Theodora Goss Interview
What a sentence should do is multitask. It should do at least two things: convey character and move the plot, for instance. Once, at one of the Wiscon workshops, where I was the official professional writer, one of the other writers asked me how I achieved the density she had seen in a particular short story. I think that's the secret: each sentence has to do more than one thing. Other than that, each sentence should be clear.
This all sounds rather technical, but it's become instinctive, and I do it without thinking about it. When I write, it just flows, and I actually don't revise all that much, unless I workshop something and the other writers tell me that it doesn't work, and I agree with them. (I don't always agree with them.) Then, I'll revise quite a lot, but certainly not to make something more beautiful. I'll revise for clarity, character development, that sort of thing. In a way, I'm not particularly concerned with beauty. To the extent that happens, it's a byproduct of the fact that, you're right, sound really is quite important to me.
I think each short story does something different. There's nothing in particular that a short story should do, except whatever it is that particular story should do — its purpose is internal to the story. I'm not sure what you mean by working on the reader. The story should certainly interest the reader, but it should also leave the reader free. Sometimes in workshops people are told that a story should "grab" the reader or something like that. What would you do to someone who grabbed you? Probably punch them, right? Perhaps I can make one of those categorical statements that I'll end up contradicting later — a short story should interest the reader, whereas a novel should involve the reader. There isn't enough space in a short story to get the reader deeply emotionally involved. When a short story tries to get me emotionally involved, I almost always end up feeling manipulated. The best short stories, for me, are the ones that deal with ideas. But I learned to write short stories by reading Jorge Luis Borges, Isak Dinesen, and Angela Carter.
I don't think there's very much the short story can't do, and I've only begun exploring the possibilities. I feel as though I do something quite different with each short story, to be honest. As though I were exploring exactly what I can do with the form. To the extent that my understanding of the form has changed, it's because I've read short stories that show me what can be done. Reading Kelly Link and Ted Chiang, for example, always teaches me something.
Looking back at this response and the previous one, I'm realizing just how much I think of writing in terms of technique. What you see when you read the story isn't the technique, it's the story itself. But the foundation is technique. I took ballet classes for a long time, and when I watch Swan Lake, for example, one part of my mind pays attention to the story the ballet is telling, and another part is naming the steps, recognizing how they link together to form a particular movement. The same things happens when I read: I enjoy the story, but part of my mind is always thinking about how it's put together, and how I could do something similar, or make a particular move my own. What I'm doing now? Honestly, at this point I'm just trying to write the stories people have asked me to write. I barely have time to work on stories that haven't been, essentially, commissioned. But if a project excites me, I like the challenge of writing a story on a particular topic or to a particular theme.