I don’t usually get excited about Longlists….some of them carry the names of all the submissions…

But when I saw that the HISSAC Short Story Competition Longlist had only fourteen stories in it, and that mine was one of them, I took a sincere interest – and dammit Janet, I did get excited!

Then I set off for a ten day drive across Europe and back…a friend of mine likes to drive, and I like to look out of car windows. It was a partnership made in [supply location of choice]. In fact we were heading for Trieste, where I could pretend to not have noticed the statue of James Joyce…but that’s another story. The fact is, I don’t have that fancy mobile technology that even the children seem to have these days, and that Longlist was going to turn into a shortlist on the day after my departure. So, several fingernail centimetres shorter, on my return, I was more than excited to find that my story is now in the Shortlist ….which is, in fact, only a few stories shorter than the longlist was….. So we are creeping towards the money (I’m a writer! What care I for fame? We are creeping towards the money!!!).

Here’s a link to the HISSAC shortlist page: read it and weep, or cheer me on, if you like…..

BHD  in Vetters bar in Heidelberg a few years ago...he was there last week too!

BHD in Vetters bar in Heidelberg a few years ago…he was there last week too, but in a different jacket!

My problem is that I want to get on with telling the story. I haven’t the patience for messing around with sub-plots and character development and slow build ups to complicated denouements.

I just want to tell you what happened, and put it in context. That’s probably why I rarely attempted to write novels, and stuck to short stories instead. Short stories are about situations that led into, or will lead out of the situations they have been created by, or have created, or will cause to be created. Characters might develop as a consequence of them, or might have caused the situations as a consequence of some previous development, but the process of that development isn’t what the short story is about. Only its consequence, the playing out of its revelation is what interests the short story writer.

Perhaps because of that the short story is not aimed at making you understand or sympathise with the character, who you meet only briefly and see, sometimes not too gracefully, under pressure. The short story is aimed more at you, the reader: you could be the stranger you are hearing about, because he, or she, has not been developed into someone else that you have to believe in, in the way that you believe in the characters of a novel. Implicit in every short story, is the possibility that there but for fortune, and back story, could be you! A short story can be like the car crash you witness from one vehicle behind.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be several sequences of events or trains of thought going on at the same time. That car crash might take up the bulk of the words in the story, but the meaning and the satisfaction the reader gains might lie in noticing the few words that showed the driver’s head turning towards the young woman fastening her suspender belt at the side of the road, just before he hit the pram. And that could be a story set anywhere and when from the early twentieth century to the present day, and from Shanghai to Beijing, the long way round. I saw something similar, from the car behind, in Carlisle in the nineteen seventies.

Sometimes with short stories, it’s what’s going on in the background, unnoticed by the characters themselves, that is the real interest of the story, and the narrator’s reason for telling it.

Sometimes I think that it’s a shame, and unhelpful, that we refer to the shorter stories as ‘flash fictions’, as if they were neither stories, nor short, whereas they are usually, demonstrably both! As I’ve pointed out before on this blog, it’s curious too, that the ‘flash’ is interpreted differently in different cultures (the American originators of the term meant the flash of a single white page being turned – pinning the form to the printed, or at least written word, but leaving the word count flexible to around 1400 words – whereas the British have assumed it means a ‘flash’ of an ending – impacting on content and form, to which they have added specific word limits: 150,250,350, 500 being common ones).

I tend to favour shorter stories, rarely enjoying ones of longer than 5,000 words, and as for writing them, sticking usually to around 12-1500, or at that 500 limit. In an essay somewhere a few years ago, I used the metaphor of a short story collection or anthology being like a box of chocolates…. to be picked through selectively, one a day – or greedily binged in an evening, which perhaps brings me back to where I began this post…My problem is, that I want to get on with telling the story!

I picked up my copy of Robert Frost’s poems a few nights ago, to re-read Fire and Ice. It’s a short poem that I first heard read by Jonathan Price during a TV drama. It was years later that I realised it was Frost’s writing. One Frost leads to another (unlike, for me, Ted Hughes, whose poems have never led me on to read another!). I ended up not only reading a dozen out loud, in a voice as near as I can get to Frost’s, but marking them in the book. Laid out chronologically as published in my Vintage, 2001 paperback, I was interested to see which phase of his life drew the most hits from my dozen. As I suspected, it was the earlier years that got most of my likes.

This, of course, tells you more about me than it does about Frost, but then, reading is more about the reader than about the writer. That thought drove me on to consider the question I might be asked, which is if I thought those dozen were his ‘best’ poems.

The idea of ‘best’ poems – or short stories, or novels or plays – has at its heart an absurdity, for it obscures the more useful addition of ‘from your point of view.’ There can be surely no objective best – though I’d be reluctant to argue the seemingly logical extension that there could be no ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ either. What we should say is there are poems we like most, and perhaps have our reasons ready. ‘Bests’ and ‘betters’ though, give a spurious factuality to what can only be a subjective opinion – if that’s not a tautology – with reasons, possibly in writing, and that idea of factuality endows us with our spurious authorities and elevates one person’s likings above another’s.

Fellow writer Kurt Tidmore recently sent me a link to an Atlantic Review article about poetry. Masquerading as a review of a book, it examined the reasons why, writers and readers alike ‘we don’t like poetry.’ It seemed to me to say very little in a lot of words, but the little it did say struck home. My response was to coin the phrase ‘creative potty training’ for the type of poetry (and perhaps other writing) that we see published these days. Kurt hit back with ‘masturbatory narcissism.’ Both of us, I think, are agreed that much modern poetry has nothing to do with any reader, but only with the writer.

A retort of mine, too frequently used perhaps, when confronted with the ‘I write every day’ assertions of poets who have just read out – from their latest collection – something unreadable, has been to observe that I fart every day, but don’t bottle it for sale.

Behind all that narcissism though, stands a desire to communicate, to share, not merely with the mirror, but with ‘the other’. Stephen King, in On Writing  cites the ‘ideal reader,’ who is not necessarily, I suspect, the person most likely to understand or respond to what we have written, but the one we would most like to be!

Cumbria based writer, Barbara Renel’s 3rd prize winner in the recent TSS Quarterly Flash Fiction competition…here.

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD says cheers!

BHDandMe spend a lot of time reading and responding to short stories (It’s easier than writing them!). Sometimes we write about it – well Me does, rather than him -Thresholds publishes some of these musings… Today they’ve added an article about Elizabeth Bowen, which you can find here.

Some of the essays we’ve written – well, Me has, BHD just looks on – are included in the Readings For Writers series:

Readings For Writers cover12 more essays on short stories and their writersThe Silent Life WithinClick on the images and they’ll take you to ’em!

Mike’s poem L’On Y Danse is one of  the guest poems on the Acumen website and features in the current issue (Acumen #86)…You can find it here.

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD says:

I recently sent an old writing buddy of mine a copy of a short story I’d just written.  He wrote back to say he liked it, but that the last word was unnecessary, the sense it conveyed being implicit in what had gone before: its meaning could be taken for granted. It went without saying.

I wrote back to him, pointing out that the very last word was the whole point of the story. What ‘goes without saying’ can be left unsaid for so long that we’re in danger of forgetting it, and that particular story, by saying explicitly what could safely be left implicit, was intended to bring the issue back to light. My hope was that the reader would be surprised at the inclusion, because, obviously, ‘it went without saying,’ didn’t it? That moment of re-evaluation, of doubt, and eventual re-assertion was the view that the story was bringing him to (and, seemingly had!). The events described were to give context to the concept, the context in which the word’s meaning might, and perhaps should be obvious to all!

Readers don’t always find what we want them to in our stories (or poems come to that), which sometimes is no bad thing…but often in short stories I find there are elements at the end that seem to be bolted on…That favourite of mine, Weep Not My Wanton, for example (by A.E.Coppard) has a whole scene following the shocking revelation that is the climax of the story…if we think the story is the events being described. Why does Coppard add that scene, I ask myself every time I read it, and the answer I give myself  reveals what I think must be his purpose in telling the story. (I’ve written about Weep Not My Wanton both here, and on the Thresholds blog, and on Liars League website if you want to go searching!).

I’m not going to reveal the title of my ‘excessive’ story, but if you come across it, I hope you’ll think that last word was unnecessary too, but only after having thought about it.

Earlier this weekend (which means Friday and Saturday) Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, and Carlisle Writers Group staged a pop-up Bookshop in Waterstones, Carlisle. Thanks to everyone who helped, and especially to those who visited the stall and bought our books! Especially, specially, thanks to Waterstones Bookshop, who made the space available to us, provided what we hadn’t thought to bring, and encouraged us all around. We couldn’t have done it without you Waterstones! And Watch That Space – because we’d like to come back!!

You could check out Acumen 86, the current issue….which has a poem in it by himself…MS:Kowalski & A Cake

bookcoverpreview-tmtI’ve been meaning to put this little collection on Amazon & Kindle for quite some time, but other projects kept on getting in the way. The stories were written over several years and came together only by chance, and the co-incidence of murder, implied or actual, being present in all of them. I guess you could carp at ‘murder’ in the case of Darkbury and Contributory Culpability, but they too are pushing at the door.

Several of the stories have been performed by Liars League in London, and others have been Highly Commended in competitions. The opening story, Stump, won a Sentinel competition prize.

The Turkey Cock was first read aloud to an ‘audience’ round a New Year’s dinner table, for which I think, several years later, I have been just about forgiven. It was then more formally performed to the original Speakeasy crowd in Carlisle. Since then it has divided opinion – which is probably the best thing a story can do – having been butchered by an editor (search back through the archive if you want the full story) and subsequently withdrawn by him (it was rubbish anyway, he told me), Highly Commended by HISSAC and included in their Winners anthology, and used elsewhere. Based on a real-life event in which a soft word turned away wrath, but only just, I picture it taking place on the taxi stand at Carlisle’s Citadel Station (which does not quite conform to the description given in the story!).

There’ll be a chance to buy books by authors local to Carlisle this coming weekend on 7th & 8th of October when Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop & the Carlisle Writers Group mount a pop-up bookshop at Waterstones! Coma along and hear us read, and buy our wares: the craft brewers and artisan bakers of the literary world!

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


[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….