Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part IV

Dark North by Paul FinchCan you tell our readers about your writing process? Do you plan incessantly or freestyle as you go along?

On one hand, I’m an inveterate planner. For example, with a novel or script, I tend to write a detailed chapter-by-chapter (or scene-by-scene) outline before even commencing the actual writing, though I suppose in the professional game it’s incumbent on you to do that anyway. On the other hand, I do have this tendency to jump in, to try and strike while the iron’s hot – though that applies to short stories rather than longer works. And even then, once my first wind is blown, I tend to sit back and take stock, try to work out exactly where the tale is going. Though even then, having worked out the beats on paper, that might not be the final storyline. I think, whatever you’re writing, you’ve got to be aware, throughout, that you might get an even better idea which may send you off at a tangent or may have you backtracking to make changes so that it will fit. But if it’s a better idea it’s a better idea, and it’s got to be worth the extra effort – at least that’s my view.

So I suppose, to answer the question less long-windedly, I plan whenever possible. That always helps you create a balanced structure and a clear narrative. In addition, I blitz it whenever I get one of those wonderful moments of inspiration – no matter how orderly and organised you like to be, I don’t think you can afford to ignore those moments (‘the divine breath’ as my dad used to call them). But overall I keep everything pretty loose until the final draft. And I don’t think that’s a particularly radical approach.

Do you approach short stories in a different way to longer fiction?

I think I’ve partly answered this in the question before but maybe there’s a bit more I can add. First off, writing is writing, and I don’t think the approach varies too much overall. At least it doesn’t in my case. However, there are some noticeable differences.

The general consensus seems to be that the short story is more about the short, sharp shock, even if it’s not necessarily a thriller or horror story. O’Henry, for example, one of the world’s greatest short story writers, delivered a gut-punch with every one of his short tales, even those that were essentially comedies. But that almost makes it sound as if there’s no more to short stories than the sting in the tale and I don’t think that’s true. Roald Dahl’s classic Lamb To The Slaughter is a masterful piece of short story writing. It’s as funny as it’s horrific and at the same time is an amazing murder mystery. Green Fingers by Charles Birkin is a slow-burning character-study in evil and yet at the same time is much more profound than that. Its central character is a middle-class German woman who stumbles almost blindly into participating in the Holocaust. Birkin was never regarded as having produced works of great depth and yet that story in particular is one of the most chilling I’ve ever read for all kinds of different reasons, not least what it says about ordinary everyday people and their terrible capabilities.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that good short story writing combines all the finer elements of fiction, but crisply, economically and yet with greater intensity. At least that’s what those of us who write them aspire to. The short form is a big discipline; it’s certainly not something you can knock off as a quick earner. My personal approach is to give it a lot of thought beforehand – as much, if possible (though it rarely is) as a book, screenplay or novella – to wring as much out of it as I can, and then, once it’s written, to proof it until the cows come home – though I have to be realistic, and admit that the average writer’s schedule rarely allows for this. At the end of the day, just be aware that in writing short stories, you’re writing for a community of readers who are not just fond of contemporary authors, but of those who are long dead and whose work lives on. It’s tough company in which to shine.

For all that, even more thought and planning needs to go into the longer form, be it a novel, a novella or screenplay – quite simply because you’re working on a much broader canvas, and it’s got to be filled, but filled with good, relevant stuff. The moment a story starts to sag, the audience will notice, and may abandon it. That’s the main risk of the longer form as I see it. You’ve got to stay on top of it all the way through and be ruthless with yourself. You’ve got to ensure that everything you put in adds to the product as a whole. If it doesn’t, it’s got to come out; anything that isn’t entertaining your audience in some way has to come out – even if this means you lose length.

One of the most instructive things I was ever told about writing was while I was a trainee journalist. It sounds simple, it may even sound glib, but I was reporting on some local minor issue and when I asked the editor how much he wanted, he replied: “Give it what it’s worth.” That rules applies universally in writing, as far as I can see – even to the blockbuster novel. If it’s worth 200,000 words, give it 200,000, though you’d better be sure you’re right, because people won’t read it all if it isn’t and that’s a lot of wasted effort on your part.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that, while short stories can’t be undertaken lightly, you need to be on your game – remaining sharp and focussed – for a much longer time if you’re writing something a lot meatier. Again, how do I personally approach this? The same way I do with the short story, though I feel there’s an extra dimension of discipline required with a novel. I don’t like to drag things out ad infinitum, because that way I’d never finish anything. So I always impose a fairly rigorous time-frame on my longer form writing, aiming to finish the first draft of a screenplay within a month and a novel within three months. Okay, sometimes you bust it, but at least that gives you strong motivation. You have to divide that time up sensibly of course – with a novel, making sure you write at least 2,000 words a day – but this is my day-job now, so it’s not quite as onerous as it may sound.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Speak Your Mind

*