Ten Commandments for Storytellers

Quiroga1900aEvery writer has advice — good, bad, and unique.

Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), a master of the short story, perfected an economic, naturalistic, and precise prose style. His works often contained irreal elements and themes of horror, illness, and death, and his achievements influenced the next generation of Latin American authors: Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Felisberto Hernández, and Julio Cortázar.

Here’s Quiroga’s advice on how to write (my translation):

Decálogo del perfecto cuentista
Ten Commandments for the Perfect Storyteller

I
Cree en un maestro —Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chejov— como en Dios mismo.
Believe in a master — Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chekhov — as in God Himself.

II
Cree que su arte es una cima inaccesible. No sueñes en domarla. Cuando puedas hacerlo, lo conseguirás sin saberlo tú mismo.
Think of your art as an unreachable mountaintop. Don’t dream of conquering it. When you can climb that high, you’ll manage to do it without realizing it.

III
Resiste cuanto puedas a la imitación, pero imita si el influjo es demasiado fuerte. Más que ninguna otra cosa, el desarrollo de la personalidad es una larga paciencia.
Resist imitation as much as you can, but imitate if the influence is too strong. More than anything else, it will take great patience to develop your own personality.

IV
Ten fe ciega no en tu capacidad para el triunfo, sino en el ardor con que lo deseas. Ama a tu arte como a tu novia, dándole todo tu corazón.
Have a blind faith not in your capacity for success, but in your desire for it. Love your art like you love your bride, and give it your full heart.

V
No empieces a escribir sin saber desde la primera palabra adónde vas. En un cuento bien logrado, las tres primeras líneas tienen casi la importancia de las tres últimas.
Don’t start to write without knowing from the first word where you’re going. In a well-told story, the first three lines are almost as important as the last three.

VI
Si quieres expresar con exactitud esta circunstancia: “Desde el río soplaba el viento frío”, no hay en lengua humana más palabras que las apuntadas para expresarla. Una vez dueño de tus palabras, no te preocupes de observar si son entre sí consonantes o asonantes.
If you want to express this with exactitude: “The cold wind blew from the river,” in human speech there are no better words than those with which to say it. Once you are master of your words, don’t worry about whether they sound sufficiently poetic.

VII
No adjetives sin necesidad. Inútiles serán cuantas colas de color adhieras a un sustantivo débil. Si hallas el que es preciso, él solo tendrá un color incomparable. Pero hay que hallarlo.
Don’t use unnecessary adjectives. They’ll be as useless as taping colorful tails on a weak noun. If you find the precise noun, it will have an incomparable color all by itself. But you have to find it.

VIII
Toma a tus personajes de la mano y llévalos firmemente hasta el final, sin ver otra cosa que el camino que les trazaste. No te distraigas viendo tú lo que ellos no pueden o no les importa ver. No abuses del lector. Un cuento es una novela depurada de ripios. Ten esto por una verdad absoluta, aunque no lo sea.
Take your characters by the hand and lead them firmly to the end without letting them see anything other than the road you created for them. Don’t be distracted by what they themselves can’t or don’t need to see. Don’t abuse the reader. A short story is a novel without the padding. Take this as an absolute truth, although it isn’t.

IX
No escribas bajo el imperio de la emoción. Déjala morir, y evócala luego. Si eres capaz entonces de revivirla tal cual fue, has llegado en arte a la mitad del camino.
Don’t write under the influence of your emotions. Let them die and evoke them later. If you can revive them the way they were, your art has taken you halfway toward your goal.

X
No pienses en tus amigos al escribir, ni en la impresión que hará tu historia. Cuenta como si tu relato no tuviera interés más que para el pequeño ambiente de tus personajes, de los que pudiste haber sido uno. No de otro modo se obtiene la vida del cuento.
Don’t think about your friends when you write or about the impact your story will make. Tell it as if your story were interesting only to the small world of its characters and as if you were one of them. You cannot breathe life into your story otherwise.

More about Horacio Quiroga

If writers are supposed to lead troubled and tragic lives, Quiroga’s is a paragon. His father died in an accident when he was two months old. His stepfather killed himself in front of Quiroga while he was an adolescent. Later his first wife and two of his children committed suicide. He made poor romantic decisions. His second wife left him. He accidentally killed a close friend. One after another, his business ventures failed. He was sickly and impulsive, and he drank too much. Finally, he was diagnosed with painful, terminal cancer, and he killed himself.

But in his early 20s, he discovered Poe and other writers and began his literary career. Later, he traveled to the Amazon jungle and fell in love with it. The harsh lessons of his life and of untamed nature fueled his fiction. Those resources, along with his attention to the technical aspects of style, made him Uruguay’s greatest short story writer, equal to his masters: Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov.

You can learn more about him and read his collection Jungle Tales translated into English at the Horacio Quiroga Foundation. You can also read one of his most famous short story collections in Spanish, Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte [Stories of Love Madness and Death], 1917, at the Fundación Horacio Quiroga.

And, of course, there’s more at Wikipedia in English and Spanish.

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