Gretchen Shirm on Starting fiction – how does it happen?

We asked tutor Gretchen Shirm to tell us more about her experience of getting started as a writer of fiction and the events of 2020 have affected her writing.

FWA: What are the key features that make a good fiction story?

GS: I would say that a good fictional story almost always comes down to voice. Often this is about the conviction the narrative voice has about where it is going – a sense of awareness perhaps, a clear purpose and intention. As long as that is present, I think it can contain almost any story, in any form. 

FWA: How did you get started on your two books?

GS: With my first book I had no idea what I was doing and I wrote A LOT of drafts before I had anything worth preserving. One day, after lots of reading and writing, something just clicked and I realised that I had a grasp of narrative that I hadn’t had before. With my second book I think I was really teaching myself to write a novel as I went, so there were a lot of drafts! I knew I wanted to write about the connection between photography and writing, but that was all I had to go on at the start.

FWA: What is the difference between starting out on a short story and starting out on a novel?

GS: That’s a very good question! I think with a novel you are writing for discovery – you’re finding out what you think about the subject as you go. Whereas I often have the whole short story in my head before I start writing. That is not to say that a novel is a ‘bigger’ thing than a short story – it’s just a more sustained examination. 

FWA: How have you been writing through the intensity of 2020?

GS: Well, I just finished a fiction manuscript and since that I’ve been working on some personal essays that include aspects of literary criticism and even some theory. I’ve always really loved the personal essay as a form – Maggie Nelson and Maria Tumarkin — in particular. I think what’s interesting about the personal essay is the way it comes at the one subject from different directions. 

FWA: What is the major thing you hope that students in Start to Write: Fiction will take away from your course?

GS: I think one of the biggest impediments to writing when we first start out is giving ourselves permission to write; to have the faith that we have something interesting to say. Beyond that, for people who think ‘creative writing can’t be taught’ – that’s rubbish. It’s about recognising what techniques are available to a writer and finding out how best to put them to work for you. 

Thank you to Gretchen Shirm.

Follow this link for more information about Start to Write: Fiction.