There is something truly special about a great short story. Done well, it is a self-contained little gem to be savored. A talented short story writer has the ability to create characters and dialogue that grab the reader and create a connection within a limited space. Without a doubt, Anthony Varallo is one of those writers. This author of three short story collections is known for his innate talent for transforming the everyday stuff of life into compelling narrative. He is also the fiction editor of the literary journal Crazyhorse, as well as a professor in the English department at the College of Charleston. Later this year, Varallo’s newest story collection, Everyone Was There, will be released. In a slight departure, the book will focus on works of flash fiction. Varallo is also currently at work on his first novel.
Why short stories?
It’s better suited to describe ordinary lives; cul-de-sacs, neighborhoods, people arguing around the kitchen table. It was the first form that made me realize I could write well and be a writer. It hooked me the way you could throw intense light on ordinary lives and people. The brevity of the form made an impact on me.
Making the ordinary interesting
I tell students when they’re first thinking of ideas – if you have an idea that shouts out to you, that seems like a great idea and everyone will love it, be wary of that idea. But if you have an idea and your first thought is it’s not very good, or nobody would ever want to hear it, that’s actually a good idea. The best ideas are hiding just behind your doubts. When I push through doubts, I find it’s an access point to something that’s meaningful.
All good stories should read as if as the writer always knew where it was going. Short stories have epiphanies or transformation at the end. I have very little idea where it’s going. Sometimes it takes me months or years to write, to figure out how it will end. I’ve learned to be patient and not beat myself up too much if I don’t know the ending.
I think humor is a mark of all good writing. From my reading life, I’m drawn to writers with a first-class sense of humor. I think for humor to work, you want to let the subject matter be funny. Don’t try to make it funny by adding exclamation points or pumping prose for comic effect. Allow characters to say smart and surprising things. Don’t manipulate it too much.
The reader reads for dialogue more than anything. The writer’s habit is to describe, but the reader would rather hear the character. I like the first line of my dialogue to be surprising. There’s a lot of pressure for the first line of character dialogue. I want something unprecedented that hopefully draws the reader closer to the character.
I love teaching, and I love editing, but of course they take time. Don’t panic if you can’t find the be-all, end-all writing routine. One writer’s routine doesn’t work for another. Figure out what works for you. I find writing in the mornings preferable to writing in the evening. I need daylight and I need coffee. I’m happy if I write for an hour, or if I write one good paragraph. I don’t feel bad because I didn’t write two paragraphs.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
More in this series:
Jonathan Maberry: How I Write
Alice Hoffman: How I Write
Sue Monk Kidd: How I Write
Kwame Dawes: How I Write
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