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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:
Which, like any definitive list of such things, might do to be going on with…..
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.
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!
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 [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:
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.
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]
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,
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
Two Of Those Women, by Stacy Aumonier is a first person account of over-hearing a conversation in a continental hotel between two women. The narrator firstly dismisses the women, as a pair of a well-known type who are to be despised rather than pitied.
It is a story of twists and turns, and well worth reading without the ‘spoiler’ of this little essay.
The story takes place in the aftermath of the First World War – ten years after in fact, which might remind us how long the aftermaths of wars will be. The two are telling their stories to each other, but neither is really listening to the other. The narrator is idly eavesdropping. The younger woman has lost touch with the soldier-love of her life, the older has a son who has been seriously wounded, and is shell-shocked.
It is a clever story, in that we get both their tales, and the tale of him listening, and all three are credible. But, being the clever and observant readers we are, we do, probably because Aumonier wants us to, get an inkling of what is coming, and yes! Just as we hit the last page, it is confirmed: the lost lover is the damaged son, and the old woman has cottoned on to this fact. Without revealing it she invites the younger to accompany her to see said son, and the younger, not committing herself, leaves the scene.
What we have cleverly foreseen, however, is not a badly botched surprise ending. The revelation of the connection is not the end (and therefore the point) of the story. That, is the comment made, briefly, by the narrator, after the repetition of the title with a question mark after it. That comment is ‘God forgive me!’
What a tremendous way to end a story! For we realise that what we have been reading is not about the two women, but about the narrator. It is his, not so much misinterpretation of what he hears, as his misunderstanding of its importance, that is the burden of the story, and those last three words signal his moment of self realisation, and perhaps ours!
There’s a curious parallel to this story to be found in another of the same collection. It is not a parallel of content, but of structure. The story is Old Fags, and in it the very last part of the ending does something quite similar, in that he wrenches attention away from the two characters on which it has been focussed for the previous several pages, and returns it to a third, which has been prominent earlier in the story. In fact, it turns attention to the child of that character, and to the relationship between mother and child in general, a subject not really raised anywhere in the story before. Yet it is not a bolt on ending, any more than is that of Two of Those Women. It could even be argued that it is the entirely correct ending, in relation to what has gone before, but at a deeper level than an interest in the mere events of the story. The way in which Aumonier manages to turn his stories, so that we become aware of their deeper significance at the moment of their endings is a technique, skill, call it what you will, that I have not recognised in other writers – which may tell you more about me than about Aumonier. It is reminiscent of O Henry, to some extent, and is worked in several other stories to a greater or lesser degree.
I wonder if there is a parallel between writers and golfers, the latter of whom it is said are practising to achieve the perfect swing! Do writers attempt something similar, the perfection of a particular technique, tried again and again until they are satisfied with it?
SHORT STORY ENDINGS IN ACTION
January 23rd 2016
1: The Place We’re Going To
Taking our lead from many writers & critics we try our hand at several well defined types of short story endings
Beginning with those important last few words
February 20th 2016
2: What Lies Beneath?
Hemingway famously said that a story was like an iceberg, with its bulk hidden from view. We’ll have a go at stories where what’s hidden is what gives the ending its potency.
March 19th 2016
3: In Minor Keys
Irish writer and ‘literary lion’ George Moore talked about endings ‘in minor keys’
What might he have meant, and can we use the concept in our writing?
Each workshop runs from 2.00pm till 5.00pm
£20 per workshop (£45 if you book all three)
Workshops are held in the Old Stock Room at Todd Close
In North Cumbria. Places are limited.
To book, contact Mike Smith at email@example.com