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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!)

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Darren Harper, founder of Carlisle (England)’s new Phil & Lit society, invite BHDandMe to talk to him about short stories. Here’s the first instalment of what got asked, and what got answered. 

 

 

 

Some of the ideas touched on in the interview are examined in The Poetic Impulse, by Mike Smith.

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!

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!

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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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