As I write this, I’m working my way through the many submissions to Showcase: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Special Anthology 2018.
You may know that this anthology was a little different in design. The other collections have all accepted stories more or less unchanged by me as an editor: I’ve done basic proofreading and suggested minor adjustments here and there to improve clarity to to correct grammar and so on, but the basic submissions remained intact. With Showcase the idea is to apply the principles of my book How Stories Really Work to each submission. This means stepping back from the story as it has been completed by each author, and looking at it from a transformed perspective.
The whole thing becomes participative, a team operation.
Given that the principles described in my book are universal - they apply to all fiction, short or long, ancient or modern, literary or generic, and so forth - understanding them gives a person a kind of ‘superpower’: he or she is able to see through the matter of any story to its skeleton and perhaps even beyond that, to its spirit and intention. With that heightened perception of what the story is all about, it should then be possible to suggest changes to magnify or at least clarify the original vision of the thing, changes that go way beyond adjusting the tense of a verb or fixing spelling.
All of this was intended as an experiment, and it’s proving to be an interesting one in practice.
You see, as I have written elsewhere, my approach as an editor is normally to leave a story alone as much as possible. A writer comes up with something that he or she wants to convey, and my immediate task is to ensure that the mechanical language - punctuation, grammar, syntax and so on - is not acting as an obstacle to that. As a less immediate but no less vital task I assess also whether or not the thing works stylistically and structurally to present that original message. This usually works just fine: some stories are more successful than others, naturally, but the ones which I agree to publish each have their own qualities, or I wouldn’t have published them.
But what if, using the ‘superpower’ above, it was possible to see how that original vision or purpose or message could be significantly enhanced?
So far in Showcase, I’ve looked at stories which have needed adjusting in different ways. One merely required clarification and a simplification so that its vision hit home with more impact; another had a brilliant beginning and then wandered away from itself, requiring reworking. Another was a well-told tale full of detail and action, but which had the potential to go further if some unexpected avenues were explored.
And so on.
The probable truth is that any story can be improved - magnified, broadened, deepened. The great short stories have a quality of being, on one level, about what they are about, plus something else - for example, Charles Dickens’ 'The Signalman' is on an immediate level ‘about’ a strange encounter between its narrator and a railway signalman obsessed with an apparently supernatural apparition that he has repeatedly seen. The story is structurally brilliant, building up tension for the reader before leaving them with a chilling and unexpected resolution. That’s fine - better than fine, it’s a really excellent story and is virtually faultless as an example of its type.
But it’s also something more. The narrator and the signalman and their little ‘adventure’ are also a kind of metaphor for something much bigger than the story: their tale represents something beyond itself. What is that something? Hard to reduce to a few words, but it can be suggested as a relationship between consciousness and the universe, a kind of incidence of what coincidence and ‘fate’ might reveal, a statement about humanity’s ignorance of greater matters.
Isn’t this just ‘theme’? Not quite. A close reader can break down Dickens’ language in that tale (as I do in my book How Stories Really Work) and show that stylistically the careful choice of words also works to convey the essence of the metaphor too.
Taking a raw story, one first sees the portrayed ‘adventure’, the motion of characters through a ‘plot’, the working out of a series of actions. These things can be well done or poorly done. The mechanics of any story can be improved by application of How Stories Really Work to the construction of characters and storylines - that’s relatively easy. But bringing the whole thing to another level, so that every component part of a short story works to achieve a cohesive whole - that’s another. Because beyond the characters and the plot lies something else, the ‘impression’ or accumulated meaning of a story: its soul, if you like.
You’ll have to wait for Showcase to come out to see how successful I and the authors concerned have been in pulling this all together. But I thought you might like a glimpse of what the process is trying to address.