Coming this Saturday, 16th December, 4.30pm, to the Sun Pub on Drury Lane(the one in London), is the Inktears Launch Party for two Showcase Editions. BHD will be among the writers present to read from, and sign (should that be deface?) copies! Click on the link for more details. There’s also a link on the link that’ll take you to where you can buy the books in advance!

 

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Darren Harper, founder of the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society has asked me to deliver a creative writing course in addition to the Short Story Writing course that I shall running though January into March. Over the same ten weeks, but on Monday evenings at 7.00pm. This second course will take a more general approach, and because the other is centred on short stories, I’ll focus this one on the novel (at least as far the reading material and texts to work on are concerned). Here’s a brief overview of what’s planned…..

L&PC2 Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

 

Dates: 8 January until 12 March 2018 Mondays 7pm until 9pm

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £70 full fee £49 over 60 £14 in receipt of benefit Level Beginners to Intermediate

 

Description:

Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing outlined below. Because I am running concurrently a short story course, all the texts used in this one will be taken from novels.

 

Introduction : An exercise in what we know about story – but not the one you expect!

Developing Character: Breadth and depth, limits and inner conflicts

Setting the Scene: Enabling the events, inviting the participants, manipulating the reader

Structure and Plot: Paragraphs and Chapters

Point of View 1: Who tells the story?

Point of View 2: Where are the readers?

The Little Box of Language Tricks: Emotional Weighting. Open & Closed sentences. Poetics.

Reading as a Writer: A stop and search mission

Drafting: Putters in and Takers out. Chronologies. Cruises and crossings.

Revision: CRIT Clarifications, Repetitions, Irrelevancies and Tightening

 

Suggested Reading:

The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate

First Blood – David Morrell (trust me, ignore the films. This is a great study in plot/structure)

BHD’s short, short story Echoes is among the sixty stories by sixty authors in the newly published Flash Volume 10 (April’17), the Flash Fiction magazine of the IFFA. Stories included are all of 360 words or fewer (less, if you prefer).


It doesn’t matter how many times you kiss the frog. It won’t turn into a Prince.

Facets of Fiction: Writing the Short Story

– a short course by Mike Smith, devised for Darren Harper’s Carlisle Phil and Lit Society.

Thursdays, 1.00pm-3.00pm, 11th January to 15th March 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street, Carlisle.

£70 (£49 over 60/ £14 in receipt of benefits)

This 10 week Facets of Fiction course examines the short story elements: Beginnings, Endings, Middles, Locations in time and place, Ambience, Character, and Narrative voice. Short stories are short, sharp, subtle, and to be taken ‘at a sitting’. Includes sessions that take published short stories and examine how they have used those facets.

  1. Cut Up Exercise – Reconstructing stories reveals our grasp of the genre.
  2. Beginnings – What are they for? What must they do?
  3. Endings – The point of a story: the view it takes us to.
  4. Dialogue – how much, and where, and why? And how to do it…
  5. Character & Situation – Characters create situations, and are caught in them.
  6. Location – Stories take place, and time, and are made by them
  7. Ambience – every story has a mood, which might deepen, dissipate, or change.
  8. Narrators – Who is telling the story, and why, and to whom?
  9. Editing & Redrafting – exercises with prepared stories (c1000 words).
  10. Publication: How and Why? Options to consider.

Suggested Reading:

The Poetic Impulse by Mike Smith. Explores the ideas from which the course was constructed. Available on Amazon (or from the author).  Mike Smith, M.Litt (Glasgow) -aka Brindley Hallam Dennis- has won many prizes and awards for his writing.

Story by Robert McKee. Intended for Screenwriters, but useful for any story constructor!

Aristotle’s Poetics – An ancient overview of how tragedy works (even today!). Various translations (over the past centuries) are available. (McKee’s book draws heavily on it!)

The flight from Auckland to Dubai is said to be the longest single ‘hop’ in the commercial, passenger airline route list. It takes about 17 hours, an hour or so longer than the west to east outward journey.

On that outward journey I’d watched the whole of series Five of Episodes, a comedy series my daughter used to work on. On the homeward leg though, I couldn’t find anything on the ‘blockbuster/boxed set’ listings on the back of the seat in front of me.

I’m not a natural traveller, and least of all in ‘planes and boats (trains are fine by me). My logical brain tells me that aircraft are the safest form of transport, and I remember from  childhood a Biggles story (Biggles in India perhaps? Or the Cruise of the Condor(?) which were two favourites) in which after a hair raising take off from a river, Biggles and his chums – my adoptive family actually used the word ‘chums, being of that generation – Biggles and his chums narrowly avoided going over a waterfall. Uncompressing his lips for a moment, the fair-haired, clean shaven hero pointed out, that it wouldn’t have been as safe in a canoe! Common sense though ( of the type that leads us to our political choices) tells me that so many tons and so much bulk, as are A380s made of cannot stay so serenely up in the air.

With this in mind, before I fly, I try to put myself into a frame of that ilk, where the possibility of death might be faced with equanimity – at least until the moments of sheer terror and panic! I make a point of saying goodbye to those who matter – yes, that did mean you – and leave messages for those I cannot directly communicate with. Letters, left ‘where they may be found’ (to mangle a line), can be used for kindling if the chance arises.

Perhaps that not quite transcendental caste of mind is what prevented me from throwing myself into the viewing of any particular movie, or TV show. As it was I did something rather unexpected instead, and unexpectedly, found it to be rather interesting. I watched, without access to the sound, the programmes being watched by the two who sat either side of me, and by two others, two rows ahead, whose screens were visible, obliquely through the gaps between the seat backs.

There’s something curious about watching movies, or any programmes, with the sound missing.  As black and white images seem to focus our attention on the forms within the frame, so silence demands that we focus on what we see. And there’s a surprising amount to be seen, that not having to focus in the normal course of events (as is the case for most of us), we simply overlook.

Facial expressions and body language suddenly take centre stage, and in fact are, in terms of mis-en-scene, exactly that. More subtly perhaps, we notice those phases of a story when the characters are doing very little, except exchanging words, and words, by the looks of it, not laden with emotional upheaval. We get a gist of the story, that may be misleading, but makes, nevertheless, a story that we think we are following. I’ve quoted often – usually disparagingly – C.S.Lewis’s carp about ‘unliterary’ people ‘flooding’ written stories (‘wretched material’ he calls it) with their own imaginings, and for a large part of that long haul flight, I guess that’s what I must have been doing.

Not so subtly, my attention during all this was drawn to the action, and specifically to the violence. How much of it there was, and how relentless, graphic, pitiless, and vicious. I worked for several years in the criminal justice system, where I saw a large amount of low level, intermittent, ineffective, clumsy and pathetic violence. I have not found it so entertaining since, though it runs, like a thread of corruption through the flesh of many of my stories. How could it be, I asked myself, at 40,000 feet, and still serenely sailing, that people were so content – for want of a dozen other words – to sit through this onslaught?

And there was another thing (no quote intended). How much of this unrealistic violence involved a ‘hero’ – for want of a better word – seemingly impervious to fear, or damage, slaughtering countless numbers of anonymous ‘enemies’. Is this the rage that festers away inside us? The desire to kill the stranger?

The cover story for this mayhem is that the stories are about the victory of righteousness over wickedness, but the Greeks, or so I believe, told such stories without any action being seen on stage. The violence, for them, even when it was not gratuitous, was not the entertainment.

Click on the image for a dozen stories by BHD (in which the violence is off-stage) available on Amazon for Kindle, or as a softback.

Did you know that BHD’s story, The Turkey Cock, is this month’s ‘featured story’ on the CUTalongstory site? You can download it, for Kindle and other formats, for 99p – here – or watch BHD reading it (for free) on Vimeo at BHDandMe. I made the error of reading this story at a Christmas party a few years ago, on the shaky basis that it had ‘Turkey’ in the title….and it has caused contention and disagreement throughout it lifetime to date (as good stories perhaps should)! It was included in the 2014 HISSAC Winners anthology, celebrating 10 years of the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association.

You can also find it in Ten Murderous Tales, available on Amazon for Kindle, or in print. Click on the cover image to go there.


I take a long look at H.E.Bates’ grim story of abuse and exploitation, The Mill, on the Thresholds website – here. The study focuses on the three men in Alice Hartop’s life: her father, her abusive employer, and the compassionate and perceptive Albert, her employer’s son.

 

There’s a study of Bates’ short story, The Little Farm, in the first volume of my series of essays on short stories and their writers, Readings For Writers, available –here.

There’s nothing new in the idea of a visual prompt to kick start a piece of writing. I have a folder of random images, from the post card of a red faced eighteenth century farm worker, to a twelve by fifteen inch landscape of the Lincolnshire fens, via some grainy black and white character studies and full colour night time shots taken at Carlisle’s railway station.  Workshops all over the world use the technique. Our own Liars League recently ran a competition in which punters chose a painting from the National Gallery (online) and wrote a story sparked by it. I had a punt (unsuccessful, of course) with Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs Andrews, whom I might have been thought to have slandered unmercifully…but really, she does look a sharp faced little minx and he a gormless galloot (not sure of the spelling there, but the computer sure doesn’t like it!).

The question the technique raises is whether one is interpreting the picture or sparking off from it. Both are possible, and possibly in the same piece of writing I shouldn’t wonder. What is unusual, at least in my experience, is to couple up the resulting story with the originating image. Of course, that National Gallery/Liars League competition did just that, and I can remember using a photograph by a friend of mine to stand alongside the story The Three Billy Groughs and the Owld Goat (in Talking To Owls, Pewter Rose,2012).

But I recently came across a whole collection of short stories written around the paintings of Jack Vettriano. I’m a fan of Vettriano’s art, not least because, as someone pointed out in a video shown at the recent exhibition of his work at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery, Vettriano speaks directly to his audience, not requiring the intercession of academic interpreters. Maureen Oxley’s Myself and Other Strangers (the title aping that of Vettriano’s own book, Lovers and Other Strangers, Pavilion, 2002 with a text by Anthony Quinn) appends a story to each of 14 Vettriano paintings, and has one for its front cover too.

I think it’s rather splendid that the artist agreed to this, but I have misgivings about the coupling of the stories to the paintings in such a permanent way. Of course, if they are interpretations of the images, rather than stories inspired by them, it makes perfect sense, but if the images have been starting points for story making – as they usually end up being in those workshops – then making that permanent coupling seems to me to risk diminishing the stories as pieces of art in their own right. In this particular case that coupling is double locked, the stories carrying the same names as the paintings that accompany them.

Titles, whether for paintings or written stories, can be powerful indicators of how the artist or writer wants the work to be interpreted. Certainly for told stories they can set traps for the reader or listener, wrong footing the response until some key fact or alternative meaning is revealed later on. At the very least they seem to suggest that reader and viewer, in this case, are setting off down the same, or at least a similar road.

Vettriano’s paintings are all a moment in story, but which moment? Do they crystallize the beginning, the middle, or the end? Are they the moment of crisis? The turning point? The resolution or, to borrow Mckee’s term, the inciting incident? For each of us, I suspect, each painting will be a different point in a different story, one that we have recalled, or fantasised about, and each of us could write down our own version, a version that would be as valid and meaningful – especially to us – as anybody else’s.

Oxley’s stories won’t prevent or even discourage us from doing that, even though the paintings might seem to be as linked to them, as they are to the paintings. The question is rather, will Vettriano’s paintings tie the stories to them, hi-jacking our imaginations, and limiting our readings of them? Or will the stories – and I think one of them at least achieves this – subdue the paintings to mere illustration of one of their passages, if only for the duration of the reading?

You can’t argue with the commercial sense, though, of coupling the writing to the paintings of one of the country’s most popular and successful artists! Oxley’s book is available on Amazon, which is where my copy came from.

A little while ago I went to see Theatre By The Lake’s production of the Terrance Rattigan play, After The Dance. Responses, the programme told me, to the first run of this were ‘euphoric’.

It’s an interesting word to use. The play tells (or should I, of all people, say shows?) the decline of a group post World War One generation of wealthy people – living on ‘private incomes’ into alcoholism and despair. It makes a nice comparison with that old favourite of mine, The Shooting Party, Isobel Colegate’s retrospective analysis of a similar, but somewhat more upmarket, group from the eve of the same conflict. Rattigan’s bunch are living, in 1938, in the shadow, not of the approaching war, but of their own immediate post-war past, of the gay (as opposed to GAY) world of the nineteen twenties, when they partied and drank late into the night and early in the morning. Fifteen years on and the now pushing middle aged crowd are not flagging, but they are beginning to fray at the edge.

What they fear most is to be seen as ‘boring’, though as the play develops – with a dialogue that was thought provoking, but neither witty nor snappy – we see that it is not actually to ‘be’ boring that frightens them. They keep alive their own myth of the eternal party, the light, skimming across the surface of life, not being drawn into anything serious – like work, or politics, or even love itself.

There are four main characters: David, on the verge of cirrhosis (I spelled that first time! Amazing!) of the liver, who goes on the wagon to please his soon-to-become lover – who turns out not to be a major character, though she fools us for a while – Joan, his long suffering wife, nursing the secret that she actually loves him (which would be too boring to bear if it came out, she thinks), Peter, David’s amanuensis, a drippy Oxford grad, and that lover’s present boyfriend. He gets dumped and does a George Orwell (Down and Out in London, you know). Then there is John, a parasite on David’s wealth who earns – a much  misused word – his keep by playing Jaques to David’s ‘Duke’. An unpleasant character, cynical, mercenary and ascerbic, we’ll come to him later.

When we left the theatre after the show – I couldn’t bring myself to accept the invitation to join in a question and answer with the cheery looking cast. I was too down cast. It reminded me of coming out of Carlisle’s old cinema some forty years ago, having watched   The Elephant Man: that sepulchral quiet of an audience too stunned to chatter.

Did you enjoy it? My wife kept asking, and no, I thought, I didn’t. The phrase that sprang to mind was ‘slit-your-throat’, and I made a note to that effect in my notebook. ‘Terrance Rattigan’s slit-your-throat play’. But I had been engrossed. I had been entertained (which I take to mean ‘held between other things’, like what went before and what came after).

The costumes were fabulous, the set, perfect, the actors, apart from one, absolutely believable. The story, absolutely believable too. But what sort of moron, I wondered, is euphoric after a story like that? The sort that frequented the Roman Amphitheatres?

But as the days wore on, I turned the play over and over in my mind – which, like a slow Rubik Cube, is what they’re for – and found the seam of silver, or even solid gold, that I was looking for. That’s in the character John, the outsider, the man with the jaundiced eye and the sharp retort – the man, it might be said, who looks on and understands – the man, perhaps, most like a writer.

I’ve got to that stage – I came across a handful of magazines not on the ‘boasting shelf’. How they’d been overlooked I don’t know. Perhaps because they were so ragged: covers off, staples rusted, pages dog eared – dog eared? Fighting dogs I suppose.

Even the names I’d forgotten, of the magazines, that is. The names inside sprang back to mind. Half of them must be dead by now, the others half dead. Radix, Muse, Raven. In one I was ‘Midland Poet of the Month’ with a half a dozen poems about Burton-On-Trent that I couldn’t remember writing, until I read them again.

I found also, two ‘Oakleaf Poetry Cards’, with front cover illustrations by artist Steve Muscutt – last seen running Fred Holdsworth’s bookshop in Ambleside – and inside poems by David Watkyn Price. Stockghyll in Autumn Flood ends with the couplet ‘fighting on the edge/to keep the earth.’ It’s a fitting pair of lines to remember David by, and he used it if I remember correctly, as the title of a collection, though I can’t recall the publisher. Perhaps there is a copy still lurking somewhere on my shelves. Here’s a glass raised to both him, and to Steve.

Poems come harder now than they did back then – the magazines date from the nineteen seventies – but the better for it, I hope. I remember faintly the excitement that publication brought with it in those days. It’s a different feeling now, more of gratitude than excitement; more to do with recognising a compliment being paid than with any sense of an opportunity being offered; a sense of acceptance, which of course in that obvious sense, it is.

I was a publication tart in those days. I sent my poems to every magazine I could find, and something like forty of them were accepted. It didn’t change my life, nor that of any reader I expect. I’m less promiscuous these days. I try the occasional ‘fresh’ magazine, but most of the poems I think of as worth having a go with are sent to Acumen. Few get a second chance if they are not taken there. Patricia Oxley has published perhaps a dozen of my poems over the years. She put me in the 60th, celebratory, issue. That earns a first refusal in my book.

Of course, some have gone elsewhere, mostly to local magazines, out of sense of neighbourliness. To be published locally is a privilege.

Finding those old poems reminded me that they have, or have not – and the poet is perhaps the last to know of it – a life of their own, quite disconnected from that of the poet.