The Craft: Are You Experienced?

Today, I’m writing the first in a series of themed postings for my blog. I’m calling the series, “The Craft.” This series will continue intermittently, will be posted when I feel like it and will include musings on the craft of fiction writing. I hope you find them useful.

The first subject I want to take up is experience. After writing a novel and a short story and seeing them to completion (a total of 62,100 words), I like to think of myself of as an experienced writer. But the truth is I have a long, long way to go. At least, if an introduction to Chekhov’s short stories is any guide.

In the 588 pieces of fiction Chekhov wrote between 1880 and  1902, he ranged more widely than any Russian writer before him.

I’ve been a fan of Chekhov ever since I read his Lady with the Lap Dog in Russian inside a slim, green collected-works volume my landlord had in his Moscow flat. (I ended up ‘liberating’ the last volume with ‘Lady’ in it from the flat and I don’t think the landlord ever missed it.)

Despite the fact that his stories are often plot-less or plot-light (like life itself), I think they are rightly regarded as a pinnacle of realist fiction. Just pick up one of his stories and you’re sucked into his world, the world of 19th-century provincial Russia. It has the details of gesture, clothes, speech all correlated to the right person according to their age, gender, profession and class. It has a narrator that is so hidden he might as well not exist. It’s  up to the reader to make all the judgments and interpretations. He uses metaphors, simile and flowery language minimally, but when he does, it strikes home, leaving a lasting image in your mind’s eye. Often, he uses weather to set or suggest a mood: a blizzard, a rain storm, or oppressive heat catching travellers on the road and throwing them together out of necessity.

Most importantly, there’s that famous tone. That subtle light touch, imbuing everything, the characters, the animals, the landscape with a despondent, hopeless ennui. Some have called it elegiac. But there is a Russian word, that some say is untranslatable, that captures it perfectly: тоска.

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But don’t think for a minute that all this came to him cheaply or easily, without a price. It reflects a lifetime of close observation, note taking and hard work. As a country doctor he wandered the provinces gathering characters, anecdotes and situations that would later populate his stories. And topped he it off with years of writing stories on deadline to a strict word count for obscure magazines as the introduction to the stories says:

The St. Petersburg journal ‘Fragments‘ [‘Осколки’] immediately became the most popular publication when it was founded in 1881. Like other such journals, it was full of cartoons, corny jokes, amusing little stories, and vignettes of contemporary life…This was the arena in which Chekhov learnt his craft as a writer.

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It’s so easy to remember the great Chekhov stories: The Lady with the Lap Dog, Gooseberries, The Steppe, The Student (Chekhov’s personal favorite). But it’s those other 584 stories that made him great. The years he spent honing his craft writing for Fragments and other pulp humor magazines, before switching to light vignettes with a humorous touch, to his final mature, dramatic stories and plays that have entered the canons of Western and Russian literature.

That’s something I’m reminding myself as I slog through the process of writing short stories and getting them rejected by magazines (4 rejections so far for my best sci fi story yet). And as I’m writing novels for Kindle and Nook were the audience is numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. But I figure with my 2 pieces as compared to Chekhov’s 588, I still have a long, long way to go.

As ACDC said, “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll.” It’s an illusion to think writers (or musicians) have ever had it any differently.


[This is a ‘business’ postscript: Technorati Code is 4JDCSY3YUS5P. Now, Technorati can find and index this blog.]

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