Composing Marmara: How to Write a Short Story

Part Three

Previously, on Composing Marmara, I have been describing how I wrote my story, Marmara, the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors, starting with a Joan Miro painting and developed later after reading a true story in David Seabrook’s book, All the Devils are Here.

Set Upon by Wolves

In her essay The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Flannery O’Connor writes that when a friend of hers stopped writing a novel to work on short fiction, ‘she feels as if she had just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves.’ (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957, page 76 – 77).

Contrary to what Parts One and Parts Two may imply, mostly in 2005 through to 2007 I was preoccupied with a novel, Touching the Starfish. The ‘hankerings’ that would become Marmara occurred only as warm-up work as I concentrated on something else.

Writing a novel is an entirely different to writing a short story. O’Connor, in the same essay quoted above, says ‘it’s a more diffuse form and more suited to those who like to linger along the way; it also requires more massive energy.’

That massive energy burns over a longer period (in my case here, nearly three years). During this longer period, the novel floats you. You lose yourself in the novel. Its little problems and confusions, inconsistencies and absurdities can be sorted out later. It can all wait. It’s always ahead of you, and all the time you’re writing it you think it might just sort everything out for you. You know you’re done with it when you realize it won’t sort anything out at all.

I’d first started to think about Marmara in October 2006 when I’d written about the Miro painting.

On 27th November 2007, I finished the third draft of Touching the Starfish.

On November 29th 2007, I decided to start work on Marmara.

I’d had two days off.

Fleshing Marmara

I say I had two days off, which makes me sound like some sort of bastard love child of Anthony Trollop and Alexei Stakhanov but I didn’t actually start writing the story for a while. In fact, how long it took me to get to the writing frustrated me greatly. I had some sort of ‘frame’ for the story and a few ideas for characters but I didn’t know enough to start writing. I was now going to have to saturate myself in the material. When I was bloated enough I would be able to work it into the frame provided by Seabrook.

Alexei Stakhanov, whose novel "Miner at the Coalface of Being' is at least as good as any of mine.

Alexei Stakhanov, whose novel “Miner at the Coalface of Being’ is at least as good as any of mine.

All I really did on 27th November was make a note to myself that outlined what I felt I needed to do.

“Collate notes/Research/Plan/Saturate/Compose”

(meaning, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing).

On 1st December 2007, I made a list of my ‘thoughts’ for Marmara.

  •  Second person narration
  • THIRTY EIGHT STEPS
  • Steps/beach
  • Starts with the girl failing to enter the house.
  • Context/backstory. Undressing on beach integrated with scene of seduction.
  • Faded footprints on the concrete remind her that many have taken this path before.
  • Jeremy Trask
  • Mavis
  • The issue is why she does not go through with it.
  • Laughing at Hitler in newsreels.
  • ARRIVAL – NIGHT/BEACH – SEDUCTION (Flashback) – RESCUE.
  • Marmara: The house seems to be the key here. The house will give the story an epicentre.
  • Fascism: The Wrong Dream. His dream is not her dream.
A Very Rough Plan

A Very Rough Plan

This might look like gibberish but it’s part of a sifting process. Some of these points came to nothing (the story didn’t use the second person voice, for example). Some are titbits of information I’d carried around from somewhere (like the knowledge that English cinema audiences wet themselves laughing when Hitler came on Pathe News, ‘chewing the carpet’, waving his arms about like a twat). I also made some probably spontaneous decisions that stuck. The names ‘Mavis’ and ‘Jeremy Trask’ endured, for example. Settling on a story is like firing up a magnet; all sorts of things will stick to it once you’ve committed yourself. The idea of the footprint came not from anything in Seabrook but from a print left by a workboot on a pavement close to where I was living. This would turn out to be useful beyond descriptive or foreshadowing purposes later on.

Having a rant

Having a rant

There is also an embryonic plotplan here, which at the very least gave me something to hang new ideas upon. Given that at this point I could have chucked anything at this story, some idea of line – beginning, middle and end – gave me something by which I could gauge what could go in and what would not aid or enhance the story.

I reread the Seabrook passages again at this point and made a note of anything of possible use. A description of the Naldura house and what it contained prompted another idea. The house had ‘flood-lit tennis courts’. Sounds boring but it would prove to be important in the development of the story later on.

Another little spur came from the idea of people laughing at newsreel footage of Hitler. I looked up what films were popular in 1939 and rather than let Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz draw my eye, became intrigued by the first Powell and Pressberger film, The Spy in Black (a world war one-set drama about a plot to sink the Scapa Flow fleet, starring top German bloke Conrad Veidt ). I had to buy it on video but I ordered it. I was starting to think that our two characters could go and see this film and maybe witness an audience laughing at Hitler. Basic ideas become ideas for scenes and the scenes can be hung onto the plotline (here in SEDUCTION (flashback)). Watching the film, though would also give me another reference, an idea for another passage within the story.

The Spy in Black

The Spy in Black

I was merely going over the frame I’d already set here. However, it’s much better to throw these things together as rough notes before you start than to write to find them. Writers who admit to have not been hot on planning, keener to let the story find itself thorough composition, say Raymond Carver, also admit to writing many drafts. I don’t want to do that.

Write carefully and one draft is enough, plus a further draft to boil the story down. Stories can be breeze or a grind, but it’s the hold you get on it beforehand that determines this.

The Great Terror

Even so, I don’t want to be doing this approach work. I want to be writing prose. I want to feel that this is getting somewhere, accruing, that I’m riding the tide out. And not writing causes my spirits to plummet. I hit the ground if I’m not writing and even though I have to go through this period of saturation, I don’t want to. If I were writing a novel, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just head on out. But here, looking at a 3000 words max story, after I’d just worked on something 160,000 words long, I was cautious. Moreover, I didn’t feel ready and therefore was feeling scared and bored and useless as well as still worried about my novel, which I kind of missed but also had forgotten writing. Touching the Starfish had been a dark wood. Something about tennis courts and laughing at Hitler were wolves.

One thing I didn’t have a clue about was who were my two main characters, a suicidal girl and a fascist. Who were ‘Mavis’ and ‘Jeremy’?

I’ll come to how I worked this out in Part Four.

The Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors

Marmara is the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors, published by Unthank Books in February 2013.

To order a copy of The Syllabus of Errors, click here. The Syllabus is also available to download for your Kindle.

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