Last week I posted about learning from short story competition winners, in general, but what about when you’re stuck on a particular story? Can you use them to solve a specific problem? Can you read yourself free of your trap?
As I’m sure you know, I am stuck. My Frog Prince is like a rock-face I’ve been climbing for so long I’m determined to reach the summit but I’m struggling to secure my next footing. I’ve been writing around the problem, which usually works for me, but this time I think it’s made things worse. I’ve become bogged down in first person. First person has become so complicated in my head, when it used to be just writing with ‘I’. Now I’m all tangled up in tense and interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness and direct thoughts and why and who is the audience. Who is this ‘I’ speaking to? Why is this ‘I’ narrating his story to this unknown audience? In what context does this narrative take place?
As you can see, when I said I was stuck, I meant it. So how do I free myself?
By reading. Where writing has failed, reading, I hope, will help.
I remember something the judge mentioned when introducing the winners of that Mslexia short story competition:
It is perhaps no coincidence that the three prize-winning stories are all written in the first person
Here I have three prize-winning stories written in the first person – the very thing I’m so ensnared in. Of course, I could read any story written in first person, it’s just that, these stories have been judged as ‘good’ – I can be safe in the knowledge that I’ll be learning from the best.
So I re-read the three, taking notes on their use of first person – the voice, the tense, how it worked. I’ve found they were all written in present tense (I’ve also read a couple of my other first person stories and discovered they are all in past – haven’t yet worked out what to make of this); they were all written as though the ‘I’ were recounting the story in his/her own words – almost like it’s being spoken out loud – and they are all completely frank – they don’t hold anything back – feelings and thoughts are weaved into the narrative. The reader or audience is never addressed or identified. The ‘I’ is simply telling the story – no context for this telling is given and none is needed. You don’t stop and think ‘why are they telling me this?’ or ‘in what context does this narrative take place?’ – it’s just not an issue.
The not addressing the reader thing got me thinking about Poppy Shakespeare. I’ve seen the TV adaptation and I’ve read the first chapter, so I am aware of the voice. Like the others, it sounds like the character is speaking to you in her own words. However, unlike the others, she addresses the reader with phrases like ‘do you know what I mean?’ Perhaps this is just part of her voice but it does give it more of a personal feel – like she is telling you, specifically you. That’s just another thing to think about.
My point is (I know this has been a bit of a rambler) if you’re stuck it does help to read stories you know to be good (because they’ve won a respected competition, for example) that are similar to your own, especially in the aspect you are stuck on.
Give it a try.