Ten Commandments of the Perfect Short-Story Writer

Horacio Quiroga was a South American writer (born in Uruguay but he spent most of his life in Argentina) often compared to Edgar Allen Poe. He wrote strange and disturbing stories and led an equally dark life. Here's Answers.com's page on Quiroga. Supposedly one of my favorite writers, Borges, reacted strongly against Quiroga's writing, but oh well. He's often considered a very good short story craftsman, and one of the essays he wrote was "Decálogo del perfecto cuentista" or "Ten Commandments of the Perfect Short-Story Writer." I don't agree with every one of these (and especially the first half of number 5 is not how I usually write), but I don't think there's any of these that I'd say isn't worth at least considering for some stories. I haven't read any of his fiction since I was pretty early in my ability to read Spanish, so I'll make no comment on those right now (though reading about him on Answers makes me want to go re-read them). The last time I searched for an English translation of this online, I couldn't find any, so what follows is my own translation.

Ten Commandments of the Perfect Short-Story Writer

I. Believe in the masters—Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chekov—as in God himself.

II. Believe that your art is an inaccessible peak. Don't dream of conquering it. When you can do it, you'll achieve it within even knowing it.

III. As much as you can, resist imitation, but imitate if the influence is too strong. More than anything, the development of the personality is a long road. [Personality is a literal translation--today we'd say 'voice' I guess]

IV. Have blind faith, not in your ability to succeed, but in the zeal of your desire to. Love your art like a lover, giving it all your heart.

V. Don't begin to write without knowing from the first word where you're going. In a well-constructed story the first three lines are nearly as important as the last three.

VI. If you want to express with exactitude this—"From the river the cold wind blew"—there are no other words in the human language to express it. Once you've found the right words, don't worry about how they'll sound, if they're alliterative or assonant.

VII. Don't use adjectives unnecessarily. They will be useless tales of color on a weak noun. Once you find the precise word, it will have incomparable color; but you must find it.

VIII. Take your characters by the hand and bring them firmly to the end without seeing anything beyond the road you give them. Don't distract yourself with what they can't see or won't care about. Don't abuse the reader. A short story is a novel purified of padding. Take this as absolute truth, even though it may not be.

IX. Don't write under the influence of emotion. Let it die and then bring it back. If you're able to revive it exactly as it was, you're halfway down the road to art.

X. Don't think about your friends when you write, nor in what impression your story will create. Tell as if your story mattered only to the small group of your characters, of which you could have been one. There is no other way to bring your stories to life.


Lauren Michelle said…
Hey, thanks for doing the legwork to share those. Whether or not a person chooses to follow it, it looks like solid advice.

The fifth one suits my control freakishness just fine. 8)
I think I remember you sharing these on FW way back in the day. Good to have a refresher, though.

The fifth one isn't one I can embrace 100%. Sometimes I know where I'm going when I start, but just as often getting halfway through the story is the only way I can figure out how the heck it's going to end.
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Daniel Ausema said…
Yeah, this is the translation I made about a year and a half or two years ago and posted over there at the time (one of countless posts and threads to have disappeared).

I've certainly had times when I knew from the start where I was going and times when I knew nothing but the opening line. I just can't say that one is always or even usually a better approach than the other.
Celina Summers said…
I don't think I have EVER started a story with a clear idea of where it was going EXCEPT for the anthology story.