Frank O’Connor’s study of the short story landed in my mailbox this weekend and I dove in during the Snow-pocalypse on Sunday. Not sure how I missed this story writing guide for so many years. First published 50 years ago, The Lonely Voice is based on O’Connor’s master class in fiction he taught in 1961 at Stanford University. Among his students were Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurtry. According to Russell Banks, who wrote the introduction to the reprinted versions in 1985, few of his students praised the workshop that accompanied O’Connor’s master class. Mmmm.
Frank O’Connor, who died in Dublin in 1966 at the age of 62, represented one of the best of the Irish Renaissance and his ideal short story, as he explained in The Lonely Voice, gives the reader “precisely enough information.” Unlike novels that tell the reader everything, the short story’s elements of exposition, development and drama tell just enough.
And there’s the puzzle. How does a writer decide what constitutes precisely enough information? This question has dogged me for a very long time, as long, I daresay, as I’ve been writing short fiction. And if I hoped that reading The Lonely Voice would provide clear-cut answers to that question, I was misguided. What I learned from O’Connor (so far) is to disregard word counts and proclamations about length. The form of the short story, he tells me, is not determined by its length. Rather, the length is given by the form.
How do you judge precision when it comes to your stories? Let me hear from you short story writers, especially if you’ve found other wisdom from Frank O’Connor’s book.