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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

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And there it was: Vita dei campi, which even the slightest whiff of Italian or even Latin – (15% at O level, don’t get me started!) might allow you to guess means Life in the fields, the Italian version of Giovanni Verga’s break through collection of short stories, reprinted from the 1880 edition. The wonders of the internet, and shopping on it! (I’m now getting pop-ups for all sorts of products in Italian, btw).

The She-Wolf becomes La Lupa, and I can follow up  my curiosity about those three versions of translation I blogged about a little while ago.

Why on earth would I do that? you might ask. I’m no Italian scholar, but short stories interest me, and one thing I’m sure about, where they are concerned, is that James Joyce’s ‘right words in the right order’ applies even more to short stories than it does to anything else – even legal documents! (OK, maybe jokes too.) And I wanted to see for myself which order, and which words Verga had used, and finds out whether those translators had messed about that, and if they had, what difference it might make to how I reacted to the story.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Words have a feel about them, and quite a personal feel too. I get into heavy metaphors to elaborate this point, but I’ll leave you to your own. The fact is though, and I think it is a fact, that the emotional power of individual words will vary from reader to reader, writer to writer, and speaker to speaker, and it will do that because most, if not all of the words we encounter in life, will will encounter, and will have encountered for the first time, in situations that are to greater or lesser extents emotionally charged. When we get the meaning of a word for the first time, even if we’ve looked it up in a dictionary, we will be getting it in a context, and that context will carry, or won’t carry, an emotional charge for us. My guess is that whatever the charge or lack of it, in that first meeting, will influence, not necessarily forever, our emotional understanding of, and reaction to the word.

When dealing with words in our own language(s) that will vary for each of us, but we will to some extent, perhaps, have an idea of what those variants might be; of what the words will mean to our fellow users of the language. When dealing with foreign words, I suspect, the variations will be there, but will largely be beyond our focus.

So my little test might be of use, but it might also mislead.

Well, you might ask, are the words the same? Is the word order the same? Watch this space (or rather, watch out for another one in a few days, and I’ll let you know!).

I’ve been struggling for the last couple of days with a story. It’s not the first time I’ve struggled with it. It’s one I know well. I have the characters, and their situation. I have the train of events and the outcome. But I don’t have the story.

I’ve written it down before, all eleven hundred and seventy four words of it. I even sent it off to an e-zine (in the hope that they might convince me that I’d told the story), but they knew as well as I did that all I’d done was write it down. And that isn’t enough. That was almost a year ago, and for the last couple of days I’ve been trying again. I changed the names. Being a ‘putter-in’ I’ve put in another five hundred or so words. I introduced a running metaphor that goes right through from the title to the last paragraph. But I still haven’t convinced myself that I’ve told the story.

It reads like cold porridge. It’s all there. Character, location, plot, even ambience (if cold porridge can be said to have an ambience). The beginning is fine. The ending is appropriate. The middle does what middles are supposed to do. Have you seen Aristotle’s definition of that little triumvirate?

‘A beginning is that which does not itself necessarily follow any other event, but to which some other events may naturally succeed. An end is just the contrary, for it is that, which, either of necessity, or according to the general course of things, must follow some other events but requires nothing after it. A middle requires other circumstances both to precede and follow it.’ – Well, that’s all right then. The quotation is taken from a 2009 printing of John Stockdale’s 1788 English edition, by the way.

But when you’ve got your beginnings, and middles, and ends, you’ve still got to tell the story, and the story isn’t just the sequence of preceding and following things, its the view you get of them from a particular perspective, and told in such a way that you get that view because of, or despite the fact that the teller has, or hasn’t got it.

Cameras don’t tell stories. They don’t even show them. Cinematographers and editors,  photographers and photo-shoppers do. Writers have to get the right words, in the right order. Boy, can that take some doing!

Back to the keyboard then.

 

There’s still time to sign up for the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society’s Creative Writing courses, taught by BHDandMe. Both run for ten weeks, with the first starting on Monday 8th January, 7.00pm-9.00pm. To Book contact Darren Harper darrenharper.esq@gmail.com  or visit: darrenharper.net 

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

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

 

Beginning on Thursday 11th January, 1.00pm-3.00pm 10 weeks on Writing the Short Story

Thursdays, 1.00pm-3.00pm, 11th January to 15th March 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, 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. Introduction – We find out what we already know about Short Stories and what they are 
  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.

 

I’d spotted Giovanni Verga a few months before Christmas: he has three stories in Volume II of Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories (and also the useful fact that they give only his date of birth, setting the timing of the publication before his death in 1922, a decade earlier than I’d previously guessed). I made sure his name went up the chimney, and in due course (i.e. Christmas morning) a sooty copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Cavalleria Rusticana and other stories came down among the ashes of the Christmas Eve fire.

Both the title story and two others are in Hammerton (The She Wolf and War of the Saints), which enables a comparison of the translations. Somewhere down the line I’ll try to get the originans and give them a whirl too – I’m three sessions into learning Italian, but even a comparison of different English versions can teach us something. The Penguin translator, G.H.McWilliams, makes a point, in his introduction, about the poor quality of earlier translations, citing schoolboy mistakes in D.H.Lawrence’s attempts. Lawrence had more than three sessions under his belt, and may have been better than Hemingway when it comes to Italian, but he wasn’t fluent, and certainly not in colloquial Sicilian! I have no idea who did the Hammerton translating. It’s something they rarely give, unless it gets a mention in the brief introductory paragraphs to each volume. It could, I suppose, be Lawrence!

McWilliams’ translation is dated to 1999, which means that a lifetime of language has passed between it and the Hammerton versions. Within a single language, and especially one like English, that moves on, Hoovering up the bits and pieces of other language which it thinks might be useful, a lifetime of evolution moves a long way. Quoted in a paperback from thirty years ago, is the nun who wrote Over the Wall, the story of her escape from being a bride of Christ. Of all the changes in the world, she said, including cars and planes and radio, it was the changes to language that she found most striking. And was it not said, after the Berlin Wall came down, that the new generation of Poles coming to the UK, spoke a language quite different to those – around a million of them, I believe – who had stayed on, and preserved their language (and their liberty) at the end of World War Two.

Where I find the interest in this rests on the speculation that a translator of 1922, in trying to cast Verga’s direct and vernacular Italian, as spoken by his Sicilian peasants, into an English that would both be intelligent and seem colloquial to his readers would need to be quite different from one attempted nearly eighty years later for the readership of its own time.

That there are differences becomes immediately apparent. What they signify, of course, might take some unravelling. The first sentence of The She-Wolf  is rendered, respectively, thus:

 

‘She was tall and lean: her breast alone revealed the firmness and vigour of the brunette type; and yet she was no longer a young woman.’ (1922)

 

‘She was dark haired, tall and lean, with firm, well-rounded breasts though she was no longer young, and she had a pale complexion, like someone forever in the grip of malaria.’ (1999)

 

You can safely bet that I am eager to get my hands on the original. In a form that depends so much on building with what has preceded, the context for what will follow, I want to know in what order Verga presented his images; and whether he used semi-colons or commas; and if that malaria reference was in his first, or second sentence. And what about the paragraphing, which I haven’t even looked at yet? And while we have the breasts, let’s consider whether that firmness belongs to them, as in the 1999 version, or to the ‘type’, as in the 1922, which to my mind, is a significant divergence.

There is one name missing from Death of a Superhero. That’s Sara-Mae Tucson, Inktears’ ‘person Friday’ in the UK.

It was she who organised and hosted the excellent launch party in London’s Theatreland pub, The Sun, on Drury Lane, on Saturday 16th December. Being launched were two Inktears’ anthologies of short stories: Death of a Superhero & How to Begin a Wonderful Life. Each beautifully produced hardback volume – they are so smart they have ribbons so you can mark your place! – showcases the work of four writers.

BHD has nine stories included in Death of a Superhero, drawn from writing that stretches back over almost a decade, and their final published form, in several cases, is thanks to the sensitive editorial input of Sara-Mae. Two of them have even been given new (and considerably more fitting) titles! So thanks, Sara-Mae, from BHDandMe, for your editing skills, your general support, and your enthusiastic encouragement at all stages of the process. Thanks too, of course, to Anthony Howcroft, founder and CEO of Inktears, without whom none of it would have been possible! Click on the image, or here, to go to where you can buy copies.

 

A.M.Howcroft on BHD: ‘…a writer with a very distinctive voice and a rich vein of humour….. a certain wry, engaging tone…. a high concept for a theme….I always imagine his stories filmed in grainy black and white, peopled with fascinating, flawed characters.’

What are you doing here, today of all days? And a very happy Christmas, by the way, from BHDandMe. Wanna read a story? Here’s  Liars League’s Top Ten Stories of their First Ten Years, and BHD’s Hecho A Mano, the filthiest story he ever wrote (up to now), in among ’em! 

The delights of a well told story mean that we can come back to it again and again with equal, and perhaps growing pleasure. Even, and perhaps especially, the short story works in this way, and remarkably, even the very short story can.

A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton (most recently published as the title story of a Turnpike Books selection) is a case in point.  Only four pages long, it’s a story I’ve come back to again and again, finding something new in it each time – perhaps I’m an inattentive reader – or refining my thoughts from a previous reading.  Weep Not My Wanton featured in Coppard’s very first collection, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, alongside Dusky Ruth – often quoted as being representative of his work, and Arabesque – The Mouse, one of his most sinister and searching sidelights on the human psyche, and another favourite of mine. Unaccountably, Coppard left Weep Not My Wanton out of his self-selected American collection, and I wish I’d discovered him in time to have asked why!

I’ve written about the story before on more than one occasion, but I haven’t stopped exploring it. The mystery, if that’s the right word, for me, has always been to explain why Coppard tagged on the last paragraph. It could, of course, be an error of judgement, but I doubt that. The paragraph provides a closing frame, returning the reader to the landscape that opened the story, in a lush description of Sack Down, where ‘air and light […] at summer sunset were soft as ointment and sweet as milk’. The closing sentence is as gentle: ‘From the quiet hill, as the last skein of cocks was carted to the stack, you could hear dimly men’s voice’s and the rattle of their gear.’

What has passed between what I think of as the two water-coloured frames of English landscape, is a simple, but brutal story. Into that landscape walks an itinerant labouring family. The father is ‘slightly drunk’ and as they walk he unmercifully berates, and beats, the ‘tiny figure’ of his son. The cause of this prolonged assault is a lost sixpence, but, just before that closing paragraph of landscape, a startling truth is revealed. The sixpence is not lost, but withheld by the boy, to be given to the mother while the father is distracted.

That father is a complex figure, far more complex than four pages of story might be thought to require. Drunk, but wearing ‘two bright medals’, which, the author tells us, in a phrase that seems to push through the detached narrative of the third person and speak intimately to us, were ‘presumably for valour’. This is an important phrase. That ‘presumably’ raises the question of what the medals were for, and prepares us for another phrase, later, in which we are told that he has fallen ‘from the heroic standard’. Readers in 1921, and perhaps since, would know that ‘for valour’ is what it says on the Victoria Cross, the highest award, for valour, that can be made to a serving soldier of the British Army. This bullying father is not quite what he seems.

That ‘tiny figure’ of the son is not what he seems either. He is described at length early in the story and the description is shot through with elements that show he is in disguise: ‘a man’s cap’, a ‘sailor’s jacket’, ‘a pair of women’s button boots.’ Appearances are deceptive throughout this story. The mother, who watches the abuse of her son without seeming to do anything about it, is equally misleading: ‘she seemed to have no desire to shield the boy’. ‘She did not seem to notice them.’ But, at what might seem  to be the climax of the father’s assault, she seems to need to go behind a bush and hands over to him the babe, whom she has been carrying.

Now we see another side of him, as he cooes to and carries the child. The boy falls back, and slips the sixpence to his mother when she reappears. The jolt of this action, on first reading, is immense, and the scales fall from our eyes. The heroism and endurance of the boy, and the cleverness of the mother, and the tragedy of the whole situation are all, instantly revealed. And perhaps, all that seeming, and being dressed in somebody else’s clothes is eclipsed.

There is something else going on in this story. ‘At the crown of the hill’ at a ‘roadside barn’ young boars are being gelded. Their ‘sounds of anguish’ are not illusory. Neither is the singing of the lark, ‘rioting above’. A gypsy man among the workers comments on the father’s beating of the boy – ‘ ‘Selp me, father, that’s a good ‘un, wallop his trousers!’ But it isn’t the trousers, and besides, the father ignores all this. But the pigs, at the end of the story are really ‘bloody and subdued’.

I think a point is being made here, about what is seen and not seen, and what is paid attention to and what is ignored, and how what is real can be misrepresented. And at the very beginning of the story, Coppard has alerted us to the possibility of something very like that, for that luscious opening description, of the peaceful English countryside, with its ‘ointment’ and ‘milk’ is, he quite explicitly tells us, ‘a notion the down might give..[  to  ]…some happy victim of romance’. This brings the story down to being, not about the father and his situation, nor even about the England across which he tramps, but about us, the readers, and what we are capable of seeing, through, and in the stories we are told.

If you’d like to read more about Coppard, about the tales, and the themes that run through them, my collection of essays is available online for Kindle, or as a softback, by clicking on the image, or here.

The Dvd cover blurb for this solemn Danish film must have been written by a copywriter who either hadn’t seen it, hadn’t understood it, or simply thought it wouldn’t sell well if sold the way it was.

It’s the slowest developing film I’ve ever seen, but not slow in the way paint dries. It’s more like the slowness of a rich, intricate coral growing. It’s a dark film, and brings out the darkness of candlelight. The exteriors are shot on grey days, and reminded me of the stark black and white landscapes of the film Nebraska. The Jutland coast is layered with almost monochrome horizontals of land, sea and sky, and the scenes in the village street seem hemmed in by the simple boxes of the houses: dark, colourless thatch, white walls and grey timbers, the untidy grass ‘to the very door’, but grey rather than Wordsworth’s green.

The interiors are gloomy, the light tightly controlled. Think of the ‘pinhole’ setting on a digital camera and you might get the idea. Light falls on the faces of the protagonists, and shadow crowds behind them. It sparkles in the facets of the wine glasses, and in the eyes of those who drink from them. It vanishes into the darkness of the corners of the rooms.

The costumes of the old people whose story this is, are dark: blacks upon which the panels of white lace are not so much highlights, as skeletal. The story is simple and remorseless, and heartbreaking. I woke this morning in tears from a half-sleep, thinking about what I would write for this review.

The eponymous feast is a luscious counterpoint to the pious, consciously un-sensual lives of the villagers, and through it they awake, not only to these pleasures of the flesh, but also to a renewed sense of celebration of, and in, those pleasures. More than that, for some particular characters there is the revelation, perhaps the reminder, that love is all we have, and that we have it, by reason not only of what we do, but also by the simple recognition of it.

I’m not going to tell anything more about what happens, and fear I might already have told you too much. Watching the film, I thought how like a short story it was, and how difficult it would be to write such a story. It was, of course, I soon discovered, the adaptation of a short story originally written by the Danish writer Isaak Dinesen (better known as Karen Blixen).

I was surprised to see the date on this masterpiece. If you had told me it had been made earlier this year I would have seen no reason to doubt you. Perhaps that is a measure of the timelessness of the story (or of my insensitivity). I’m glad, though, that I didn’t see it when I was thirty years younger, but at an age when I can see myself more clearly in its characters. 

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)