Familiar and reliable, new and strange
Carracks, kerseymere and other last straws

Bliss and the baggy monster

Oh, the bliss of not having a novel to write! A fortnight in the middle of January is booked out for when the copy-edit of A Secret Alchemy arrives, and meanwhile I've been taking advantage to work on a couple of short stories. One is, you could say, a seasonal bagatelle: a small idea which first occurred to me this time last year, when I didn't dare divert from the long haul that has become A Secret Alchemy to write so much as a shopping list. This idea's been waiting patiently in the back of my head ever since, which is as good a test of its possibilities as any, I find. Not that I've got it right yet, but the typed-up first draft is printed and sitting on my desk. If it works it'll be because of its atmosphere: a small, strong hit of colour and scent, and something shimmery and intangible to do with time.

The other story is more substantial. Like my Christmas story - like most of my stories - it arrived last November in the un-visual equivalent of a vision, courtesy of some music on the radio which awoke a memory. And though the original vision is still the beginning, it quickly grew. Usually with a short story I just think and think, until I know the first line and I write that down. A few pages in, when I've found out what I've got - what kind of development of plot and character it's setting up - I might scribble a few words of planning. But this story got two whole pages of notes to itself before I knew more than the first line: there are several characters, several scenes, a complex of relationships. I've even found myself wondering if it's not the beginning of a novel.

But it's not, and 1,000 scribbled words in I know it. For one thing, I can see the end from where I'm standing at the beginning, and not just the end but the whole, short journey: there's only one main point, one kind of development that the characters undergo, and the whole complex is made of no more than these. It's like dropping in on friends for a cup of coffee and a quick but complete catch-up; a novel is like moving in to lodge with them till you've straightened your life out.

Poe defined the short story as being all about brevity and intensity, about 'unity of effect'. Since then it's been hard to come up with a better definition, though many have tried. Will this one qualify under Poe's definition? I worried away over lunch, picking my plans apart in my head, and burnt the toast. And then I remembered a conversation years ago with a writing friend whose natural form is the short story. I wanted to try my hand at them and had a willing audience in my MPhil workshop, but didn't know where to start. The only one I'd written I knew was terrible even at the time. 'What's a short story made of?' I asked. 'How do I know what's a short story idea when I think it? How do I decide what to do with it?' She said that in her own work she recognised two sorts of story. I waited for her to say 'epiphanic' and then 'revelatory'. But she didn't. She said, 'I think of my stories as either big poems, or small novels.'

I've found it as good a pair of definitions as any. It's not about length, but about what the story's trying to do. Is my idea to explore a set of ideas and images, with a bare minimum of narrative to hang them on, as one of my most successful stories, 'Maura's Arm', does about human bodies and machines? Or is it telling a story: a series of events that happen to people, things they do, ways they change? The latter comes more naturally to me, but perhaps that's why I find it harder to pull off. That look that I know so well in my trusted readers' eyes is telling me that I'm trying to stuff a novelistic gallon (forget quarts, I don't do quarts) into a short story's pint-pot.

That's novelists for you. Henry James once crossly called a misbehaving novel of his own a baggy monster, but we like the bagginess, the squashy-sided, ever-expanding portmanteau gaping open for whatever we choose to put in: all sorts of ideas, all sorts of stories. With short stories it's a much more demanding choice, and yet you can make all those choices, create your whole, your small effect of unity, in a long weekend or two. Bliss.