Now we have Brindley Hallam Dennis’s story published in Lit Sphere: https://strandspublishers.weebly.com/lit-sphere/ex

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Here’s a link to the second and third place winning stories in the Strands International Flash Fiction competition, Spring 2019:

https://strandspublishers.weebly.com/lit-sphere/lightning

https://strandspublishers.weebly.com/lit-sphere/the-library

BHD’s winning story posted tomorrow (21st April, coincidentally!)

BHD’s little story, Ex ended up on the shortlist in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition: a six horse finish, with three prizes! At 499 words, excluding the title, it only just squeezes into the competition’s max word count.

I wrote it as a sample piece while teaching a Ghost Story course for Darren Harper’s Phil & Lit Society in Carlisle (England, just). It wasn’t a course I expected to teach, and wouldn’t have thought of doing, but when I looked into the back catalogue I did find I had written several in the genre, some of which had been published.

There was a rub. All of them had turned, irretrievably, and seemingly of their own accords, into comic pieces. Liars League took two: First Foot, which was rather Gothly dark, but not Grand Guignol by any means, and The Hotel Entrance, the heavy emphasis to underline the joke on the last syllable. That title came out of the weak joke, that on the basis of signage, Hotel Entrance is the most popular hotel name in the country! Insubstantiality (with a long sub-title), is just plain silly, and all three pop-up, or materialise perhaps, in the 2016 collection, Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

A comic ghost story, though, isn’t to my mind, really a ghost story. It’s a comic story. So I thought I ought to have a go at one that didn’t go the way of the others. I’d been reading Kipling (as you may have gathered from recent posts on this blog), and one story that I particularly liked was ‘They’. The speech marks are his. Whether or not it had any influence I’ll leave others to decide, but one of the elements about that story which I rather liked, was the ghostliness of the children, and in particular, the way that they haunted, rather than actually appeared in the story. There was also something about the back-story. It too was ghostly, and even more so than the children. So much so, that I’ve devoted a couple of thousand words to it elsewhere.

Another Ghost story that I’d been reading, and in fact read to the workshop group, was Matt Plass’s Next to Godliness, which appeared in The Fiction Desk New Ghost Stories II. If you get the chance to read it, do! I’ll not do a spoiler here, but it carries a surprise, and builds to a powerfully poignant ending on the back of it. I’ve written about that story too, in The Silent Life Within.

In my little ghost story, Ex, the intention was to get some of that Kiplingesque ghostliness into it: to make what is never explicitly stated the core of the story, with only two or three words to hint at the back-story, the hints, if taken, giving the explanation to what is actually going on. Of course, authorial intent, as I’ve often pointed out, has only a tenuous connection to the actual reading of a piece.

Curiously, perhaps, it seems that the stories of mine that get anywhere, are often the ones that have been written to find out if I can do something specific in the writing, rather than the ones that are centred on actually trying to say something….which might seem to undermine my generally held belief that what readers are interested in is what stories are about, rather than how they are written. (of course, competitions are usually judged by writers, rather than readers….)

BHD’s little story, Ex ended up on the shortlist in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition: a six horse finish, with three prizes! At 499 words, excluding the title, it only just squeezes into the competition’s max word count.

I wrote it as a sample piece while teaching a Ghost Story course for Darren Harper’s Phil & Lit Society in Carlisle (England, just). It wasn’t a course I expected to teach, and wouldn’t have thought of doing, but when I looked into the back catalogue I did find I had written several in the genre, some of which had been published.

There was a rub. All of them had turned, irretrievably, and seemingly of their own accords, into comic pieces. Liars League took two: First Foot, which was rather Gothly dark, but not Grand Guignol by any means, and The Hotel Entrance, the heavy emphasis to underline the joke on the last syllable. That title came out of the weak joke, that on the basis of signage, Hotel Entrance is the most popular hotel name in the country! Insubstantiality (with a long sub-title), is just plain silly, and all three pop-up, or materialise perhaps, in the 2016 collection, Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

A comic ghost story, though, isn’t to my mind, really a ghost story. It’s a comic story. So I thought I ought to have a go at one that didn’t go the way of the others. I’d been reading Kipling (as you may have gathered from recent posts on this blog), and one story that I particularly liked was ‘They’. The speech marks are his. Whether or not it had any influence I’ll leave others to decide, but one of the elements about that story which I rather liked, was the ghostliness of the children, and in particular, the way that they haunted, rather than actually appeared in the story. There was also something about the back-story. It too was ghostly, and even more so than the children. So much so, that I’ve devoted a couple of thousand words to it elsewhere.

Another Ghost story that I’d been reading, and in fact read to the workshop group, was Matt Plass’s Next to Godliness, which appeared in The Fiction Desk New Ghost Stories II. If you get the chance to read it, do! I’ll not do a spoiler here, but it carries a surprise, and builds to a powerfully poignant ending on the back of it. I’ve written about that story too, in The Silent Life Within.

In my little ghost story, Ex, the intention was to get some of that Kiplingesque ghostliness into it: to make what is never explicitly stated the core of the story, with only two or three words to hint at the back-story, the hints, if taken, giving the explanation to what is actually going on. Of course, authorial intent, as I’ve often pointed out, has only a tenuous connection to the actual reading of a piece.

Curiously, perhaps, it seems that the stories of mine that get anywhere, are often the ones that have been written to find out if I can do something specific in the writing, rather than the ones that are centred on actually trying to say something….which might seem to undermine my generally held belief that what readers are interested in is what stories are about, rather than how they are written. (of course, competitions are usually judged by writers, rather than readers….)

Oh, btw, Ex won the first prize and will be published by Strands in the not-too-distant future.

I recently watched the last few episodes of the 1980s Granada TV series, Brideshead Revisiuted. The locations are superb, and so is the acting; the music, sensational, the costumes convincing. I can’t imagine anybody making such a slow and luxurious piece of storytelling in these fractious days. Yet once again, I found myself thinking that I what I liked most about it was the voice overs by Jeremy Irons. I confess I haven’t read the novel from which it was adapted, though it’s on my list, but I suspect that verbal storytelling is lifted closely from the original text. Even if it isn’t, it works as well, and perhaps better than the shown story.

Yet the telling is a performance in its own right. Another reading, in a different voice by another person would have been a different telling.

Voice overs, I’ve read, are thought to ‘kill’ the audio-visual movie, but perhaps it’s more that they overwhelm it, when the telling is done so beautifully. I’m sure I’ve blooged before about this adaptation, and I think I was concentrating on the sea-crossing episode, in which the whole thing is largely a voice over affair, but what this viewing reminded me was that the voice over, though intermittent, is continual throughout the piece, and without it, though the action and location and dialogue would still show us a story, much of the pointing would be absent. The tone of voice in which a story is told acts like the so-called ‘incidental’ music, which of course, rather than being incidental is central to nudging our responses in the intended direction.

I got to thinking in the half hour of contemplation that followed my viewing, about what Waugh’s story was actually trying to communicate. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me, that in this adaptation at least, that message was bound up with Marchmain’s death-bed conversion. Even more so than the consequences that follow from it, that making of the cross in extremis seemed to the point of the whole story, and if it had been a short story, I suspect it might have ended there, with Julia’s decision not to marry Ryder being implied and with reaction, both at the time and retrospectively being left to our speculation.

As it was the adaptation ran on, as novels often do, beyond the crisis of the story. Short stories, of course, run on after the crisis of the action, but usually to a scene, our understanding of which is, at least in part, contextualised by that crisis. The crisis or turning point is not in itself what the story is about, so much as is the reaction to, or consequence of it. But here, in the adaptation of Brideshead, for me at any rate, that was not the case. Waugh’s story was being taken to show, I think, the validity of the death bed reversion.

Perhaps the book will leave a different impression….

I’m one of a group walking the Ullswater Way on June 8th in aid of the Mental Health charity MIND. (The Ullswater Way isn’t a style of walking, but a route around the lake, covering about 22 miles of fell path and farmland track). If you’d like to support this venture here’s a link to the group’s Just Giving page.

Apparently about one in four of us will suffer from mental health problems during our lives (and who knows how many before and after?), and my guess is that writers will score well above the average, so if you possibly can, however little, do please help us out here. A poem of Mine on this subject recently appeared on the Guest list at Acumen, which might throw some light on why I’m involved in this!

I watched the 1970s movie, The Eagle Has Landed a little while ago. I’d seen it many years before, and caught bits of it on terrestrial TV from time to time.

It interests me, not because it’s another novel to film adaptation – I haven’t read Jack Higgins’ story (or if I have I’ve completely forgotten!). It’s because it is so similar to Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well, a wartime propaganda piece based on a Graham Greene short story. That short story was called The Lieutenant Died Last, and can be found in a Penguin paperback collection from 1990 called The Last Word and Other Stories. The fact that the story is numbered among ‘the others’, rather than being the title story, perhaps tells you something about how famous it is.

The wartime film is much better known, and tells of a group of German soldiers, disguised as Polish troops, who occupy an English village in World War Two. Eventually discovered due to an accident, they imprison the villagers, who fight back. It has a curious mixture of realism and fantasy – a housewife murders a soldier with an axe, but the ‘battle’ scenes near to the end look like kids playing soldiers. I’ve written about this adaptation elsewhere (in Take Two, how adaptation changes stories, which is available online), but looked there at the differences from the originating story.

The later film, adapted from the Higgins novel has many similarities with the earlier film: the village, the hostages in the church, the accidental discovery of the truth, the respected villager who is also a fifth columnist, the restoration of ‘normality’ and the enemy defeated. Perhaps a comparison of the novel and the earlier film would be interesting.

The two films though, have differences as well. The focus of the later film is on the leader of the Germans, and his accomplices. The focus of the earlier is on the civilians caught up in the violence. Of course, what is obviously different is the circumstances in which the two films were made; in which they were conceived. Cavalcanti was working in wartime, and exploring a present danger. The film acts both as a warning and as an encouragement to a population that might find themselves faced with such a situation. There’s a 1943 publication (by a man called Necker) on the German Army, and in it a chapter is devoted to a parachute raid, in which, following the destruction of an objective – the basis of Greene’s original tale – the group takes civilian hostages and withdraws with them to a defensible position. Whether or not there ever was the serious risk of such an event, fear of it was in the public mind, and the Government had to both take it seriously, and show that the threat could, nonetheless, be dealt with.

In the case of the later film no such agenda existed. It was made with the purely commercial objective of being entertaining. There is some stereotyping, but not the sort of propagandist stereotyping of the World War. The leading character, Steiner, played by Michael Caine, is shown trying to rescue a Jewish woman from her guards. His justification for his actions paints him, clearly, as a non-Nazi, but reminds us we’re not watching history, only people playing at history.

A curiosity of The Eagle, and I was surprised that I’d forgotten it, is that it depicts the English village with a Catholic church. The vicar is referred to as a priest and always called ‘father’; mass is mentioned. There must be an English village somewhere with a Catholic Parish Church – they all were once -but I’m not aware of one, and it certainly isn’t typical nor would have been, I think, during the nineteen forties. Does this tell us something about the producers of the film and their assumptions about Britain, or is it their belief in the expectations of their (international?) audience? It’s another example of the way that historical events can be misrepresented, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps because the importance of national narratives is not recognised or respected, nor being challenged but merely not considered.

The battle scenes are quite different to those of the earlier film, yet each, in its way follows a fantasy agenda. The violence of the tactical battle is played down in the earlier film – the audience for which would have had sons and husbands involved in such actions for real – and in the later one, is played up, with guns blazing away in true Hollywood style. In fact, the style of the battle scenes, compared to archive footage, and to the later Band of Brothers, hand-held camera style is interesting in itself. In each case, the question pops up, and can get only a speculative answer, of what exactly the film makers were trying to do to us, their audience.

I’d just spent about an hour tidying up a story. It was written a couple of years ago, and it struck me it might be good enough to try on a particular magazine. It was the right length. It seemed to have a punch, or at least the implication of one. It was almost word perfect I thought (which, of course, is almost good enough). Being a putter in, I put in…three words to make something a little clearer. I changed a word, to close a little loophole I hadn’t spotted before, about who the first person narrator was talking to, when he was reporting what he’d said to someone else in the story he was telling (as opposed to the one I was).

Then I looked it up on my Submissions Log, to add the date of sending out, and where I was sending it, and when I might expect a response. That’s when I saw that it had been published in that particular magazine a couple of years ago. Sheesh!

Preparing a workshop session on dialogue in the short story for Darren Harper’s Lit & Phil Society, I deconstructed an Ernest Hemingway story – separating out the narrative from the direct speech (and a few speech tags).

It was an interesting experiment, showing not only that both speech and narrative told a story on their own, and nearly the same story, but also, by highlighting the two elements and putting them back together, the way that they are distributed throughout the piece.

In the case of that story, something like the first third was evenly mixed between the two, the second was predominantly narrative, and the third predominantly direct speech. I reasoned it out that to begin with, Hemingway needed to introduce both, but then needed to develop the situation with brief inputs from the characters. In the final section, by which time context has been well developed, the characters can talk to each other, with brief inputs from the author, to nudge the reader towards significant lines that might just be overlooked.

I also looked at the relative size of the contributions each type made to the whole. In terms of words, narrative took up about two thirds. In terms of space on the page, the two were roughly equal. In terms of time on the voice, when read aloud, perhaps not surprisingly, direct speech was back to a third of the whole. In the image below, speech is red, narrative yellow.

Looking at the highlighted distribution as a thumbnail, rather than as three pages of text, the pattern became more obvious. The different shapes of the two elements is perhaps the most obvious, disguising to some extent the true distribution, for speech tends to be strung out vertically over several half-filled lines, whereas narrative is stretched over fewer full length ones.  I wondered if a similar exercise were to be carried out on another story, if we would get something like a fingerprint for the story that might tell us something useful.

I looked at L.A.G.Strong’s delightful little story The Seal. A little bit longer, but still only 4/5 pages, this oblique analysis of a failing relationship – the woman watches and sings to a seal which is mesmerized by her, until her galumphing, obtuse and insensitive husband clumsily, but unintentionally frightens it away – has almost no direct speech in it…so little, in fact, that it seemed not worthwhile to create that fingerprint.

Yet there was a pattern, albeit a simpler one. There were two lessons to be drawn from the analysis. The first is that even here, the placing of the dialogue is important. It all comes within the last half of the three and a half page story, if we include her direct speech to the seal. The dialogue between the two characters all falls within the last half of that closing half page. Again, it is context created by the rest of the story that enables us to fully appreciate the significance of the words exchanged by the characters. The speech to the seal is more like ‘thinking aloud’, and not really dialogue, but it is direct speech as opposed to narration, being the actual words of the character.

The second lesson is that the distinction can be made between actual words spoken, and actual words thought, and between words actually exchanged with or heard by other characters and words only (but not necessarily merely) brought to the consciousness of a single character (and the reader).

Thoughts lead on to thoughts, and I turned back to a previously considered idea that short stories can veer closer to, or further from scripts, where what little narrative there is becomes stage directions. Writing plays, trying to, I should say, I’ve found scripts can veer towards short stories too, the stage directions becoming more like narrative.

I have written purely direct speech short stories. In one, two characters engage the ‘audience’ across the ‘fourth’ wall, as if it were a third member of their group. In another a group of unspecified number enters a bar and talks about a deceased colleague. None of the speeches is attributed to any specific character, so it up to the reader – or performer – to decide how many voices there are, and what each of them is saying. Some attributions will be obvious, others not so, and as with a musical score, the reader, imagining or performing, has to opt for a defining version. The story is framed by a traditional first person narrative, by the barman, who sees them come in and clears the table after they have left.

For me the issue of direct speech in short stories revolves around the contention that even when it is direct, the speech is being reported by the author’s proxy, the narrator. There is no-one else there! The more a story becomes like a script the harder that contention is to maintain – though it is still true, until you have multiple real narrators – or actors – mouth those spoken words.

There is, I believe, a fundamental difference between a narrator telling you what somebody says, even when that narrator ‘puts on’ what he or she is presenting as the speaker’s voice, and the voice of an actor – who, it seems to me, has for the moment hi-jacked the story from its narrator (and its author). With silent, solitary reading, of course, you imagine both voice, and narrator.

To voice direct speech with actors when a story is read out on radio, or stage, pushes the story into script, with the narrator becoming one of several voices, a quite different interpretation, to the narrator telling the story, and including his or her own version of the direct speakers, a version that is part and parcel of the telling, and which leaves, at least to some extent, the listener still to imagine the character.

Seeing the great disparity between Hemingway’s and Strong’s stories, in the amount of direct speech used, I was reminded of the vital role of the narrator in the telling of a story. The narrator, manipulated by the author, who constructs the story, tells it with an agenda, strongly or weakly implied. That narrator might be hidden or disguised, but even in my narrativeless stories the narrative perspective is there, to be imagined by the reader, or listener. If any ‘showing’ is being done, it is the author who is showing us the narrator at work. The narrator’s objectivity, or otherwise, cannot be taken for granted, nor the author’s.

Here’s another BHD tale from 2017. A couple of elements within it were told to me, one way or another, miles, and years apart. The narrator’s accent is, well, almost wholly spurious…..

 

 

The Sixteen Foot Drain

 Come it old George died, who was Brenda’s cousin on her father’s side, Maisie Wannup rang to let her av the bad news, and to bring her up to date with all as ud bin gowin’ on the family them twenty years past. Maisie always was a precocious beggar.

She’d gone down south long afore that mind, ‘ad Brenda, and then moved herself out west almost as far as Wales, seemed like to Maisie. When George come to the end of his rode, it weren’t on account, as you might be expectin’, of the drink, though he’d been on two bottles a day of Johnny Walker since his dad had died and left him farm, which ‘is missus run, she being the trousers and the brains of the outfit all along.

A course, she was still alive when George put his car, it were only an old Ford Anglia or summat like that in them days, put his car nose first into Sixteen Foot Drain on his way to the Ring o’ Bells, which were his local. How he survived that crash I don’t know, and neither does no-one else I reckon, but he did, and clawed his way up outta water and up bank onto tarmac, and then he walked a mile to Sam Davies’ place who died these ten years gone of cancer of the larynx on account of him smoking. He said to Sam, call you the AA up to come and pull my car out of the Sixteen Foot, which they did, though he’d ‘a bin better off if’n they’d ‘a called t’other AA and got poor bugger dried out. As t’was they took’s licence off him, and arter that he must pedal old push bike three miles each way ‘tween home and Ring o’ Bells, which he must ha’ done best part a twenty years, but he still got his two bottles a Johnny Walker ever’ day.

When his missus passed on he went in a home, though not soon enough some said, and they gev him a bath, and another ever’ week after, aye, and a ‘ot meal too, more an’ one a day. Like a pig in it he were, last couple years o’s life, but he had to do without whisky, and maybe that’s what killed ‘im in end.

Maisie said, well, at least whisky kept ‘im happy all them years, but Brenda, who knew story well enough, she said, don’t it never did, and ‘ad a quaver like in her voice, which Maisie oughta a took notice of. Well, maybe it numbed pain a while, Maisie said, which were like a red rag to a bull, and Brenda said, what pain? He never lost his daddy at four year’s old, no! Nor saw his mother broken hearted for rest of her life.

Brenda’s mum took to drinkin’ too, which Maisie shoulda remembered, but Brenda’s mum were Pimms and Champagne, and she didn’t put no cars in that Sixteen Foot Drain neither.