Like buses and policeman today….. Just heard that BHD has picked up second prize in the TSS Flash Fiction quarterly competition:

http://www.theshortstory.co.uk/competitions/flash-fiction/

[Alongside Barbara Renel you’ll note, frae Wigton, just up t’raad….]BHDandME shorn

The Black Market Re-View, issue 2 is now out and available here:

and there’s a very short BHD tale in there….

Winning Stories often more than disappoint me, even in competitions I haven’t entered! (No! Not when they’re mine!:-)

That’s perhaps to do with the fact that we all read differently. We might be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ readers than each other. We might be readers who are each looking for, and responding to, different story elements.

  This might be a more than inconvenient truth for editors, publishers, writers, and competition judges alike. It isn’t much of a problem for readers though.

Recently I was stopped on the second sentence of a prize winning (2nd prize in a Flash Fiction competition) story simply by the fact that, three characters having already been introduced and the first two being men, the third asked ‘he’ a question. Which of them, I wondered, was being asked? Either could have been intended, but the significance of the question, and of the answer would have been, well, significantly different.  Reading on, it seemed to me that the ambiguity was not intentional, that one was more obvious than the other…obvious enough, perhaps, to claim that there was no real ambiguity, only a grammatical, structural one.

It was enough to have stopped me in the story though, and not least because it was a prize-winning story. The questions raised about that placing seemed to erase the questions raised by the story. I was more interested, I confess, in thinking about why the judge had not noticed, overlooked, or not recognised what I saw as a fault, and a fault so early in the story…before I had irrevocably engaged with it.

There’s a section relevant to this in Tobias Wolff’s introduction to his 2008 collection Our Story Begins. I’ve quoted this introduction before, in relation to H.E.Bates, with whom it disagrees fundamentally about the practice of re-writing and editing stories written, and published, long before. Wolff is in favour (Bates wasn’t). The point here is that Wolff  is in favour of ‘correcting’ anything he sees that needs correction, and asks a rhetorical question that reveals why: ‘why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented?’

We’ll answer that question for ourselves, and perhaps with questions, but I can say with certainty that I felt ‘thrown out’ of that prize-winning story by that unexpected early encounter with the ambiguity; yet not primarily because of the story. My attention had been entirely diverted to the judging!

Not just books….There will be readings too throughout the two days of the pop-up Bookshop at Waterstones (on Friday,7th and Saturday 8th of October, 2016). Writers from Carlisle Writers Group, the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, and elsewhere will be on hand to read and talk about their writing.

Why not come along, to listen and buy. This is a rare chance to hear and read the work that the literary establishment frequently overlooks…. Short-listed, Highly Commended, and Prize Winning writers, published by small Independent Publishers, and self-published. It’s worth remembering that writers as famous as Ted Hughes chose to self publish before and after their fame, and as many artists in the music industry do now in preference to working with the multi-national corporate companies! The internet is now giving writers a chance to sidestep the white-sliced bread and baked beans commercialism of the mainstream publishers, and giving them a global reach, which, ironically, means that your local writers might be better known in Hamburg or Beijing than they are in their home town.

Thanks to the good offices of Waterstones

in Carlisle, local artisan writers will be offering their wares during the weekend of Carlisle’s literary festival.

Carlisle and the Borders local writers, facilitated by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

BHD is cock-a-hoop (or some sort of cock anyway!) …. One of his stories is in the shortlist for the TSS Autumn Flash Fiction Competition! Can’t say which one, but you won’t have read it, because no one else but the shortlisters (as opposed to A listers) has read it – he’s even only read it silently to himself (except once or twice). Maybe he’ll be coq-au-vin before long, or simply toast, but so far so good….

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD being toast?

BHD being toast?

BHDandME shorn

For those in the know, the pop-up bookshop provides an exciting alternative to the usual literary offerings. It gives a chance to see, and buy, what the national papers rarely bother to review – the books published by small independent publishers, and authors. Celebrity breeds commerce, and vice versa, but Indie publishers and sole authors don’t have big advertising budgets and extensive distribution networks. Their books often remain unseen, and unsold.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of the writing! It doesn’t matter how good your book is, even the local papers are unlikely to review it (though Steve Matthews does a fine job in Carlisle!), and the nationals almost certainly won’t, unless it has been published by a well known company.

Things are changing. The internet is providing a means of publishing, and of getting a global reach. A curious side effect of this is that a writer is more likely to sell copies abroad than in his or her home town. The pop-up bookshop comes in here, offering local authors the chance to show their work to local readers.

Remember, these aren’t the white-sliced bread and baked beans high sellers that is the usual bookshop fodder, the household brands that we all know and reach for without thinking. The pop-up offers the artisan bakers and craft brewers of the literary world a chance to sell their goods, if you’ve a mind to try them.

Thanks to the good offices of Waterstones

in Carlisle, local artisan writers will be offering their wares during the weekend of Carlisle’s literary festival.

Carlisle and the Borders local writers, facilitated by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

***********

 

BHDandMe got a freshly written poem into Acumen. It will appear in September, in Acumen 86. I don’t send off many poems these days: I don’t write many, but the last month or two has seen a small crop of half a dozen, which is cheering! Acumen, having encouraged me with publication several times over the years – including in their excellent 60th Anniversary anthology – always get first refusal, and you’ve probably got an inkling of how pleased I am that they chose not to use it on this occasion!

If you want to read some of Mike’s poetry, he has recently released the short collection, An Early Frost, available here.

If you want to read some of BHD’s stories, you could try, The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer. Available here.

BFB coverDIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL

Thanks to the kind offices of Waterstones in Carlisle, local writers, led by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

***********

Local anthologies can often be variable in their quality, and are certainly wide in their range of styles and contents. An anthology published for Christmas 2005 by CN Group Magazines, in association with various other bodies, including Theatre By The Lake  and The Great North Air Ambulance is one such. Offered for sale during a very short period of time over that Christmas fortnight, and at a very limited number of venues, the collection of short stories and poetry from 15 writers living locally did not do well. Unsaleable the following Christmas, as it bore the year of issue prominently on its front cover, I suspect many copies went for pulp. I have a fistful on my shelves, perhaps other lurk somewhere.

Eleven years on though, one story still comes to mind, and I read it from time to time. It’s a subtle story, suggesting more than it explicitly tells, but what it does tell is affirmative of more than a simply Christmas spirit. Josie Baxter’s story Time Bides For No Man is a first person account, told by an embittered divorcee who has turned down an invitation to spend Christmas with her daughter, and ex-husband, and his ‘new stick insect girlfriend.’ [- why is it that men in fiction are always attracted to stick-thin women? Surely they can’t be in real life?-ed.]

The story is tied to the locality with names that would mean nothing to people from even the south of the county! Easton and Roadhead, Stanwix and Penton, among others, are mentioned. Readers from afar might not recognise the places, but they will understand story. The narrator flees to an abandoned farmhouse, owned by her now institutionalised uncle. It is a ‘flat faced farmhouse’ which ‘may look foursquare and honest but they tell you nothing.’ And perhaps this story does something similar.

The house is in a bad state, and our narrator occupies the downstairs for a grim, lonely Christmas.  The Cumbrian borderland, that sparsely populated area north of the Brampton-Longtown road,  broods over her stay, ‘the ghosts of its violent past never quite gone away.’ But the neighbours see the smoke of her fires and come to check her out. They know that her Uncle Donald is no longer in residence. She turns them away, nursing her grievances alone. On Christmas Eve, though, a visitor she cannot dismiss, arrives: the farmer Andy Armstrong.

This is at the halfway point of the story, late perhaps for a major character to appear… but the story is not about him, or Donald, though what we shall now learn about them is crucial to it. We get a hint of that secret as Andy’s shortcomings are described: ‘He smelled of old vest and unwashed ears, and…..the ancient oilskin jacket had recently been too close to the back end of a cow.’ It is the almost cliched remark that follows we might overlook at a first reading: ‘No wonder he’d never married.’

Over whisky from cracked glasses the narrator and Andy talk about Donald, and she begins to realise, as we do, that these two old men, ostensibly rivals to the point of enmity since school days, have a very special bond. Her belief that Donald ‘never cared what anyone thought of him’ is challenged by Andy’s ‘some things is different.’  This, he confesses, will be the first Christmas day they have spent apart.

Andy persuades the narrator to take him, on Christmas day, to visit Donald in his nursing home, but he also gives her the advice that will change her life, and her outlook, and, in effect rehabilitate her: ‘one day you wake up and it’s gone and it’s all too late.’

This is one of those stories that makes me pleased to be in an anthology beside it (and one that makes me displeased to be in an anthology beside it!). It does, for me, what a story should do. It reaches out beyond its explicit self and gives us a glimpse of a larger theme, and it reaches out over the years as we read and revisit it. I don’t think I’ve met Josie Baxter, but if I ever do, I’ll remind her that she published this story, and thank her for it!

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For those interested in reading about the short story form, a third volume in Mike’s Readings For Writers series The Silent Life Within is now available on Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle format. This volume looks at stories from the late 17th century to 2014, by authors including H.G.Wells, Katherine Mansfield, Alphonse Daudet, and George Moore.

The Silent Life Within

sunset near GlenuigA little while ago I ran a writers workshop for a group in Connell, in the Scottish Highlands just north of Oban.

I took the well-tested ‘cut-up’ exercise, this time using Mary Mann’s shocking short story Little Brother. The basis of the exercise is that I take a short story and cut it into a dozen or more sections, mix them up, and ask the group to put it back together again. It’s a simple idea, but like many simple ideas, is worthwhile. It brings writers face to face, not only with the story in hand, and how it works, but with their own unconscious assumptions about what a story is, and what they think it ought to look like.

Experience has shown that two people working on a cut-up will do the job fairly briskly, three will take a little longer, four longer still, and a larger group, forever! From what the near observer hears and sees though, whatever size the group there are striking similarities of approach. There’s a search, to begin with usually, for the beginning, and another, usually next on the agenda, to find the ending. Sequences of events are then constructed using what is known, and what is not known at different points in the story, to readers, and to characters.

We have an idea, however vague, of what a beginning ought to do and be, and so for the ending! In Mary Mann’s little tale the ending is unusual, surprising one might say – but then aren’t all short story endings surprising in some way? The surprise here is not so much what is revealed as who is speaking, for in a story about desperate rural poverty, witnessed by a middle class narrator, Mann gives the final word to the poverty stricken mother. What she has to say in defence of her children using the eponymous sibling – dead by the way – as a doll, rebukes both the narrator and, I suspect, the general reader.

This ending, despite being a definitive statement about the rest of the story, often eludes the writers doing the exercise: they are looking for a summation from the narrator, and from the narrator’s perspective. The beginning, though, is nearly always found quite quickly. The scene is set, characters and themes introduced, narrative voice revealed, and the ambience of the story, to some extent, implied. The ‘middle’ sequences, and this is usually the case, seem more fluid and hard to place, except by specific clues where something is referred to for a second time.

The exercise underlines the way in which story works: it draws the reader in by location in time and place, theme, character, narrative voice and ambience, and through sequences of action, thought and description, contextualises progressively an ending that need not be sharp and explicitly pointed, but which metaphorically will counterbalance the weight of everything that has gone before.

In Mary Mann’s tale there are some beautifully executed technical operations: the concealing of the true nature of the doll – by distraction to another feature as it is first mentioned, so that its eventual exposure, perhaps suspected by then, still shocks. Then there is the immediately following shock of the description of the children playing with ‘the doll’. The first shock comes because of what we don’t know, the second because of what we do: a clever and well executed double whammy.

There’s also, in this tale, a striking absence of description. Sparse hardly covers it. The village, the turnip house, the bereaved mother’s bedroom are thumb-nailed in a few ‘telling’ words – our reader imagination does the rest of the work. How different to the ‘showing’ of story in a film, where every detail of landscape, buildings and rooms has to be ‘in shot.’ The fault, for me, of so many contemporary stories is that their writers try to be the all seeing camera, burying the story under detail that the story teller does not need – because his reader can imagine, or because his reader does not need to imagine. Said of poetry, but also true of the short story, what does not work for you, works against you.

Only with the character of Hodd, the father, and his son, does Mann make sure we ‘see’ the details – of red hair, which the doll will have, and of the ‘sack’ clothes, that will later distract us when that doll is first slipped into view.

The beauty of the cut-up exercise is that it can be done so easily, and with any story you care to use. There will always be a beginning, a middle, and an end – and don’t you believe anyone who tries to tell you differently! – and they will always, but not quite the way you expect, conform to your ideas of what they should be; and each story will have its own little gems of construction and execution to appreciate. It’s the sort of exercise that each member of a writers group can set up for the others, and when they do, the very act of cutting, itself becomes an exercise, in where, and why to snip.IMG_7421

If you would like to read more about short stories you could try Love and Nothing Else, the second volume in my series Reading For Writers.12 more essays on short stories and their writers Readings For Writers cover

By the time you get to read this blog-post, I’ll be heading back from a few days in Scotland….In the few days before I set off, the house was busy with builders and plasterers, drumming up a storm of dust and rubble, and settling it down again to a smooth, white finish. Consequently I didn’t do much reading: but I did do some writing.

Not among it was this story, written a long time ago, and included in Southlight 19, south-west Scotland’s literary magazine. I hope it keeps you amused, until next week’s blog (or possibly even longer!) Curiously it came out of a writing exercise I set for the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop (and as always, had a go at myself). The exercise was to add a story to the front of the last ten words….much more interesting than adding stories to given beginnings!

 

Charlie Davies

by Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

C’mon Charlie, have a smoke on me.

Tailor-Mades, Mr Pike! You’re spoiling me.

Charlie took the cigarette and Mr Pike held out his lighter. They were behind the court building, waiting for the van to arrive. The security guard who was handcuffed to Charlie Davies stood impassively, ignoring both of them. Mr Pike lit his own cigarette and blew out a gout of smoke into the chill November air. He would go for a walk in the park after Charlie had gone, savouring the air, the grey-green of the winter grass, the dark metal of the river, the cawing of the crows. Prison was a waste of time and money. Charlie’s time; everyone else’s money. He’d been sending Charlie off like this for half a bloody century. What a bloody waste of a life.

Your name came up, Charlie, he said looking at the older man. When I was up north, a couple of days ago. A bloke said you was his landlord. Mr Pike glanced at Charlie, but Charlie remained impassive, savouring his cigarette. I never had you down for one of the landowning classes. Charlie took the cigarette from his lips and held it between two fingers. He looked at it as if he’d never seen one before.

That was a long time ago, Mr Pike. When I was married.

Dave Wilson, Charlie. Remember him? He remembered you. Said he had regrets from those days, about a moral decision he had to make.

I remember that, Mr Pike. I offered him fifty quid to take a parcel  up to Scotland.

That must have been some parcel, Charlie, that was a week’s wages back then, and you only lived ten minutes from the border..

Silly bugger turned me down, Mr Pike. He had a car you see. Wouldn’t have taken him more than an hour. A week’s bloody wages for an hour’s work, and he turned me down.

You’d have been just starting out then, Charlie; and me, for that matter.

He had no ambition, Mr Pike, no initiative.

For Nick Romano, if I remember rightly.

Who?

Come on Charlie. You remember Nick. You was one of his young hopefuls. Poor old Nick. Know what happened to him, Charlie?

No idea, Mr Pike.

He ended up under a bridge pier somewhere, unless I’m very much  mistaken, and you know me Charlie, I’m hardly ever mistaken.

He had a poxy job with the Council, Dave Wilson.

We were playing golf together, Dave Wilson and I. We do that sometimes, when I’m up in his part of the world, your old stamping ground. I like a round of golf now and then. Of course, I’ve not much of a swing Charlie. I don’t get in the hours, you see. But I like a stroll in the open air, all that grass. You’re not much of an outdoor man Charlie, never were if I recall. Probably as well, considering.

Drove a piddly little Vauxhaul, Dave Wilson did. I was offering’ him more than the f-ing car was worth, and you know what he did?

What did he do, Charlie?

He asked me what was what in it.

He’s retired now, Dave Wilson.

He asked me what was fuckin’ in it, the parcel.

He remembers you Charlie. Nice house, nice job, nice wife, little girl, you had back then.

I mean, what did he think was fuckin’ in it? Fifty quid, I ask you!

 

I don’t know about that Charlie, he never mentioned that, but he did say he regretted not having made love to your wife, when she gave him the chance.

The van backed up to the gate, and the guard turned towards them and said, that’s us. Mr Pike threw down his cigarette and stubbed it out and walked away.

END

 

There are more BHD stories here.

TalkingtoOwls

Another collection of old stories dropped on my mat today (metaphorically that is – it was actually left in a box outside the house).

It was the previously mentioned Westward for Smelts, a series of tales loosely based on Boccaccio’s Decameron – in structure and style – and put into the mouths of some Thames ‘fishwives’ as they are rowed home by the putative narrator, Kinde Kit of Kingstone! The tales are sometimes described as bawdy. Most are about cuckolded husbands and their sexually predatory wives. They bring a thrill – Joyce gives Leopold Bloom a taste of it – to all submissive hetero-sexual males – of female dismissal! The tales were published in 1620, but may have been passed around orally before that. They pre-date Defoe’s Apparition of Mrs Veal by a century, but it’s that story which academics seem to plump for when looking for the start of the ‘short story’ in England (or indeed, in English).

I would go rather with Kinde Kit, and with that possible oral tradition. The short story belongs to the fishwife, and her cuckolded husband, more than to the printing press, or even the hand written story that might have preceded it. Short stories, Tales, as Coppard always referred to them (to Bates’ irritation), are of the voice, and are short. They belong with the anecdote rather than the blockbuster or the three volume novel.

They are to be told (not shown), heard (or, if written down and printed, imagined as being spoken), and reacted to: job done! They are held in the mind as a whole, and sometimes days later might give us the kick of an aftertaste as some little detail slips into place. Primarily though they operate in the here and now of the telling, however often we recall them, and when we do recall them, we perhaps re-read them and get the espresso kick of their point.

There is another form of prose fiction that goes before these fishwifely tales. Those are the cumbersome, stylised – dare I say tedious? – stories of the Elizabethans. I have but one collection – Euphues, Pandosto & Piers Plainness, which individually make watching paint dry seem entertaining, and taken together make having teeth pulled seem pleasurable.

Not at all like a tale told from the experience of life – remember Pritchett’s assertion, that short stories ‘reveal what real life merely suggests’? – these highly formalised fictions bury story under the detail amassed as long sentences of contrasting clauses vie for the prize of having said the least in as many words as possible. They are Jenga-towers of paired statements, built to dizzying heights, to impress fellow practitioners rather than to entertain the passer-by.

Curiously, these relatively short – albeit tediously long – pieces could be seen as the fore-runners of the novel, rather than of the short story, though the title page says they are ‘very pleasant to reade, and most necessary to remember,’ which reminds me that the thousands of lines of Homer were intended to be recited from memory!

I’ll still take my fishwives’ tales though, as the first glimmerings of the short story in print, in English, and have a chuckle, or a wince, depending on which one I read.

One final curiosity. My copy, a print on demand one, came from India. The English, it seems are not interested in their literary roots; though I could have got a free copy online, had I possessed the technology to read it. Maybe the fishwives are lurking on I-phones and tablets all around me, but no-one is telling!

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