Some Things About Short Stories

Short stories. I’m a big fan of them. I love reading them, and in the past year and a half, I realized that I love writing them, too. They don’t require a significant time commitment reading-wise, so you don’t forget or miss out on much after long breaks (as I’ve learned back in 2015). Short stories also enable writers to cut the crap and just get on with it — we have fewer pages and words to work with, unlike novels, where there’s plenty of room to set people and things up as needed. But these things don’t mean short stories are easier to write, or that their impact is less compared to other forms of prose.

I went through three local short-story collections recently — fiction, humor and sports writer Jessica Zafra‘s The Stories So Far, assistant professor and spec-fic writer Gabriela Lee‘s Instructions on How to Disappear, and the late journalist and editor Luis Katigbak’s Dear Distance: Stories — partly to see what our writers have worked on, and how they wrote their stories (a.k.a. research). In the process, I came up with my own questions about short stories.

Write “complete” short stories, or write short scenes?

Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle and end. They have (ideally complex) characters, a setting or several settings, and a main conflict, which bring the reader to a climax then ends once a resolution is reached. And the whole thing should have a neat bow tied on it by the last line. These are the usual expectations of readers for stories, regardless of their length.

But short stories (and flash fiction) defy those expectations. Sometimes the brevity and playfulness with form work, sometimes they don’t. Many of the stories in The Stories So Far and Dear Distance read more like mere moments in the authors’ imagination rather than complete tales: they bring you into fictional worlds, then abruptly end once you’re already invested in these worlds. In short, bitin. O, tapos? Yun na yun?

Out of these three books, Zafra’s The Stories So Far has the most bitin stories. Maybe it’s the writer’s intention and style — her 1994 award-winning short story “Portents” has the same bitin factor, and elicited the same ‘o, tapos?’ reaction from me as around half of the stories in this 2016 book. Lee’s titular “Instructions on How to Disappear” and “Eyes as Wide as the Sky” were similarly too short for me, as well as Katigbak’s flash-fiction pieces “Knowledge” and “The Girl on the Bus”.

Someone told me a few months ago (I can’t remember if it’s a professor, classmate, friend or colleague) that Filipino writers have a tendency to churn out bitin stories. This person also noted that while that’s a bad thing to be known for, it’s also good that more writers are creating more stories with plenty of “Filipino-ness”, and that these writers don’t always come from the typical grad school/workshop mold, or aren’t products of literary patronage. Writers learn how to write by writing, right? So let them write bitin work because that still counts, and they’ll learn from it.

Then again, reading one story after another that’s all middle and have no beginning and end can be deeply unsatisfying and infuriating. I think it affects the overall quality of a collection, as I noticed with Diaspora Ad Astra.

How can I make my short story unique?

I ask this mainly because I sometimes feel Filipino writers have the same influences, or unintentionally copy each other’s styles. I also know that comparisons of and similarities between stories are inevitable, but I still want to avoid that in my own work, if possible.

Lee’s “Stations” reminds me of Eliza Victoria’s short story “Rizal”, the latter included in the aforementioned Diaspora Ad Astra anthology. Based on the end notes for both books, “Stations” was first published in print in 2013, and “Rizal”, online in 2012.  So maybe same inspiration and/or influences? I just find it amusing that both stories are similar in their depiction of the future, and have similar-sounding elements (Lee’s Kalapati vs. Victoria’s Lakampati).

Who’s talking?

One of the difficulties I always have when writing fiction is giving different characters different voices. To me, they should sound, think, and react like the actual flesh-wearing, air-breathing people you’d meet in real life, not like every character in a Joss Whedon movie. That’s a challenge when you basically know only one way to be, or when your readers are too familiar with your distinct voice.

Most if not all of Zafra’s stories in The Stories So Far are 100% Zafra, down to the cat’s-eye eyeglasses. If you’re familiar with her articles, books, blog and TV show, you can imagine her narrating the stories and saying the dialogue in her usual way. She has such a strong and distinct voice, literally and on paper, that it’s hard to hear her character’s voices.

I’m familiar with Katigbak’s work in Philippine media, mainly for Esquire Philippines. Some of the stories in Dear Distance read like nonfiction, which was a bit unsettling for me. The short story “The Editorial Meeting” was also directly influenced by his job as a magazine editor (and that story made me miss my own magazine-girl days), and some of his characters are writers or involved in the arts. In this way, Katigbak’s voice is still “heard” loud and clear. The only exception was the story “Dear Distance”, where Katigbak went full sci-fi and really let loose.

He also had a tendency to make his characters weirdly insightful and reflective by the stories’ end. I wish everyone in this world had the same rich inner life.

I haven’t read any of Lee’s stories before Instructions on How to Disappear, so I have no basis for comparison. But I did notice that (like most authors) she likes repeating certain words and phrases in her stories, with “so this is what ______ feels/is like” coming in at #1. She also makes her characters “shudder” after sex several times that I started to shudder, too. I know we all have our favorite words and writing quirks, but yeah, weird people like me will notice these small things.

What else can writers experiment with in short stories?

I like complaining about Zafra’s fiction-writing style, but the bitin style also allows her to use the short stories in The Stories So Far as a collage of sorts. She introduces multiple people into one story, then includes an element or two that connects to the other stories. For example, a female character named Jude made an appearance in five of the stories, and was shown in specific moments of her childhood to adulthood. It was fun to see which stories are connected in some way, although this approach also gets tiring really fast.

Lee plays with the short-story structure as well, using time jumps in “Hunger” and flashbacks in “August Moon” and “Capture”. She also blends speculative fiction and science fiction with mythological aspects, giving Instructions on How to Disappear an interesting mix of stories.

I think Katigbak experimented with the genre itself instead of structure. As I said, some of his fiction stories read more like nonfiction. I also like how he didn’t use flowery words or lyricism often to tell a story. In the few times that he did, it didn’t come off as pretentious or overdone. As for his overall theme of distance, his stories showed the different interesting physical, emotional, and mental manifestations of it.

Standouts?

If you have to read only one story from The Stories So Far, make it “914, 915, 916”. It’s not bitin at all, and the premise is awesome. But for the most part, I prefer reading Zafra’s nonfiction/humor work.

For Lee’s Instructions on How to Disappear, I liked “Bargains”, “Tabula Rasa”, “Hunger”, and “This Side of the Looking Glass” the best. I’m also envious that she came up with those concepts and plots first, and she knows how to actually end her stories, haha. Have some extra patience for all the typos and misused words, though.

As for Katigbak’s Dear Distance, make sure to read “Tell the Sky”, “The Editorial Meeting” (because I’m biased like that), “Robot Boy and Hepa”, and “Dear Distance”. Sad to know that he’s not around anymore, but at least he got to write this and several other books before he died.

The Stories So Far, Jessica Zafra
Paperback, Anvil Publishing
Buy: National Book Store

Instructions on How to Disappear, Gabriela Lee
Paperback, Visprint
Buy: National Book Store | Fully Booked

Dear Distance: Stories, Luis Joaquin M. Katigbak
Paperback, Anvil Publishing
Buy: National Book Store | Amazon | Kobo