride. Gaiman has a sweeping imagination which revels in the creepy and supernatural. Gaiman often gives a traditional fantasy character, such as a ghost, alien, demon, murderer or god, a modern spin. I was impressed by the sheer scope of styles: humour, poetry, horror, ghost tale, Sherlock Holmes mystery, fable, tall tale, recursive story. Some pieces were originally written for illustration.

There were moments when I felt Gaiman’s images sully my imagination. There is one viewpoint character, for example, who mentions a sexual preference for pre-pubescent girls. It was a shock to listen in on his thoughts, to find myself on intimate terms with evil. What an effective, but nasty, narrative technique.

In terms of sexual content, this collection is definitely for adults. It’s not for the homophobic or the squimish either, although the themes are not primarily sexual. An eclectic mix, these stories are mostly previously published and were never planned to form a cohesive whole. The poems, as Gaiman explains on his website, were thrown in free of charge.

Will you like this book? It’s a mix of virtuoso performances and odd experiments by an exceptional author. I think writers will find it a fascinating study in technique. I particularly enjoyed Gaiman’s introductory notes. How intriguing to hear about the drafts he wrote and rewrote to suit editors. He explains ways in which stories came about because of random incidents or specific editorial requests and honestly chronicles his creative triumphs and difficulties along the way.

This collection is not for the literary purist — It’s too much fun for that. Neil Gaiman covers a wide swath of memorable stories, frightening characters and fantastic worlds.

A Short History of Indians in Canada

One of my favorite short story collections is Tom King’s A Short History of Indians in Canada: Stories. I have admired King since listening to his Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour on CBC radio. He explores the truth of our shared experiences to make us laugh, and ache.

The first story in the collection, in which “indians” hit sky scrapers like migrating birds, is one of the most powerful things I have ever read. I laughed through tears. This should be required reading for all North Americans.

I also enjoyed the story in which a mother and daughter try to cross the border between the United States and Canada. For the mother, it is a matter of principle to say that she is a citizen of her tribe — not of Canada. They end up caught between borders, camped out at the duty free store. Eventually they draw crowds and TV cameras but they never back down.

With King, the comedy is in recognition: the packed lunch, the dialogue, the details so sharp you feel you are there. The tragedy is in Canadian history and current events.