Despite winning Singapore's most lucrative literary award with his first novel, Now That It's Over, the author O Thiam Chin insisted that he's most comfortable writing short stories. Ahead of the deadline for the 2017 Golden Point Award, he gave an afternoon workshop focused on short fiction at Singapore's beautiful Arts House.
This was my first workshop dedicated to short stories. In the past, I've started writing many short stories but found them too lean and slippery to pursue: the ideas whip away from me, snakelike. Novels, somehow, are more substantial and less mysterious. Like animals, the bigger the form, the simpler the creature.
Amid an unusually informal and interactive atmosphere, Thiam Chin shared writing tips, while weaving in exercises to focus the mind on craft.
Using a story by Mary Gaitskill, Thiam Chin concentrated on first lines; universally, we agreed, the trickiest point. The tone should be there from the off and a good start creates a mixed reaction in the reader. Gaitskill's story, The Other Place, starts at a pivotal moment, forcing us to wonder which way the story will turn. And there's evidence of the three Cs required in a strong Voice - it's consistent, compelling and has authorial control.
Her writing is deceptively simple - but Thiam Chin warned us about simplicity: achieving it is a lifetime process. At first, he said, build a lavish life on the page and cut it down to size.
Finally, we looked at how to get characters unstuck. Of his many suggestions to keep up the momentum within scenes - such as the Murakami trick of getting an unexpected phone call or a 'knock, knock' on the door - I liked the idea of introducing a stranger. "A stranger is a universe in himself," said Thiam Chin, which I found rather lovely.
Whether the new material that transpires makes the final cut or gets edited back in the pursuit of simplicity, the stranger is a two-way mirror through which to see our character afresh.
As I sit here now, on a hiatus from trying to edit a short story of my own, I'm grateful for one further example shared by Thiam Chin. The great Alice Munro, whose story The Bear Came Over the Mountain was subtly but meaningfully re-edited even after its first publication in the New Yorker. The impact was huge - not just to the story, but also to the audience in the Arts House. If Alice Munro feels the need to work and re-work her stories across the decades, then surely so must we.