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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.

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Short stories occupy time and place. These can be locations as precise as a specific street corner on the stroke of noon on a particular, or as vague as there and then, but they are the ‘there and when’ of how stories happen. We talk of stories ‘taking place’, and often that place is crucial to the story being able to ‘take place’ at all. The timing too can be critical in how a story unfolds. There’s a many a story set before the days of mobile phones which would be simply unbelievable in an age of instant communications without elaborate, and perhaps unconvincing plot devices – ‘a funny thing happened to me on the day my mobile battery ran out’.

I’ll be looking at when and where stories come from and might be going to in a workshop for Darren Harper‘s Carlisle Phil and Lit Society, in room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, on Thursday 12th of October, 7.00pm to 9.00pm. Course Fee: £10 Booking: To book a place on the course, or to find out more, please contact Darren at darrenharper.esq@gmail.com

Writing buddy, Marilyn Messenger and I [Ambiguous Encounters, ten short stories by Marilyn Messenger and Brindley Hallam Dennis] will be reading as part of the Borderlines Showcase event at Carlisle Cathedral Fratry on Saturday evening, 7th October. Tickets are free. We have two more pairs of back-to-back stories, written individually but posing, and answering questions of each other. That’s Carlisle, England, by the way, for blog readers beyond these borders!

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
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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:

Location

Narrative Voice

Ambience

Focus

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.

Who?

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.

END

 

There are more BHD stories here.

TalkingtoOwls

I was recently speaking with the artist, Sam Cartman [http://www.samcartman.com/]. 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.
IMG_7421

 

 

 

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