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Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

The Reading As A Writer course moved up a notch, from individual words to sentences, at the last session.

A seventies’ English Grammar split the language into two basic forms: Messages and Labels. It’s an interesting, and useful approach.

‘Shit-hot businessman’ is a label. ‘He was a shit-hot businessman’ is a message. It’s the verb that makes the difference. You can find examples of both everywhere – even in Dickens. In fact, the ‘montage’ that Dickens bequeathed to D.W.Griffiths and the modern film can be found all over the place. A sequence of Labels inserted among the Messages of all sorts of prose. In fact, that faux sentence you just read, was one of them – a label, I mean, whereas this one – you’re reading now – is a message, or as we might more conventionally say, a sentence.

There are two types of sentence too. There are those that add to what we know, and those that add to what we don’t know, having to wait for a key piece of information to unlock the meaning, and significance of all the previous components. Some sentences are both at once, changing from the first to the second type or vice versa, and even back again.

In narrative fiction the first type, which I think of as ‘open’, adds speed and clarity, but risks becoming a rather tedious list. The other type, which I call ‘closed’, adds the tension of our not quite understanding, and the drama of the eventual reveal. It risks the problem of losing the reader, who must cling on to phrase and clause after clause and phrase of what doesn’t quite make sense, until that key element is reached. That element, as you might have guessed, will be the verb that turns the labels of those other components into a message, perhaps a multiple one.

A banal example might make it clear:

‘Leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled, John vanished from her life.’

‘John vanished from her life, leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled.’

Each segment of that second, open version of the sentence could form its ending and the thought would be complete, but in the first, closed version, none of it means anything, even though we can clearly visualise each segment, until that final piece completes the jigsaw.

Mix ‘em up as you like, you’ll find that everything you write is made up of these two types of message, along, of course, with those incomplete fragments, the labels. Curiously, that movie connection I cited can be applied more widely. The messages, with their ‘main’ verbs, drive strings of words like a moving picture, whereas the labels, with incomplete verbs at best, are like a series of still shots inserted into the movie.

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THREE NEW CREATIVE WRITING COURSES FROM MIKE SMITH at DARREN HARPER’S CARLISLE PHIL & LIT SOCIETY

for all courses book through Darren Harper  via info@philandlit.org 

 

CREATIVE WRITING led by Mike Smith

Mondays, 7.00pm-9.00pm, 9th April to 18th June 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle.

£75 (£60 over 60/ £23 in receipt of benefits)

This 10 week Facets of Fiction course aims to give practising writers of prose fiction a regular input of informed feedback on work in progress.

 

AND

Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

Dates: 12th April to 21st June 2018 Thursdays 10.00am until 12.00 noon

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £75 full  (£60 over 60s/ £23 in receipt of benefit)

Description:

Intended for Beginners to Intermediate. Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing: Beginnings, Endings, Locations, Characters, Storylines, and Narrative Voices among others.

PLUS

READING AS A WRITER

A 10 week CREATIVE WRITING course starting on 10th APRIL Tuesdays 1-00pm – 3.00pm

£75 (£60 over 60s/£23 students/benefits)

What can we look for in other people’s work?

What moves us; to tears or laughter, anger or compassion. And when we experience those feelings we can go back and see exactly which combinations of words have evoked them.

But that’s not all. We can also find out what can be done, and how it might be done, with plot, narrative voice, locations in time and place, characters and ambience.

 

The Facets of Fiction course in writing short stories kicked off last week at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit Society, and threw up an interesting moment.

I had the group doing one of my favourite exercises: putting back together a short story that I’ve cut up into paragraphs – or groups of paragraphs. The purpose of the exercise is to remind us just how much we know about short stories already. The process of reconstruction draws on, and brings to the fore, our in-built ideas of what the beginnings, endings, and middles of stories ought to look like. Of course, individual stories often fool our expectations – whilst at the same time conforming to them. In retrospect, even if we’ve got it wrong, we can see that a story has done what we expected, but not quite in the way we expected.

Even if we don’t manage the reconstruction we do spend time focussing on the story in question in a deeper way than we might if we were doing what Edgar Allen Poe told us the short story was for doing: ‘perusing in an hour or two’!

The story we were looking at in Carlisle was L.A.G.Strong’s The Seal. This is a remarkably simple story, at least as far as ‘events’ are concerned. A woman goes to a beach, sees a seal, and sings to it. Her husband, a galumphing, insensitive sort of chap, blunders down the dunes to join her, driving the seal away. He does see it though, briefly, as it flees, and noisily enthuses to her, as if she might not have seen it at all.

It’s a story about their relationship, of course, but as we discussed it, it became apparent that there were different areas of interest on which we might focus. A single word in the story, used to describe the seal, had led me to one interpretation, but another course member had seen a much more specific reference in it.

For me, the core of the story was that relationship, and specifically the insensitivity of the husband to the wife. For my colleague, the seal represented the child that the marriage lacked, and, implicitly, would not produce. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but on reflection, I favour hers over mine!

What was revealed, though, was not merely about the story, but about the agendas we bring to story as readers. I had focussed on the relationship, and in particular on what the story was telling me about the husband. My colleague was more alive to the woman, and to the lack of a child in the marriage.

Curiously enough, part of the discussion, of short stories, rather than of this particular one, had revolved around the issue of what stories mean to their writers, and what to their readers, and which is more important, and to whom. Here’s a good example, I think, of a story being important in different ways, to different readers, whatever its importance might have been to the writer. It’s worth remembering that we read, at least in part, and perhaps in the most important part, to see more clearly ourselves in the ‘mirror of art’, rather than to see an author. Put another way, what we’re stuck with in stories, is our own limitations as readers!

The picture below, by the way, is of a beach not a million miles away from the one that Strong might have had in mind, from a clue in the text!

Eigg on my Seascape

Darren Harper, founder of the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society has asked me to deliver a creative writing course in addition to the Short Story Writing course that I shall running though January into March. Over the same ten weeks, but on Monday evenings at 7.00pm. This second course will take a more general approach, and because the other is centred on short stories, I’ll focus this one on the novel (at least as far the reading material and texts to work on are concerned). Here’s a brief overview of what’s planned…..

L&PC2 Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

 

Dates: 8 January until 12 March 2018 Mondays 7pm until 9pm

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £70 full fee £49 over 60 £14 in receipt of benefit Level Beginners to Intermediate

 

Description:

Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing outlined below. Because I am running concurrently a short story course, all the texts used in this one will be taken from novels.

 

Introduction : An exercise in what we know about story – but not the one you expect!

Developing Character: Breadth and depth, limits and inner conflicts

Setting the Scene: Enabling the events, inviting the participants, manipulating the reader

Structure and Plot: Paragraphs and Chapters

Point of View 1: Who tells the story?

Point of View 2: Where are the readers?

The Little Box of Language Tricks: Emotional Weighting. Open & Closed sentences. Poetics.

Reading as a Writer: A stop and search mission

Drafting: Putters in and Takers out. Chronologies. Cruises and crossings.

Revision: CRIT Clarifications, Repetitions, Irrelevancies and Tightening

 

Suggested Reading:

The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate

First Blood – David Morrell (trust me, ignore the films. This is a great study in plot/structure)

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!)

Looking ahead, we’ve got two BHDandMe items on the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society programme: a workshop in December, and a ten week course beginning in January 2018.

The first, on Thursday 14th December is a two hour workshop (7.00pm-9.00pm) on ‘ambience’ in the short story, looking at how the mood/tone/atmosphere or ambience of a story is created, and used to put the reader in the right frame of mind to experience the eventual ending. (£10 – or £8 concessions). Booking and more details online at philandlit.org or from Darren Harper at info@philandlit.org

The second is a ten week Facets of Fiction course on Creative Writing (short story) weekly, Thursdays 1.00pm -3.00pm, from 11th January to 15th March, 2018. Beginnings, Middles,Ends, Narrative Voice, Locations (in time and place), character and ambience are among the subjects explored in a series of exercises, readings and discussions.  (£70, £49 over 60, £14 in receipt of benefits). Booking and more details online at philandlit.org or ffom Darren Harper at info@philandlit.org

The Carlisle Phil and Lit Society meets in Room 8, Fisher Street galleries, Carlisle, England.

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.

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.