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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!

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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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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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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of years ago I read all the published short stories of A.E.Coppard, issued in a baker’s dozen of books between 1921 and 1947. More than half of these were issued within the first less than half of that time, and less than half of those I liked best appeared in the second more than half of the run.

I hadn’t set out to read them all, but I was so inspired by some of the first few, that, like a prospector panning for gold, I went on digging for more gems, and struck oil right through to the last volume. Then, being a fully paid up member of the chattering class, I wanted to share what I had read, and what I thought about it. The result, in 19 essays, is the collection ‘English of the English, Responses to the Tales of A.E.Coppard’, published on Kindle, and available for a pittance. Piled high, and sold cheap, not necessarily the cleverest, nor most perceptive, but almost certainly the bulkiest amount of writing about this forgotten English writer, the essays might, I hope, provide encouragement for the would-be reader, and the prompt for a better literary critic.

 

English of the English, response to the tales of A.E.Coppard(1878-1957), essays by Mike Smith Kindle edition at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6 -offering an overview of Coppard’s baker’s dozen of short story collections, brief discussions of some of the major themes and sub-genres to be found within, and a closer look at a handful of individual stories.

 

A rather good collection of V.S.Pritchett (1900-1997) stories arrived here recently: On The Edge of the Cliff, Selected Short Stories is another offering from Indie publisher, Turnpike Books (www.turnpikebooks.co.uk). You might remember that they published an A.E.Coppard collection (Weep Not My Wanton) back in 2013. Pritchett, along with Coppard and H.E.Bates, was writing in the mid years of the twentieth century, all three beginning to publish in the early 1920s, with Pritchett producing his last short story collection as late as 1989, in his 90th year!

On the Edge of the Cliff, has 8 stories including the title story. Pritchett was a journalist and critic by profession, living in and working abroad, initially in France, and later Spain before moving back to London. His writing covers a broad sweep of genres, including novels, travel, essays, journalism, and short stories. Curiously, his short stories are almost all set in England and focus on the ordinary lives of very ordinary people. Martin Amis is quoted as describing Pritchett’s characters as having a ‘peculiar ordinariness.’ My favourite in the new selection, is The Wedding, in which a battle of wits, and emotions, is played out between a local farmer, and an independent girls’ school teacher.

The book is well presented, with a perfect cover illustration. Turnpike Books specialises in publishing short stories from the twentieth century, and offers, in addition to Coppard and Pritchett, a collection by J.B.Priestly, What A Life! Their website is well worth a look, and the well-produced paperback editions are a good buy for those of us who like our books printed on paper!

If you’re of a Kindler disposition, you might like to check BHD’s recent offerings:

Cat Alley Blues is the latest individual story by BHD to be added to NAWE’s CUT site: http://www.cutalongstory.com/stories/cat-alley-blues/10392.html

Ice Cream at Twentyman'sI visited again recently the second-hand bookshop at The Mill on the Fleet, Gatehouse of Fleet, in South West Scotland. It’s a wonderfully inefficient shop. The shelves are full, some double stacked, and there are piles of books on the floor. Who knows when the lowest shelves were last exposed. No-one has a clue what they’ve got, except, I suppose for a few spines showing, day in day out, across the aisles from where the sellers sit.

I though, always seem to walk in on the couple of titles I just happen to want. This time it was volumes two and three of A Scots Quair (Lewis Grassic Gibbon). No, not yet, but I’ve dipped in. It seemed too easy. I felt I ought to work a little for it, so I looked further; and turned up The Masterpiece Library of Short Stories: The Thousand Best Complete Tales of All Times and Countries.

I like a modest claim. It was volume 9(&10) English (and Scottish). Published by The Educational Book Company Limited, probably, from clues in the text, in the very late thirties. I’d not heard of most of the (English) authors, though a few were familiar. H.G.Wells has a couple in. John Galsworthy too, and Neil Munro. The Scottish writers were generally earlier, and extracted (rather cheatingly I felt) from longer works, and I knew more of them too!

The Editor was Sir J.Hammerton. That’s him in the photograph – not the one with the ice-cream! As a recovering bookseller, I know of Hammerton, from faux-leather bound sets of populist encyclopedias and histories, always undated, and from the inter-war years. Somewhere I read that it was newspaper presses, underused, that spurred the development of such mass-audience part-work publications. My expectations then, were low.

But the short stories inside blew me away (as they say), and having wafted back in, I thought I’d flag the series up to you.

On the web another nine double volumes lurk, priced at between 66p and several pounds. Postage, within the UK is around £2-3 per volume. I’ve put my order in. There are a couple of hundred copies to go at (more lurk uncatalogued. I suspect).

A friend of mine (who was lying, or mistaken) once introduced himself with the words ‘Ma’am, I have the honour to be a failed writer’ (hard t there – and he was addressing my wife). As an honourable member of that vast body, I was, in a strange way, heartened to read such wonderful stories, from such a forgotten host as lurked between the cloth covers of The Masterpiece Library, and was reminded once again, that the struggle is with the writing, and that the recognition is really a lesser, later problem.

I’ll run a few names past you, from the index to volume 9: The Death of Snarley Bob, by L.P.Jacks, The Grey Frock, by Anthony Hope, Inside-Out by Laurence Housman, The Heart of the Wood, by Mrs W. K.Clifford. These are a few of my favorites. Maybe you’ve heard of some of them. Many were more famous for their work in other genres. They also reminded me that reading a good short story is, in the words of an American I once met, ‘such fun’!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 So here I am, a day late, with the blog piece……

 

Once upon a time, I caught an issue of BBC Book Club on radio four. I was driving back from somewhere. There was a writer whose name I didn’t know, who seemed to be talking sense about a book I hadn’t read.

It got me thinking though, about whether or not an author ought to be talking about his work as this guy was. Though he staved off some questions, prevaricated about others, and was vague with his answers, I got the sense that he was being questioned in a way that suggested his readers were looking to have their response to his writing, well, to put it crudely, marked! As if there might be a right answer to the questions being raised. As if their responses might be the right responses.

Now as a writer I understand that it’s gratifying to have someone ‘get’ what you have been trying to do, but that isn’t to say that there is right and a wrong reading of a book. There is the reading you, as a reader make. There is the writing you as a writer wrote. The two do not have to mesh perfectly. For a start, there is that element of what you have written that you weren’t consciously aware of. There is that element of it that you executed less than perfectly – even you! And whatever it is that the reader brings to a reading – which must not be dismissed as irrelevant, or less important – is of its very nature, new, and individual, as creatively and artistically original, and intrinsic to the reading as the artist’s element – will shift that focus slightly, will perceive it differently.

The underlying assumptions about the discussion, it seemed to me, were that there was a right and a wrong, a permissible and a forbidden, that the work, though it had been floated free, out in the world, was still somehow the writer’s to define, and circumscribe, and sit in authority over. Sure, there were elements of ambiguity that he allowed, that he claimed to have intended, but in the discussion I heard, he was delineating the boundaries of where these were.

As I listened, my irritation increased.

Several weeks later I got involved in a conversation about favourite poems and poets, and someone mentioned a series of essays they had read by a fairly high profile academic and writer, or perhaps that should be, a writer and academic. Each essay had taken a specific poem from a well known poet and subjected it to an analysis. I haven’t read the essays, so can’t comment on them, nor make assumptions about what they claimed to be, though one thing struck me, which was that what they couldn’t be (though ones like them might be thought of that way by their writers and readers) was a definitive analysis. What such essays can capture is only (and only here is a quasi-nym for merely) their writer’s version of what the poem is about. Now, this may be a useful thing to know, if the scales fall from your eyes, and you exclaim, ah yes! (or, perhaps better still, ah no!) and the, or perhaps I should say, a meaning of the poem is suddenly revealed.

The fact is though, that I had found myself at the other end of the telescope I’d been looking down – metaphorically – when I’d been listening to that BBC Book Club author. Both authors and readers, and probably more especially what we might call professional readers, might have a particular interest in asserting a particular reading of a work, but the text remains the text, and is open to interpretation; and the interpretation you or I make is our experience of the work – until the author, or the academic, or the reader down the road, comes along and changes our opinion. That’s why the discussion, even when it irritates the hell out of us, is worth taking part in.