WE shall call her Story No 319. She was conceived like any other tale, in a bed of love. Hers was the sort of inspiration that roused you from sleep at 2am, coming into your mind complete and proportional: you had the perfect Starting Sentence, could see the Surprise Ending right away, three or four paragraphs after the Delectable Twist in the Tale. There was no reason not to write her immediately, so I did.

I raised her with the best of hopes. She seemed a prize winner from the start, the way her sentences flowed, each paragraph tastefully asserted by a scintillating metaphor. She was done within the day, written in one seamless burst of serendipity. Not so much a first draft as a perfectly finished story in one take. I slept over her and browsed her anew in the unforgiving daylight of a new dawn, deciding that she was not so much ‘great’ as ‘competent’. I realised that – far from being virginal – the plot was reasonably hackneyed, the humour a touch wooden and the metaphors a mite provincial. In any case, it was a paragraph too long, and rather maudlin in places. So to tweak.

Writing is of course tyrannised by the Great Rewrite, which is to say that as many times as the writer rereads a story, he invariably revises it. It may be a tweak of the odd word, or a full overhaul, but few clean print-outs will escape the pencilled scrawl across their black and white perfection. It is like the raising of a loved child: that gentle and loving iteration of a single punctuation… they’d turn out well in the end, but it would take time.

The tragedy of 319 was that I had no time for her.

She was like any other queen, born a mere princess, callow and naïve, her anxious paragraphs had to be mentored until they proceeded with the sedate carriage of a queen. Yet, I had no time for the daily edits… no time to record and playback 319, listening to the weight and cadence of her audible sentences, correcting word by word for a regal accent, assessing the colour and temperature of the conversations… I had no time! So I pulled out the fierce koboko of dictionary and red editorial pen. There was a simple discipline to the writer’s craft, after all. I’d whip this tale into shape once and for all, with the trusty formula of setting, crisis and resolution. So to trash.

And it was done, just like that: a finished, competent tale in time for the submission deadline. Done, titled and published, 319 was – and living a permanent life on the pages of a prestigious book… Yet, the vision has been betrayed by the compromise and on the mornings after when I browse her anew I cannot read her beyond the first paragraph.

For it is excruciating to hear a queen falter in speech. And I see now how a still-born tale can make a mausoleum out of the pages of a living book.


(Note: the beautiful young model in the foreground of the photograph will live a long and successful life)

10 Replies to “The Tragic Life and Death of a Short Story”

  1. Kiru Taye says:

    I loved reading this. It is so relevant to me on several counts but the bit that would stay with me is this:

    ‘Yet, the vision has been betrayed by the compromise and on the mornings after when I browse her anew I cannot read her beyond the first paragraph.

    For it is excruciating to hear a queen falter in speech. And I see now how a still-born tale can make a mausoleum out of the pages of a living book.’

    I certainly have similar nightmares about my stories and pray I’d never stop reading any of them after the first paragraph. I’d rather they never went to print.

    Fabulously written.

  2. Ivor Hartmann says:

    Well said Chuma :). The greatest gift, and indeed an unequivocally essential one, we can give our stories is that of time. Time to let it sit while we gain perspective (six months at least), time to carefully go through it once we have that perspective, time to let first readers have their say, time, time, quality time. And without it we do not honour the story, nor the extended process that may make it great.

    1. Chuma Nwokolo says:

      @Ivor, you say six months at least… I guess the time span has got to remain subjective, to depend upon the writer’s experience, and on how many other things he/she has on the plate at the time

      1. Ivor Hartmann says:

        Sure, it is subjective, but six months is a good place to start until you can work out how exactly long on average it takes you personally to be objective enough about your story. Some will need less, some will need more.

  3. Ovo says:

    Great stuff Chuma. I got lost the other day in a small city; I walked around the street blocks a couple of times – stubbornly refused to ask for directions. And then I found myself where I started out from. There was a terrible moment, in the throes of my confusion, when I thought – you know that eerie, deja vu feeling – I was on the cusp of another short story.

    1. Chuma Nwokolo says:

      Doesn’t take much stubbornness NOT to ask questions in many a city… chances are that the chap you’re asking is a tourist like you (with a lot more confidence) – and will send you off in the opposite direction! 🙂

      Re short story… any excuse for a tale!

  4. Ovo says:

    Did you miss the drift? Getting lost in that small city was like writing a short story. You think you can handle it; you have it all figured out; you don’t need help; after all it’s a one-hose town, a small thing, only a short story. How can you lose your way in a few blocks, in only a few thousand words? But you keep head-scratching, editing, re-editing, adding, removing, going around in circles, always returning to where you started from with new eyes, and knowing the place, possibly, for the first time.

    1. Chuma Nwokolo says:

      You’re right, Ovo, you’d lost me there!

      Three thousand words are enough to build a world to get lost in… how much more a city…
      It is a real gift to be able to work the magic again and again.


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