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Cynthia Flood on writing: Excerpt from Off the Record

The following is an excerpt from Off the Record edited by John Metcalf (Biblioasis, December 2023)

In 2017, a story I wrote in the 1980s, “Twoscore and Five,” reappeared in an anthology (Making Room: Forty Years of Room Magazine, Caitlin Press, 2017). I hadn’t read it in years, felt the work held up. So long, though! A frame story, yes, which explains some of the bulk, but really—six thousand words? Even with an academic narrator?

In the 1980s I greatly admired Doris Lessing’s stories, and from the 1990s onward I even more admired William Trevor’s and Nadine Gordimer’s and Alice Munro’s. None of these writers feared going on at length. Lydia Davis’ experimental fictions, which I found in the 2010s, startled and pleased me. She freely invents story “forms,” very spare indeed, or thick with incident and detail, or like short plays. I also came upon Carys Davies, another writer of unusual short stories. Plus Colm Tóibín, Jhumpa Lahiri, Camilla Grudova …

While reading novels, I often think This would be so much better at half the length! (Same for movies.) In youth I’d continue reading, out of respect for the writer’s toil, but I quit that decades ago. Even fine writers can sink into the Too Long swamp. I deeply admire William Trevor, but some of his novels, such as Felicia’s Journey and Lucy Gault, should have been short stories. They’re fatty and sluggish, though Trevor couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried.

Now, when writing a story, I define the territory between 2,000 and 3,000 words as long enough. Past that I get nervous, fear rambling.

On finishing a day’s work I make notes on problems, sometimes create a To Do list. I may spend a week working on Story A, then move to B, next to C. That way I don’t get bored or careless inside one fictional world. Also, when I return from B to A or C, the staff in my head’s back room may have solutions ready. I’ve learned to trust them.

To invent plot is way easier than to convey emotion without labelling it, also easier than to show an individual’s particular way of being in the world. For those, imagery’s crucial. Alice Munro excellently chose magnet to express its power. While looking at an early draft, I may note some energy-laden words I didn’t choose by conscious design. How to use them? Not heavily. Don’t lay down clues for detectives. A reader might notice, or not—yet enjoy going where those images lead.

After drafting a story, I often used to realize that the action needed to move up from page four or nine to page two or even page one. Fear of landing in glue, or fire, had led me to defer events. I’ve learned that writing full sentences early on can drag a story into this kind of trouble. Now I start with phrases, fragments, single words. By hand. No connective tissue. I fight the urge to organize, to type a page. Often I leave that potential story alone for a while, to work on one that’s nearer completion. Days later, the scrappy notes may resolve.

Sentences, paragraphs: having taught college-level English, I easily write thesis-followed-by-evidence, so I check to ensure the story doesn’t carry that classroom taint. Fictional design, though, makes its own demands, so I also check the rhythms. Find repetition (the boring kind). Discover omission, overlap.

Editing, I ask each paragraph and then each sentence, Why are you here? Sometimes, favourites can’t answer that and must go.

Clean-up comes near the end. I like lists but try to limit them. Adjectives: attention-seekers. Adverbs: often evil. Copula verbs: same. Because the higher gears of English grammar can mangle a reader’s interest, out go most pluperfects, expletives, passive voice, series of co-ordinating clauses.

I set the story aside for a month at least. Some small items or typing errors may greet me then. At the last, I follow a fellow-writer’s surprising advice: read the story aloud, sentence by sentence, backwards from the last page.

Those liminal minutes just before going to sleep or on waking up—I’ve learned to trust them. I attempt awareness then, because good material may emerge to meet the process that generates fiction.

Whatever that is, I’m grateful, always, to my parents for passing on the relevant genes. Writing: one of the best parts of my life.

Cynthia Flood (Jessica Wittman)

Cynthia Flood’s stories have won numerous awards, including The Journey Prize and a National Magazine Award, and have been widely anthologized. She is the author of several acclaimed short story collections and a novel.

John Metcalf is senior fiction editor at Biblioasis and has edited more than two hundred books. He is also the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction.

Excerpted from Off the Record edited by John Metcalf, featuring stories by and interviews with Caroline Adderson, Kristyn Dunnion, Cynthia Flood, Shaena Lambert, Elise Levine, and Kathy Page. Interviews copyright © John Metcalf, 2023. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

By: Cynthia Flood, John Metcalfe

October 25th, 2023

12:50 pm

Category: Excerpt, Industry News, Writing Life

Issue Date: October 2023

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