Thoughts on composition

Novelist, short story writer and presenter of the 'Writing Scotland' television series, Carl MacDougall, with some thoughts on composing short stories and verse.

Short Stories

Chekhov said a good story was a glance from which the reader could tell what went before and what will come after, and at its best a short story does that and more. But it's also erratic; as soon as one attempts a definition, the substance slips away. There are many fine stories, particularly by Scots, which do not meet Chekhov's criteria. I have therefore confined myself to some obvious starting points and suggestions.

I am continually amazed by the number of people who say they want to write short stories, yet do not read short story writers. This arrogance beggars belief. Consider its implications in any other field.

So the first and most obvious thing is that anyone who wants to write short stories should read short stories, and not just by acknowledged masters - Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Nadine Gordimer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alice Munro, William Trevor and so on - but also by writers at the start of their careers, for, more than anything, their works will set your standard. Nor should contemporary Scottish writers be ignored. They will tell you more about this country than any newspaper or television feature.

Anthologies can usually be relied on for a general introduction, though a new writer will get less from a specialised than a general anthology. Be adventurous. Try Eastern European or Latin American anthologies, as well as the more standard texts.

And when you read, take the pieces apart. Analyse the work. Anyone can do it, analysis can be done without academic expertise, which, in some cases, can be a hindrance, for we are asking how rather than why these pieces work. Dismantle the stories, read till the narrative takes over, then ask how the writer achieves the effects, look for a passage you found especially good, and break it down, asking, always asking how it works. There are no special tricks. The mechanics of a short story are always obvious. It isn't magic. All you have to do is consider the evidence.

  • Look at openings, being especially careful to notice how short story writers compress information, how short stories are neither synopses nor anecdotes;
  • Look at the importance story writers give to details and what they can reveal;
  • Look for the distinguishing features of a story, the things that make it work, precision being the most deluding and difficult feature;
  • Look at the importance of voice and characterisation and the ways in which they are used;
  • Look at the ways a writer can impart knowledge indirectly, how something is shown rather than told, how backstory is largely irrelevant, how dialogue which is used for anything other than moving the story forward is usually redundant and how an atmosphere is established and maintained;
  • Look at the way short story writers use imagination as a means of discovery rather than invention;
  • And read short stories not forgetting the estimable Voltaire, who said, "If you want to be a writer then for God's sake write," while remaining aware of Dr. Johnson's evaluation: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but that part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."

Reading List

And here are a few anthologies, which can be a starting point, a developmental tool or simply read for pleasure:

The Devil and The Giro: The Scottish Short Story (Canongate) Edited by Carl MacDougall;

The Granta Book of the American Short Story (Granta) Edited by Richard Ford;

The Penguin Book of Modern Women's Short Stories (Penguin) Edited by Susan Hill;

Cowboys, Indians and Commuters: The Penguin Book of New American Voices (Penguin) Edited by Jay McInerney;

The Penguin Book of Latin American Short Stories (Penguin) Edited by Thomas Colchie;

Descriptions of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary East European Prose (Picador) Edited by Michael March.

Good Poetry

Again the obvious needs to be said: you are more likely to write good poetry if you read poetry. More than any other literary medium, poetry requires its collaborators to have an open mind, to be receptive to the ideas of others, to experiment and even to be playful. Few media combine such discipline with a search or inquiry. At its best, poetry can illuminate, simplify and speak directly of a common experience or observation. At its worst, it masters what Hamish Henderson has called, "the art of the bellyflop": 

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,

Thou cheerest the lovers in the night

As they walk through the shady groves alone,

Making love to each other before they go home.

The Moon, William McGonagall

Nowhere is pretension or banality more obvious or unforgiven. Yet poetry is often the medium where people feel comfortable, the one they approach most easily and enjoy working for its own sake. There are at least as many closet poets as there are published poets and the idea of expressing something ordinary in an individual way could well be part of the human condition.

Though it be broken -

Broken again - it's still there,

The moon on the water.


Haiku is a traditional 17-syllable verse form of Japanese poetry which was introduced to American and European poetry in the 20th century. The poems comprise three lines; the first has five syllables, the second seven and the last five. Because of its immediacy, it is often used as an introduction to poetry, though, as with any other form of writing, it can be demanding and difficult.

Despite the fact that poetry is often direct and accessible, more myths surround it than any other literary form. It can send shivers down the stiffest of spines and penetrate the thickest of skins, is often considered to be the preserve of intellectuals and academics, or, at least, be very difficult to understand. Either that, or it's soft and emotional, a solitary thing, something for literary types alone, head-cases and ivory tower dwellers who are divorced from reality. Some folk think poems have to rhyme. Others believe anything they write is poetry:

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.- John Cage

'Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words', Edwin Morgan

Again, the arrogance that accompanies the belief that one can simply write is astounding. It presupposes there is nothing to learn, that the gift has arrived complete and needs only to be expressed.

But it's easily understood. Since The Beatles published song lyrics like poetry on the back of their albums, the distinctions have been blurred and writers as diverse as Bob Dylan and Shane McGowan, Leonard Cohen, any contemporary rap artists and even folk singers, carry echoes and reflections from one to the other.

So listening is a good idea; and while songwriters and poets will open your mind to a variety of possibilities, especially about the use of rhyme, they will dispel most of the myths I mentioned, especially the assumption that there is neither a right nor a wrong way to read poetry. Listen to a song lyric, think of its meaning and see if that helps you appreciate it more:

A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

'A Word is Dead', Emily Dickinson

Of course, as with stories, one should go to the acknowledged masters, though here I suggest you approach with caution. While one can find no end of pleasure or stimulation in the works of writers such as W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Robert Burns, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes or Iain Crichton Smith, contemporary writers may have a greater sense of immediacy and will almost certainly tell you more about yourself and the world you inhabit than you thought possible. People usually find writers of their own generation most appealing, and one should initially look for writers whose voice and language resembles their own. In Scotland we are lucky to have three languages, and all have been eloquently served by their writers.

Again anthologies are a good idea. And, as with stories, you may find American writing more accessible. Don't let that prevent you from looking at other writers; the more you read, the more you absorb. Children's anthologies offer a good beginning and anything that can help you appreciate and understand poetry is to be welcomed.

You may find it helpful to join a writers' group, those taken by writers are usually best, or to go to readings by contemporary writers. The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh is a useful contact and small circulation magazines can yield surprising results: promise: if you let poetry into your life - if you read aloud and read attentively, discover how to interpret poetry for yourself - you'll start seeing benefits, including a broader life, a more sensitive awareness, and a more flexible spirit.

Introduction, Poetry for Dummies

And anyone who learns to organise their thoughts and language in a concise way is obviously giving themselves a head start.

Reading List

Again, I've limited the list to anthologies:

A New Treasury of Poetry (Blackie) Compiled by Neil Philip;

The Rattle Bag (Faber) Edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes;

The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (Faber) Edited by Helen Vendler;

The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry (Faber) Edited by Douglas Dunn;

The Penguin Book of American Verse (Penguin) Edited by Geoffrey Moore;

Making for Planet Alice: New Women Poets (Bookaxe) Edited by Maura Dooley.