Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Time to Make it Shorter

In just over an hour last Saturday night, four Canadian short story writers tackled some big literary questions. What draws us to the short story and how do we define it? Steered by CBC's Sandra Abma, Mark Anthony Jarman, Steven Hayward, Heather O'Neill and Guy Vanderhaeghe gave brief readings then got into dissecting the art form.

Steven read from the introduction to his collection which tried to explain the particular pull he felt to write short fiction. He likened it to the temptation of a bacon breakfast sandwich, because just like his doctor told him to avoid the sandwich, his publisher suggested he avoid the short story if he wanted to live. For there is no future in the short story and certainly no money, but still authors succumb.

Heather O’Neill, known previously for her novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night , chimed in with the advice to the audience that editors are not asking for anything unless it’s cookbooks and books by celebrities, so everyone might as well write what they want.


The evening was full of tidbits for aspiring short story writers, including how to pick the right section to read at an event, how to know when you’ve finished a short story, and what makes a group of short stories a collection. Good short story collections often have a thread that ties the stories together. Mark’s first version of his new collection, Knife Party at Hotel Europa , contained stories that were not part of the Italian theme, which were then taken out and replaced by others to flesh out the concept.  Heather’s collection Daydreams of  Angels is less gritty than her novels, and explores origin stories and fables mixed with her own family’s lore.  It’s this room for experimentation that is part of the thrill. A good short story does not drag the reptilian tail of the novel it could have been behind it, but short fiction can be a playground. For example, the voice in one of the short stories included in Steven’s collection, To Dance the Beginning of the World , became the central character in his novel Don’t Be Afraid . F or Heather, her novels were set across the street from each other on the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Laurent in Montreal, while her short stories are sometimes fanciful and now she says she has found the confidence to write a historical novel.

Writers don’t have to agonize over short fiction in the same way as a novel before getting into the writing. Guy said this means he doesn’t have to ask himself: is this the short story for me? Instead, he can just try it out. For him, short stories start with a voice and a good story is always channeled through one consciousness. Often for him that means a first person narrative,  his understanding perhaps stemming from his first experiences with stories told by his father around the kitchen table. This understanding growing as he read in the Western tradition, which holds an epiphany moment in the final lines when the emotional impact sets in.

So how do you know when you’ve written a good short story? When you are sick of it. When you feel that if you tinker any more you are going to break it. When it is better than the last story you wrote. According to Guy, stories are like parallel parking. At some point you just need to say, that’s good enough.


It’s false to say there is such a thing as short story perfection. The authors attest that they are always revising, even as they read aloud at such events as the Ottawa Writers Festival. But for readers there is something nearly perfect about the promise short fiction offers, the promise of not being interrupted. Good fiction is like a dream from which you do not want to wake up.