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I’m going to share with you something that cost me five thousand pounds.

It’s about what I want my stories (and other types of writing) to do. I want them to haunt you, or even stalk you. I want them to ambush you with laughter, or surprise, long after you’ve finished reading them. I want them to come back at you like bad pennies, dishonoured cheques, and badly digested meals, or the shock of unexpected sexual encounters.

Because that’s some of the ways that stories stick in my mind, and is why I like them a lot!

One of the ideas that I picked up whilst taking my M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, was that you have to read to be able to write. I picked it up like it needed putting in a plastic bag and dumping in a bin. It wasn’t an idea I was looking for. It disturbed my equilibrium, threatened my equanimity.

Of course, reading won’t make you a good writer. The relationship is more complicated than that. Writing, in fact, is more likely to make you a good reader. It is likely to make you into a reader who reads like a writer, and reading like a writer might just help you to become a better writer than you have been.

A lot of the value in that five grand was in a simple idea, one that I should have had without needing to have it shoved into my head like a nine foot pike staff. It was the simple idea that when you’re reading, and something makes you reel – or any other of a number of imaginable metaphors – it’s worth stopping your reading, and going back and looking at exactly how that happened.

Because, sure as eggs are erfs, the only thing that can have made it happen is the words printed or written on the page (or heard from the lips of the person reading or telling you the story).  Because that’s all there is. And when you isolate those words, you can begin to get an idea of what it was about them that created the effect.

Partly that will be just exactly what those specific words signify in the lexicon of your brain: something that has been created for you alone, by the events of your life, and the way that the words you have encountered have interacted with them. But partly too, it will have been the way that those words have interacted with the words that have preceded them in whatever you are reading, and with the way that they have interacted with each other in the cluster that has sparked your reaction.

Language is the thorns that prick the skin of your subconscious. Reading like a writer is a matter of pulling them out, and taking a close look at where they came from, and why they hurt. And that just might help you when it comes to sticking them into someone else.

Pewter Rose will cease trading at the end of the month, but there is still time to buy copies of their publications, including A Penny Spitfire and Talking To Owls by Brindley Hallam Dennis.

I don’t so much launch my books as chuck ’em in the deep end.

Here’s one I chucked earlier. There are a dozen stories inside. Some have won prizes. Some have been published. All have missed the boats one way or another that would have put them into previous collections. One is so old that I was still using those wriggly little speech marks when I wrote it….and I’ve left them in. Irritating, I know. Click here to get a copy…

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A couple of years ago, inspired by a meeting with a local ‘self-publishing expert’ I decided to have a go myself at putting my short stories, poems, and essays on Amazon/Kindle.

Over the previous few years I’d had several disappointing experiences with small press publishers that had accepted collections for publication, but not proceeded to actual publication! Their reasons might have been entirely understandable, but the outcome was frustrating. I also, around the same time, had a more pressing experience – involving a midnight ride in an ambulance – with the National Health Service, bless ‘em, which led to me being kitted out with a couple of stents. You get to watch, on a largish TV screen, the stents being inserted, which is fascinating, but the adverts are lousy.

A stent not only frees the arteries. It focuses the mind. With John Donne’s wingéd chariot rattling around in your sub-conscious you start to consider what it is you really want to do. I’ve been there before, twenty years ago, and fate, or whatever, obviously felt I needed a reminder.

Primarily I write to amuse myself, and sometimes I do! But I also do it to make some sort of connection with other people, and that means publication. Indie presses are great, and I’ve self-published the odd poetry pamphlet in the past. I even published a small collection of short stories, of which I still have a few copies left (Second Time Around, 2006). Publication is the last part of the writing process, and nowadays we don’t have to wait for someone else to do it for us, or to have the wealth that enabled authors to publish themselves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The internet and online publishing programmes have sorted that out for us.

Of course, it means there is a metaphoric sea of unreadable tosh out there, into which we must jettison our own writing. But, publication is still the last part of the writing process, if the work is to be offered to others. I leaven my collections with material that has been published elsewhere, or has been performed, or won prizes or commendations. In fact the last poetry collection I published (An Early Frost, 2016) contained nothing that hadn’t been used, or prized, somewhere else! It doesn’t prove anything, of course, except that someone, perhaps a group of people somewhere, liked a particular piece for reasons known only to them, and not necessarily ones that chime in with your reasons for writing, but it’s perhaps a pennyweight in the decision making process: of whether or not the collection is worth a look.

Thankfully, it’s not my job to convince anybody of that, but I’m always pleased when somebody is convinced, and even more pleased when they go on to try to convince others.

Time is something that has formed a background theme to many of my stories, and poems (and even, in convoluted ways, some of the essays), and time, stents remind, us is running out. It’s running out from a reservoir the size of which we have no idea. I called it somewhere ‘a stick of indeterminate length being pulled from dark water’. We never know, until it happens (and perhaps not then), when the end of the stick will break the surface.

So, over the last year I have been publishing stories, and poems and essays ‘like there was no tomorrow’, which, like the horror stories of a bad winter to come that the press feeds us every year, will be true one today. I’d like to finish as much of the process before that day breaks.bookcoverpreview-tmt

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!

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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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

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I spent last weekend in Bristol, visiting the Encounters short film and animations Film Festival. Apart from being an exciting and stimulating experience in its own right, it was for me the model of what a festival ought to be. Relatively celebrity free – there were no Scorseses, no A-listers, no block-busters, no Classics, no TV ‘favourites’! – there were people from within and without the industry, gathered together to encourage each other, and to nurture developing practitioners of the film-maker’s art (and science). It has been running that way for twenty-one years.

This was so far from the ‘Book Festival’ model that it made me want to weep. Films had been submitted by the thousand, and from scores of countries: film-makers and their friends had come from nearly as many. The film, not its pre-packaged commercial offspring the dvd, was what was being celebrated. Nobody, as far as I could see, was trying to flog us their book, boxed set, or collector’s edition! A lot of people were meeting, networking, and making contacts. Just about everyone, even those who missed out on the prizes, seemed to be having a good time! The prize-givers, and sponsors, those who were from within the industry, were recruiting, and offering routes forward into jobs, training, and other opportunities.

It reminded me what I had been trying to do with The Writers Quarter, and that the concept sits uneasily alongside the commercial model of a festival. I could imagine that if they had been showing the latest Bond Movie, and having a talk from its star, director, or producer, they could have filled a bigger theatre than the three we were in put together, but would that have made it any more of a festival?

Among those who contributed the films, were amateurs, students, and workers from within the wider TV and film industry. There were film festival virgins, and old hands. They met on a level playing field (though not necessarily beginning with the score nil-nil), and sometimes the well-backed and experienced were blown off their perches by the shoestring and learn-as-we-go sticky-back-plastic cohort! The naff and the sophisticated rubbed shoulders. The prize-givers, as they so often do, got it wrong more than once! Nobody, in my hearing, bemoaned the fact that it wasn’t for ‘the viewer,’ though the audiences for the hundreds of screenings, seemed predominantly to be other film-makers. It was a festival, arguably, for insiders, but there was no doubt that outsiders – like me – were welcome!

A local writer responding to the discussion that took place online and off about The Writers Quarter made the observation that there are ‘too many Book Festivals and not enough Literary Festivals.’ And, she added, we need to ‘nurture our writers.’

I wonder how many years it took for this film festival to grow into what it has become. It would not have been overnight. What it did not do, if I understood the organisers aright, was to tie itself to a commercial film-selling model from the start. To have done so, I suspect, would have led it down a road into the deeper waters of commercialism, and eventually would have swamped the creative side. The ‘profit making’ side might pay lip service to the creative, but no more than that. Another local writer said to me recently that Borderlines, by following the ‘Words By The Water’ model, had become, like it, another means of promoting the ‘consumption of culture’ rather than of the participation in it. Celebrities headline events that would not have been staged had they written their books under a pseudonym – books that might not even have been published were it not for a fame entirely disconnected from the writing, however good that was!

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