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I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of having been writing for so long, or of not being able to write so easily, but I’ve noticed that I’m looking back more often over what’s been written, and looking back further.

I’ve been keeping records of the short stories in particular more assiduously than I used to, setting up a file each year since 2008 to include all the stories written during the year – in whatever state they are, that’s where they go – plus one or two brought forward from previous years for reconstruction, re-titling, tweaking. Distance helps us to see what we’ve written more clearly, to see where it failed, where it was flawed. And they nearly always are flawed, failed stories – otherwise they would have been published, isn’t it? Of course, if they have been published (flawed as they still  might be, almost certainly will have been) we can relax and forget about them, until or if someone wants to re-publish them again. Then we have to decide which side of that argument we are on between Tobias Wolff and H.E.Bates, about whether or not one should tinker with a ‘finished’ tale.

Distance gives us a chance to fix what we realise is broken, and hindsight or experience might just give us the tools to fix it, tools of perception or technique that we didn’t have when the stories were first written. Form and content can both be fumbled, but in my experience it’s usually content that we haven’t understood properly, that I haven’t fully grasped, rather than the form. Form serves content, but good content will stand a messy serving better than poor content served to perfection, at least in the long run. And it is the long run that’s important, isn’t it?

As a reader I find I’m more often reading stuff that’s been around a while. I don’t hang on the coat tails of literary any more than any other fashion. Even when I’m responding to an up to date review it sometimes works out that I end up reading something that was published a while back. Recently I bought a copy of Yiyun Li’s ‘essays’ (Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, HH2017) on the back of an LRB review – not something I can usually afford to do – but I ordered the short story collection too, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which is already a decade and more in print!

Unless we’re doing it for the money, and getting it, we might, as writers, be interested in people who find our short stories ten years down range, and think they’ve been worth the wait. And, as writers, we might be pleasantly surprised, looking back over ten and more years, to find we still think our writing worth reading, and worth fixing where necessary.

Cut Up – A Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop,
by Mike Smith

Many of the Writing Workshops I’ve attended are based around the idea of trawling the subconscious and heaving up some piece of writing that has been snagged by whatever hook the Workshop facilitator has fashioned.
The ‘Cut Up’ session, one of the workshops that I devised for the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, takes a totally different approach. It’s a Writers’ Workshop, but not a workshop that aims to produce, there and then, a piece of writing.
In fact it’s based on our abilities as readers, and on the belief that as readers, we perhaps know more about stories than, as writers, we realise we do!
As the title suggests, I take a short story – working with one that’s out of copyright, and hopefully unknown to workshop members – and cut it into pieces. Usually these are paragraph sized or similar, but the theory would hold good with sentences, or even chapters if working with longer prose forms.
Splitting the workshop into groups of between two and (preferably no more than) five, each group gets a full set of the story pieces, and reconstructs it. Practice has shown that the larger the group, the more difficult the task.
Some of the things that I think we know are what beginnings and endings look like. We know too when things are being introduced for the first time, and when they are being referred to subsequently. We know who is telling a story, and who it is being told about. We might even have ideas about to whom it is being told, and from that might deduce why it is being told, and why by that particular teller, and in that particular way!
Several lessons usually come out, and I hope that such was the case with the Mary Mann (1862-1929) short story, Little Brother. Those lessons include the functions of beginnings, and the importance of endings. The malleability of ‘middles’, and the effect of changing the order that information is given to the reader.
The workshop is not a competition to see which group can rebuild the story quickest, but rather an opportunity to examine those ‘facets’ of fiction: Narrative Voice, Location in Time and Place, Ambience, Function of Beginnings, Endings, and, arguably least of all in the short story, Characters.
When it works well, and in the case of Mary Mann it seemed to, it leads to discussions on all of those facets, and more generally on the use, and misuse, of detail, and the usefulness, and otherwise, of theory itself when we confront the tricky business, not of writing a first draft, but of knowing what we have written, and whether or not it works, and if not, how we might make it! It’s a technique that can tried with almost any story, and stories being what we might think they are, will throw up the same sort of lessons, about the same facets of fiction!

I’ve been reading through old workhopping notes and plans, hoping to slim down the hundreds of files that have accumulated on the computer, and I came across a little snippet that I thought was worth pulling out, tidying up, and putting on the blog. It concerns the functions of beginnings to stories in general, and touches on three of the ‘facets’ of fiction that I find to be common to all stories.

  • Location: To be readily and powerfully imaginable, bequeathing time and place, real or imagined, to the reader
  • Ambience: To set the mood in which we want the reader to enter the story
  • Focus: To distinguish what is background from what is foreground, and to identify subjects, themes or characters that will be followed.

The important one missing here is the Narrative Voice – the implied or revealed teller of the story, with his or her own agendas of why and how the story should be told, and what sort of response is expected to it.

When I’ve tried to combine these elements into a comprehensive framework for approaching the subject, Narrative Voice and Location have always been at the core along with Ambience, but character, theme and plot have always jostled for a place. Perhaps the trio that I re-discovered offers a way forward, with that ‘Focus’, which is a term I haven’t used anywhere else that I can recall.

In the particular context that the trio was cited the issue was of beginnings, but of course all three elements persist, though not necessarily unchanging, throughout the whole of a story, as does the Narrative Voice.

Perhaps I should revise my list of the core ‘Facets of Fiction’ now, to read:


Narrative Voice



Which, like any definitive list of such things, might do to be going on with…..

Kowalkski – no thinking cap! (drawn by Alex Halfpenny)

sunset near GlenuigA little while ago I ran a writers workshop for a group in Connell, in the Scottish Highlands just north of Oban.

I took the well-tested ‘cut-up’ exercise, this time using Mary Mann’s shocking short story Little Brother. The basis of the exercise is that I take a short story and cut it into a dozen or more sections, mix them up, and ask the group to put it back together again. It’s a simple idea, but like many simple ideas, is worthwhile. It brings writers face to face, not only with the story in hand, and how it works, but with their own unconscious assumptions about what a story is, and what they think it ought to look like.

Experience has shown that two people working on a cut-up will do the job fairly briskly, three will take a little longer, four longer still, and a larger group, forever! From what the near observer hears and sees though, whatever size the group there are striking similarities of approach. There’s a search, to begin with usually, for the beginning, and another, usually next on the agenda, to find the ending. Sequences of events are then constructed using what is known, and what is not known at different points in the story, to readers, and to characters.

We have an idea, however vague, of what a beginning ought to do and be, and so for the ending! In Mary Mann’s little tale the ending is unusual, surprising one might say – but then aren’t all short story endings surprising in some way? The surprise here is not so much what is revealed as who is speaking, for in a story about desperate rural poverty, witnessed by a middle class narrator, Mann gives the final word to the poverty stricken mother. What she has to say in defence of her children using the eponymous sibling – dead by the way – as a doll, rebukes both the narrator and, I suspect, the general reader.

This ending, despite being a definitive statement about the rest of the story, often eludes the writers doing the exercise: they are looking for a summation from the narrator, and from the narrator’s perspective. The beginning, though, is nearly always found quite quickly. The scene is set, characters and themes introduced, narrative voice revealed, and the ambience of the story, to some extent, implied. The ‘middle’ sequences, and this is usually the case, seem more fluid and hard to place, except by specific clues where something is referred to for a second time.

The exercise underlines the way in which story works: it draws the reader in by location in time and place, theme, character, narrative voice and ambience, and through sequences of action, thought and description, contextualises progressively an ending that need not be sharp and explicitly pointed, but which metaphorically will counterbalance the weight of everything that has gone before.

In Mary Mann’s tale there are some beautifully executed technical operations: the concealing of the true nature of the doll – by distraction to another feature as it is first mentioned, so that its eventual exposure, perhaps suspected by then, still shocks. Then there is the immediately following shock of the description of the children playing with ‘the doll’. The first shock comes because of what we don’t know, the second because of what we do: a clever and well executed double whammy.

There’s also, in this tale, a striking absence of description. Sparse hardly covers it. The village, the turnip house, the bereaved mother’s bedroom are thumb-nailed in a few ‘telling’ words – our reader imagination does the rest of the work. How different to the ‘showing’ of story in a film, where every detail of landscape, buildings and rooms has to be ‘in shot.’ The fault, for me, of so many contemporary stories is that their writers try to be the all seeing camera, burying the story under detail that the story teller does not need – because his reader can imagine, or because his reader does not need to imagine. Said of poetry, but also true of the short story, what does not work for you, works against you.

Only with the character of Hodd, the father, and his son, does Mann make sure we ‘see’ the details – of red hair, which the doll will have, and of the ‘sack’ clothes, that will later distract us when that doll is first slipped into view.

The beauty of the cut-up exercise is that it can be done so easily, and with any story you care to use. There will always be a beginning, a middle, and an end – and don’t you believe anyone who tries to tell you differently! – and they will always, but not quite the way you expect, conform to your ideas of what they should be; and each story will have its own little gems of construction and execution to appreciate. It’s the sort of exercise that each member of a writers group can set up for the others, and when they do, the very act of cutting, itself becomes an exercise, in where, and why to snip.IMG_7421

If you would like to read more about short stories you could try Love and Nothing Else, the second volume in my series Reading For Writers.12 more essays on short stories and their writers Readings For Writers cover

By the time you get to read this blog-post, I’ll be heading back from a few days in Scotland….In the few days before I set off, the house was busy with builders and plasterers, drumming up a storm of dust and rubble, and settling it down again to a smooth, white finish. Consequently I didn’t do much reading: but I did do some writing.

Not among it was this story, written a long time ago, and included in Southlight 19, south-west Scotland’s literary magazine. I hope it keeps you amused, until next week’s blog (or possibly even longer!) Curiously it came out of a writing exercise I set for the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop (and as always, had a go at myself). The exercise was to add a story to the front of the last ten words….much more interesting than adding stories to given beginnings!


Charlie Davies

by Brindley Hallam Dennis


C’mon Charlie, have a smoke on me.

Tailor-Mades, Mr Pike! You’re spoiling me.

Charlie took the cigarette and Mr Pike held out his lighter. They were behind the court building, waiting for the van to arrive. The security guard who was handcuffed to Charlie Davies stood impassively, ignoring both of them. Mr Pike lit his own cigarette and blew out a gout of smoke into the chill November air. He would go for a walk in the park after Charlie had gone, savouring the air, the grey-green of the winter grass, the dark metal of the river, the cawing of the crows. Prison was a waste of time and money. Charlie’s time; everyone else’s money. He’d been sending Charlie off like this for half a bloody century. What a bloody waste of a life.

Your name came up, Charlie, he said looking at the older man. When I was up north, a couple of days ago. A bloke said you was his landlord. Mr Pike glanced at Charlie, but Charlie remained impassive, savouring his cigarette. I never had you down for one of the landowning classes. Charlie took the cigarette from his lips and held it between two fingers. He looked at it as if he’d never seen one before.

That was a long time ago, Mr Pike. When I was married.

Dave Wilson, Charlie. Remember him? He remembered you. Said he had regrets from those days, about a moral decision he had to make.

I remember that, Mr Pike. I offered him fifty quid to take a parcel  up to Scotland.

That must have been some parcel, Charlie, that was a week’s wages back then, and you only lived ten minutes from the border..

Silly bugger turned me down, Mr Pike. He had a car you see. Wouldn’t have taken him more than an hour. A week’s bloody wages for an hour’s work, and he turned me down.

You’d have been just starting out then, Charlie; and me, for that matter.

He had no ambition, Mr Pike, no initiative.

For Nick Romano, if I remember rightly.


Come on Charlie. You remember Nick. You was one of his young hopefuls. Poor old Nick. Know what happened to him, Charlie?

No idea, Mr Pike.

He ended up under a bridge pier somewhere, unless I’m very much  mistaken, and you know me Charlie, I’m hardly ever mistaken.

He had a poxy job with the Council, Dave Wilson.

We were playing golf together, Dave Wilson and I. We do that sometimes, when I’m up in his part of the world, your old stamping ground. I like a round of golf now and then. Of course, I’ve not much of a swing Charlie. I don’t get in the hours, you see. But I like a stroll in the open air, all that grass. You’re not much of an outdoor man Charlie, never were if I recall. Probably as well, considering.

Drove a piddly little Vauxhaul, Dave Wilson did. I was offering’ him more than the f-ing car was worth, and you know what he did?

What did he do, Charlie?

He asked me what was what in it.

He’s retired now, Dave Wilson.

He asked me what was fuckin’ in it, the parcel.

He remembers you Charlie. Nice house, nice job, nice wife, little girl, you had back then.

I mean, what did he think was fuckin’ in it? Fifty quid, I ask you!


I don’t know about that Charlie, he never mentioned that, but he did say he regretted not having made love to your wife, when she gave him the chance.

The van backed up to the gate, and the guard turned towards them and said, that’s us. Mr Pike threw down his cigarette and stubbed it out and walked away.



There are more BHD stories here.


I was recently speaking with the artist, Sam Cartman []. We were comparing notes on how we work towards being better writers and artists of one sort and another. There seemed to be much in the way of process that we used similar, if not exactly the same, words to describe for our respective genres.

One specific issue was the value of looking – in the case of the visual arts – and reading – in case of writing.  Sam, in addition to producing his own work, takes on the role of picture framer for other artists, which, he told me, has led over the years to him looking at masses of paintings. They’ve not all been good, he said, nor all bad! But they have been wide ranging and varying in style and subject – or what, for writers, I’d call form and content – and in the competence with which they were done.

Just that very act, Sam said, of looking at so much of the art form he works in, has been of great value to him as an artist. To frame a picture Sam has to make all sorts of judgements about what the picture is, and how it should be viewed, and framed.  I was for a long time, reluctant to accept the idea that something very similar is true for writers, and the act of reading.  I have no doubts now, though, that such is the case.

To say that reading ‘even’ bad writing is good for you doesn’t perhaps make the case of why that should be so: but the evidence is in the word itself. If you know – or believe – that a piece of writing is bad, or good, you are making a judgement of it, and that judgement must be in relation to some template that – rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly – you will have in mind for what a piece of writing could, and perhaps should be: of what you will seek to make your own writing, consciously, or unconsciously.

Like a muscle to exercise, our understanding of what we’re about when we set out to write, will, hopefully, develop the more we do it, but also the more we make judgements on what we see of it having been done.

Kill your darlings, was, I think, Stephen King’s advice to budding writers….Well, this gone-to-seed writer has been doing just that over the last couple of days…

In particular I was hand-murdering a particular darling that I had been rather taken with. The fact is, King is not telling us we need to cut out the bits we don’t like. That would be one thing! (And maybe even then not too easy). But he was telling us to slaughter the darlings that we do like, if they’ve wandered into the wrong story.

My particular darling was about a pool of blood, which I wanted to describe as ‘a crimson lake, its surface shiny as a freshly painted steam engine.’ Eagle-eyed (or buzzard, I don’t mind

which) readers of the blog, and of my other writing, will have noticed a tendency to include steam engines whenever I can, and I’m not going to try to sell you the idea that this particular description is a great piece of writing, but I do confess, I did like it.

The reason, of course, that I did, was nothing to do with the story I had dragged it into. It was the fact that ‘Crimson Lake’ was the official name of the colour that some L.M.S. steam engines were painted, in the days when they were painted what you or I might call maroon! I rather liked slipping that hidden little snippet into the story – but the story wasn’t about L.M.S. engines. It wasn’t even set in that part of the country. It wasn’t about any engines, anywhere! And besides, as was pointed out to me, it wasn’t the sort of thing my first person narrator would have said.

That narrator was a carpet fitter – who might have had an interest in steam engines, but didn’t so far as the story was concerned –   and he wasn’t a carpet fitter who seemed to be interested in metaphorical comparisons. I’m sure there are such carpet fitters. Here’s my writing buddy and mentor, Kurt Tidmore’s take on just what sort of carpet fitter he would have needed to be:

I want to meet this carpet layer who actually talks about crimson lakes and the ferrous smell of blood and the slow dark water. Perhaps he’s a former Romantic poet with a university degree who only lays carpet as a hobby.




Kurt never lets me down! One dead darling later!

If you want steam engines, you could look in my novella,  A Penny Spitfire where a few do turn up, and belong in the story too. You can buy it here.APennySpitfire-frontcover

I ran a day-workshop for writers yesterday, as part of the Lanercost Festival. The subject of putting in, and taking out came up again. I’m a putter in by nature, rather than a taker out, but writing advice, and practice is often focussed on the ‘taking out’. Some years ago I worked as a dealer in second hand books, and many of my customers were gamers. This brought me into contact with sculptors of model soldiers. They had two basic ways of working : one was equivalent to ‘putting in.’ I think, and the other to ‘taking out.’ It seemed to me then, and does now, that the methods held more than passing metaphor for other meanings, and I wrote the poem you can read below. I can’t remember whether or not it was ever published, but it did get read out aloud on several occasions.

The Ways of Working


The sculptor will tell you how you can

If you wish to make a man

With some it’s what you take away

With others what you overlay

So start with wire

Or start with stone

I know a hundred ways to be alone


With wire you make an armature

To shape your man on true and sure

The stone you prize out of the earth

As much as makes a whole man’s worth

Wind the wire

Carve the stone

I know a thousand ways to be alone


Add the sinew mould the face

But of your fingers leave no trace

Gouge out a mouth chip out some eyes

Finely etch a skin of lies

Bury the wire

Polish the stone

There are a million ways to be alone


[Mike Smith, out of notebook 19 or 20]

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….

Picking up on last week’s blog, H.E.Bates goes on to say, in his introduction to Country Tales, that he found it easy to write his ‘early’ short stories. They were a ‘breakfast to lunchtime’ job, and written by – quoting Edward Garnett – ‘the facile devil inside.’

He goes on to say that to achieve his later stories required much harder work. He cites The Kimono and The Mill among others, as representing these later, deeper stories. I’m not a great fan of the former, but the latter is gritty and powerful without doubt, and my favourite, certainly in my top ten of all short stories, let alone those by English writers, The Little Farm, is one of these later attempts.

Conversations with fellow writers, and my own experience tells me that we all come to these change points in our writing lives, but whether we get through them, or think we have, into something significantly better is the test case. In fact, we probably go through several evolutions if we persist long enough.

A question might be, and I’ve raised this before in the blog, but it’s one of those questions you can ask over and over again, because the answer is always provisional, that of have we really got better, and even if have, will we be recognised for having done so? Perhaps, if we’re convinced, that doesn’t matter!

In poems and stories alike, I have often found that there are groups, sometimes widely spaced in the writing, over years, that hang together. Often this is to do with subject matter – content – but sometimes it is to do with the type of poem or story it is – form. Perhaps these represent attempts at moving to something better, or at least different.

Tom Pow, my tutor on the M.Litt course at Dumfries for a time, passed on to me advice given to him, which was, always, to ‘go deeper.’ Whether that’s deeper into content or into form, or into both, it’s got to be good advice, and it’s got to be the problem we’re always confronted with.  Working with students, and I see myself very much as a student in the context of writing, I tend to articulate the problem as one of having found out – to some extent – what you can do, but of having still to discover what you intend to do with it.

Reading through contemporary magazines (and my own stories), I find too often that what has been neatly expressed does not yet convince me of the necessity of it having been expressed, and certainly not of the necessity for me (or anyone else) to have read it. Even in anthologies like Hensher’s The Penguin Book of British Short Stories we can find stories that at first glance don’t seem worth reading, and at second glance don’t seem worth having taken the second glance! Just because something’s ‘good’ is doesn’t mean you’ll like it, and just because you’ve heard of the author doesn’t mean you should. We can get away with this purposelessness to an extent. Even a pot noodle, so I’m told, tastes good, though it might not feed you; and some dishes, taken cold or not, we can erroneously believe will do us good, by virtue of who has fed them to us. Yet there is no equivalent to nutrional value in a story, and way we say there is we’re using a metaphor. Stories are as good or as bad as what we find in them, though we may well often agree on what that is, or isn’t. Where we differ, our own sensitivities might have come into play, and our experience of own lives. I try to stop myself these days from making statements about how ‘good’ or  not stories are, and to recognise that all I know about them is whether or not I enjoyed them, and perhaps if so why, and if not, why not – I don’t always succeed. It’s good to think that someone might happily pass some time with one of your short stories, but it’s better, surely – don’t call me Shirley – if they have done more than that,

The Facets of Fiction Short Course in the Short Story

A day long Writers’ Workshop

by Mike Smith, aka Brindley Hallam Dennis

as part of Lanercost Festival, on Saturday 25th June 2016

at Dacre Hall, Brampton


The FofF Short Course in the  Short Story, takes several Facets of Fiction and explores them in three workshops. The first is the reading workshop in which a dismantled story is reassembled, requiring a discussion of just what a beginning, a middle, and an ending might look like, and what functions each fulfils.


Two subsequent workshops, based on writing exercises explore, firstly, the creation of stories by the locations in which they ‘take place’, and secondly how the voices we as authors create to tell our stories position the reader, the characters, and the narrator in relation to each other, creating the mood or ambience of the story, and of its telling.


In the fourth session of the day, workshop members will have an opportunity to read what they have been working on.

There will be short breaks between the first and second, and the third and fourth workshops, and a longer break between the second and third.



Workshops will begin at 10.00 am, and run until around 4.30pm ….

Places are limited and cost £25

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….