Here is the full interview on crafting, writing and selling short stories that I recently did for Terence Toh for his article “The Long and Short of it” in The Star. Some of the best stuff was left out since it featured several other writers and readers.
1. Why do you enjoy writing short stories?
When I first began to write, I would spend 15 minutes every day randomly describing something by carefully observing my surroundings, whether I was at home, eating outside, waiting at a bus stop or inside a bank. Most of the short stories that I wrote for my Popular Readers Choice Award winning collection Lovers and Strangers Revisited began that way. I didn’t set out to write a short story, yet by merely observing my surroundings, an idea would take hold and I would stay with it for as long as it took to rough out a first draft. What an unexpected joy — turning an exercise into a short story in a couple of hours. Now that you have a new story, you got something to work with…which is a whole lot more enjoyable than staring at a blank page.
2. How is the process of writing and editing a short story different from other forms of writing, eg. novels?
A short story, like a good poem, has a singular effect, a singular voice. Novels can by rangy and loose. Short stories are taut, no wasted words are allowed, no digressions. Being short, about 8-25 pages, it can be roughed out and polished in a matter of days, weeks, whereas a novel takes months, years. It takes a lot of patience. Sometimes it feels like you’re digging a ditch, day after day, week after week, month after month, but you just got to keep on digging until you reach the end of that novel, then you got to revise and edit it, draft after draft. Far too many writers give up after the initial inspiration dries up. God, this is taking forever!
3. In your opinion, what elements should a great short story have?
A well-crafted short story has it all: tight writing, great imagery, apt descriptions, resonating mood, controlling theme, memorable characters, plus a logical, well-thought out, plausible story even if its fantasy or science fiction. It has a singular effect driven to an inevitable conclusion even if we never saw it coming, leaving the reader feeling utterly satisfied.
4. What is the greatest challenge of creating a memorable short story?
The biggest challenge is creating an effective story with a unified theme that holds it all together, something that resonates deeply with the reader. We have to show this (as if we’re watching a play or a movie unfold), not tell, and the reader doesn’t often see this over-arching theme until the final resolution, something else they didn’t see coming, despite it being a logical culmination based on what came before….Too many beginning writers try to trick the reader to show how “clever” they are; but in fact they’ve cheated the reader by creating an implausible ending that leaves the reader scratching his head and thinking, “Huh?” Whereas, a memorable short story is based on logic, even if the ending is unexpected, yet the clues, the inner workings of the story, the cause and effects of the characters’ actions, were all in place. We’re left thinking, “Wow, great story!”
5. How is the reception like for short stories in Malaysia? (compared to other parts of the world, if you are familiar with them?)
I think it’s wonderful what Amir Muhammad is doing with Fixi Novo, creating outlets for local writers. It’s one thing to be published online, another to hold a book with your story in it. On-line publishers, however, often have a greater reach….Markets in Malaysia (and around the world) have always come and gone. Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s many of my short stories were published in Her World and Female and other local magazines here and in Singapore that published short stories every month; but then they dried up. Others would appear and disappear. Recently Esquire Malaysia published fiction, but then stopped. I used to go to newsstands and scour local magazines to see if any new markets have appeared; now writers can do that by Googling….It was great when Raman Krishnan came out with his Silverfish anthologies and then began publishing short story collections by Malaysian writers. MPH has also been very successful. The markets and publishers are there; they may come and go, but the writer has to look for them, just like writers do all over the world. Malaysian writers can even submit their stories overseas online. I’ve had Malaysian-set short stories published in twelve countries.
—Borneo Expat Writer
My interviews with other writers on their first novels:
Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.
Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey
Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day, finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009.
Chuah Guat Eng, author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change.
Five part Maugham and Me series