The Five Things I Learnt from Chris Power
Back in the peace and calm of 2019, Clare Howdle was selected as a Word Factory Apprentice, winning the mentorship of short story supremo, Chris Power.
As The Word Factory prepares itself for our 2021 Apprentice award, Clare shares with us some of what she learnt…
Over the last year, through the Word Factory apprentice award I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored by author Chris Power. It’s been an eye-opening glimpse into his writing process, his critical thinking and the rigour and graft each story should get to make it the best it can be. I’ve learnt an inordinate amount about my style, strengths and the recurring issues that trip me up, worked through reams of paper, laughed a lot and am sure my writing (not to mention reading) has come a long way because of it.
And although Chris has told me he doesn’t like to generalise in his advice but rather work with each story, and writer, in their unique context, I have defied his preference, to create for him… Chris Power’s General Tips for Writing Excellence™. Seriously though, alongside the one-to-one mentoring, Chris gave me some broader advice that I found incredibly valuable and I think anyone writing – and particularly editing – short stories will find it valuable too. So here they are. You’re welcome, Chris.
Chris Power’s General Tips for Writing Excellence™
1. Let the reader in. It’s all too easy to live in the head of your characters and forget that the world they are in, the way they move through it, needs to be clear for readers to engage. Don’t be afraid to set the scene, give clarity about the journey being taken, the distance travelled, the conflict and tension along the way.
2. Identify the key moments of tension in your story and interrogate what happens before and after those moments. Work into them, are they strong enough, do they hold the reader, challenge them, pull them in? Chris mentioned a Donald Barthelme story that keeps fooling the reader into believing it’s reaching its climax at the end of every page and the ebbs back again, to begin the build. Experiment and explore how to make the most of your points of tension.
3. Be radical. You don’t want your story to be too well behaved. What can you do with your work to push it, to take the story somewhere new, to challenge yourself and your own views of what a story can be? Don’t get distracted by style for style’s sake, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself and try something different.
4. Think about the story as a whole so you get the pace right. Look at the rising and falling action, is the build long enough, is the denouement too long? Chris mentioned that a judging technique used by one of his fellow BBC National Short Story Award judges is to take the middle page of a story, the actual physical middle page, and see what’s happening on it. What’s gone before and what’s got the characters here? Does this mid-point grip readers the way it needs to? Get that right and better rise and fall should follow.
5. Be patient. Writing takes time. Focus your energy on the right things, not worrying if you’re ready to submit or dwelling on things that are out of your hands. Concentrate on making your work the best it can be. Once you’ve done that you can lose hours of sleep to the rest, safe in the knowledge you’ve done all you can do.
Chris Power’s short story collection Mothers is out now. His first novel, A Lonely Man, is coming in April 2021.
As writer of the Guardian’s A Brief Survey of the Short Story, books journalist and voracious reader, one of the highlights of my mentorship with Chris was the endless book and short story recommendations that came my way. Here are a few that are now on my reading/read pile if you’re interested:
1. Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley (Chris recommended all Hadley’s short stories, I opted for these)
2. Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme, (as above)
3. The Lady With the Little Dog and Other Stories, Anton Chekhov
4. The Brain Dead Megaphone, George Saunders
5. Evening in Paradise, Lucia Berlin
6. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
7. Young Skins, Colin Barratt
8. In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, Amy Hempel
9. Paper Lantern, Stuart Dyvek