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I seem to have spent most of the day re-writing pieces of work. An essay for Vicki Heath at Thresholds, short stories for a long overdue Inktears Showcase. At least both re-writes seem to have worked. The essay just needed some additions, which I already had in mind. But the short story is a different matter. Though I’m a putter in, a short story remains like a metaphorical Jenga tower, a pile of bricks, a house of cards…add too much in the wrong place and it loses its balance, its coherence, its focus, point, structure. The whole thing falls to pieces in an instant, and the better story it is, the more fragile it is, the more vulnerable to overloading and collapse.

Cheer Up. Nobody’s Forcing You.

A friend of mine recently had an exceedingly good poem rejected (with positive comments) by a magazine. Rejection slips can tell you a lot more about your writing, and not all of it negative, than acceptances are ever likely to. You’ll never know, probably, why something has been accepted, but you might get an inkling of why it was rejected – and that might turn out to be an element you wouldn’t want to change!

I decided to do some statistics – I keep a submissions log, on an Excel spreadsheet, adding a new sheet each year. This year’s, 2017, had, on 15th June, 54 entries, which cover 47 pieces of work (some are duplicated, having been sent out more than once). Of these, 20 are ‘out’. 2 were longlisted, 1 shortlisted, and two taken for publication/performance. 1 special case had been brought forward from an earlier sheet because it had been included in somebody’s Top Ten Stories of the last ten years (Liars League), and I wanted to see it on the current sheet, for a bit of encouragement. 12 have not been sent anywhere. 16 were rejections.

I don’t how that compares with your submission log – a writer friend once told me she had never, ever had a rejection slip (I told her it was time she did…I mean, let’s do the thing properly, hey?). Neither do I know if what I’ve shared here helps, hinders, or just puzzles, but rejection is one of the things that most of us who write have to live with. I might also add that acceptance, when it does occur doesn’t bring with it any changes, or at least it hasn’t for me. I don’t expect it ever will. Nothing happens as a result of it. Except, perhaps, – and this is best pay-off of all, though you have to take it in faith – that somewhere, somebody reads something they wouldn’t have had the chance to read, and says to themselves, and perhaps to someone else too, YES! That’s how it is in the world.

I’ll repeat my writing buddy Kurt’s exhortation, quoted from I can’t remember who: You ain’t beaten till you quit!

I’ve been playing that back of a fag packet game (though not on the back of a fag packet – fags are cigarettes in English argot, btw) of writing down my ten favourite short stories. The list is, well, fluid, but several stories are always there:

The Little Farm – H.E.Bates

Weep Not My Wanton – A.E.Coppard

The Fall – V.S.Pritchett

Arabesque – the Mouse – A.E.Coppard

The Blush – Elizabeth Taylor

Monsieur Seguin’s Goat – Alphonse Daudet

The Dead – James Joyce

The Magic Shop – H.G.Wells

Fitter’s Night – Arthur Miller

Sorting Office – Vivien Jones

 

It would be easy to go on for another ten…..And I could justify all of them for one reason, or several.

A variation on the game struck me though while I was writing. What about the top ten collections? Curiously enough, when I started to think about that, I found it harder to compile, and was surprised to find that they weren’t necessarily the collections in which the stories above might be found, even when they were by the same author.  It was also the case that only a half dozen of the forty or so collections on my shelves really stood out from the others. In fact, only two of them include a story from the above ten, and another is by the author of one from above.

 

Perfect Ten – Vivien Jones

Travellers – L.A.G.Strong

Provencal Tales – Michael de Larabeiti

Presence – Arthur Miller

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison

Lettres de Mon Moulin – Alphonse Daudet*

*the collection is in a French edition, but I have most of the stories in translation too.

There’s something about the way we assess a collection that’s different from the way we assess a single story. Not necessarily that all the stories in a collection must push against the same door, it’s more to do with some collections being very satisfying as a whole, but not throwing up a single story that stands out. Other collections might have an outstanding story, but the collection as a whole disappoints.

My late father in law, a catalogue bookseller of international repute, used to tell me that to make a catalogue ‘sing’ you simply had to remove the dross…what was left would look much better, and something similar must be true for collections of short stories, and of poems for that matter. There’s another issue of context: stories that won competitions – a one off flash-in-the-pan event – might not stand up to the re-reading that makes a collection one you go back to time and time again.

Coming back from a writers gathering in Dumfries recently, a group of Facets of Fiction Workshoppers fell into discussion on this, recognising that children – and the child in us perhaps – like to read, and to have read, the stories they have remembered, not those they have forgotten. We re-read, not to find out what happens next, but to re-experience the telling of the story. That we might get more than just that is a bonus that some stories, and some readings, give us.

It’s all subjective, of course, which is the way it should be, must be, if we are to assess on what the stories mean to us rather than in relation to some arbitrarily set standard (that will almost certainly be based on what they mean to some other individual).

 

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

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

I’m going to share with you something that cost me five thousand pounds.

It’s about what I want my stories (and other types of writing) to do. I want them to haunt you, or even stalk you. I want them to ambush you with laughter, or surprise, long after you’ve finished reading them. I want them to come back at you like bad pennies, dishonoured cheques, and badly digested meals, or the shock of unexpected sexual encounters.

Because that’s some of the ways that stories stick in my mind, and is why I like them a lot!

One of the ideas that I picked up whilst taking my M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, was that you have to read to be able to write. I picked it up like it needed putting in a plastic bag and dumping in a bin. It wasn’t an idea I was looking for. It disturbed my equilibrium, threatened my equanimity.

Of course, reading won’t make you a good writer. The relationship is more complicated than that. Writing, in fact, is more likely to make you a good reader. It is likely to make you into a reader who reads like a writer, and reading like a writer might just help you to become a better writer than you have been.

A lot of the value in that five grand was in a simple idea, one that I should have had without needing to have it shoved into my head like a nine foot pike staff. It was the simple idea that when you’re reading, and something makes you reel – or any other of a number of imaginable metaphors – it’s worth stopping your reading, and going back and looking at exactly how that happened.

Because, sure as eggs are erfs, the only thing that can have made it happen is the words printed or written on the page (or heard from the lips of the person reading or telling you the story).  Because that’s all there is. And when you isolate those words, you can begin to get an idea of what it was about them that created the effect.

Partly that will be just exactly what those specific words signify in the lexicon of your brain: something that has been created for you alone, by the events of your life, and the way that the words you have encountered have interacted with them. But partly too, it will have been the way that those words have interacted with the words that have preceded them in whatever you are reading, and with the way that they have interacted with each other in the cluster that has sparked your reaction.

Language is the thorns that prick the skin of your subconscious. Reading like a writer is a matter of pulling them out, and taking a close look at where they came from, and why they hurt. And that just might help you when it comes to sticking them into someone else.

I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

There is a quality in short stories and poems (and other forms!) of being memorable. Without warning, day or night, weeks, months, years after you have read them they will pop into your  mind, often triggered by some seemingly totally unconnected prompt, and one of which you might even be completely unaware.

One such recollection sprang to my mind recently, in the form of three Latin words: Corvus moribundus est. I’m no Latin scholar (where there has been no learning, there has been no teaching, we used be told at Charlotte Mason College – but not at Burton Upon Trent Grammar School), but my understanding was – and is – that the young priest in L.A.G. Strong’s clever short story The Rook, is telling his colleague that the eponymous bird is fatally wounded.

Strong is a writer long forgotten, and I came across a collection of his (Travellers, Readers Union/Methuen, 1947) in the Mill on the Fleet’s bookshop at Gatehouse of Fleet in South West Scotland. The Rook is one of several outstanding stories among the thirty-one included. In it an unsympathetically described gardener take a shot at a gathering of rooks. We follow the flight of the fatally wounded rook as it seeks safety in the trees, but falls through the branches to the ground. Incomprehension, panic and fear follow us, and the metaphorical implications are powerful.

The two priests are teaching a class of boys, and while the younger goes out with a stick to finish off the wounded creature, the other reflects upon life and death. It’s a simple story, and remembering those three Latin words brings all the meaning back to mind, all the images that the story had evoked in the reading; yet not necessarily the words themselves.

It is the content of the story, rather than its form, I suspect, that is likely to haunt the average reader (if there is such a thing).

And those stories and poems that we do recall, in part, in words and phrases, and images, are surely the ones that we must regard as successful. This won’t necessarily correlate with how many copies were sold in the author’s lifetime, or even the lifetime of the story to date, nor with the degree of fame, then and now. Success and the recognition of it are not quite the same thing. And what sticks in the memory is about the person whose memory it is!

Strong’s tragic love story, The Seal, is one of the stories examined in Love and Nothing Else, a collection of 12 essays about short stories and their writers.

There’s a review by me of Vivien Jones’ story ‘Sorting Office’ up on the Thresholds site. 

Sadly, Pewter Rose Press has now ceased trading…and I’ve taken the last remaining copies of BHD’s short story collection, Talking To Owls and his novella (or is it a novel…we can never decide), A Penny Spitfire. If you’d like a copy of either, I can supply at £5 each including postage (simply drop me the money  to the Paypal account of M.Smith at brindleyhd@aol.com and send me an e-mail to let me know your address).

Here’s what people have been saying about them:

 

Comment on A Penny Spitfire (080716, by J.F.D.)

I just finished re-reading your novel. I so enjoyed it. I read it slowly this time and really took in the descriptions at the openings of the chapters. The cumulative effect is to evoke a really strong mood that varies but is pervasive throughout the tale putting a clear picture of post-war destruction and gloom in my mind. The altered people, relationships, sense of difficulty in finding meaning and re-directing relationships and lives was palpable. I recognise what you portrayed as authentic because my adopted parents were old and they lived through rationing and and respectability. I so recall being shocked if my father swore and I knew my mother was unwell when she swore once. There was also the whole business of not saying things. You really captured that culture of not having a language for emotion (emotion not being useful for Empire building or war). I was so pleased Paul was alright and Burma Sammy by the end.
Thanks for a good read.

 

TALKING TO OWLS  (by Anon.?)

The characters in these stories embrace novel solutions to life’s many difficulties. A group of lonely men, retired to the countryside, find an unusual means of communication; on an otherwise idyllic Scottish island, a new resident tries out various ways to deal with the old problem of noisy neighbours; three members of the Grough family experience an urgent need to get home from the pub as quickly as possible. And a snail decides it must be rid of its shell. The author presents a range of colourful individuals, from His Lordship to the devious Willie Nobutt, speaking in a range of voices and dialects.

But while many of the stories are comic or fantastical, some are touching or haunting, and present mysteries which only the reader can solve. Many are experimental in form, and they vary in length from half a page to thirty-five. Many have already won prizes.

The writer can command a versatile range of styles. No Time Like The Present depicts the revelation of family secrets through photographs in a novel way, with some beautiful descriptive passages:

…the water was clear, transparent as a veil, and the sandy foreshore, mottled with rocks, showed through. Sunlight sparkled off the waves, riding their oval shadows, sky like a backdrop.

But maybe the author’s strongest suit is humour. In The Sweetest Sound two characters discuss the bagpipes:

‘Yer no a fan of the pipes then?’
‘I can tek em or leave ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d tek ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d leave ’em’…

While Cover Story, an absurd but sinister tale, set in a pub, featuring a writer and two men in ill-fitting suits, ends in this way:

…my foot….must have caught the tray, leaning up against the table-leg, because suddenly it rolled out into the centre of the floor and fell, spinning like a tossed coin, noisy as a dustbin lid, flattening out with the sound of metal fantails on a snare drum.

It seems to sum up the quality of the story, and in a way, the humour and originality of the collection as a whole.

4.0 out of 5 stars Only four stars as it is too short

 

By M. A. C. on 29 Dec. 2012 on Talking To Owls

Often when you read a short story, or come to that a full length novel, you will sigh and say to yourself ‘that was a good tale well told’. Talking to Owls isn’t a book like that. No, if you read this book, at the end of each of the short stories you’ll wonder if it is you who has changed. Brindley Hallam Dennis has a knack of making you think about how you react to events. The Mackwater Seam is a perfect example of how a short story should be written. It will stop you in your tracks and confront your prejudices. Naturally some stories in this collection are better than others, but although sometimes they appear to be lightweight they are not. Each story makes you think, but they don’t preach. Excellent value for money and the magic will go on working long after you have read each of the 140 pages. Buy and enjoy!


5.0 out of 5 starsA Penny Spitfire – Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

By Daniel on 2 Nov. 2011

Format: Paperback

A Penny Spitfire
Brindley Hallam Dennis

Thank God it’s all over, that’s what Charles Bury thought. That’s what they all thought. It just took them by surprise, afterwards, the way it was…

This is a very original novel, in subject matter and form. It is set in a small industrial town (which remains unnamed, though it may be Burton-on-Trent) immediately after the 2nd World War. Rather than dwelling on heroic exploits and victories achieved, as so many novels do, it describes the spoiled and broken lives of those who came back. It recounts their efforts to come to terms with the overwhelming experiences they have had, while adjusting to a world in which the structures they knew before they went to war have been swept away.

The various characters, across the social classes, find their previous lives and relationships irrelevant or impossible, or turn to drink to forget the terrors they witnessed. There are still guns to be had, and criminal characters and feral children gather on bomb-sites. Even in peace-time, violence and cruelty have not disappeared.

Rejecting straightforward narrative, the author tells his story in a sequence of scenes, as in a play, or more exactly, a black-and-white film, the setting for each scene often beautifully described: mostly dark, nocturnal, always poetic. He also employs a novel way of mingling speech and thought, the difference between them blurred, almost as if the characters are buried in their own memories and experiences, inarticulate, communicating incompletely with each other, before relapsing into recollection and introspection.

While much of what happens is difficult and gritty, and there is a violent denouement, the characters are richly-drawn and sympathetic, and the descriptions throughout are unusual, atmospheric and haunting. And towards the end of the novel the author gives us a glimpse, at least, of hope for the future:

And all around, the fields stood silvered in the moonlight… and the train, gathering speed as it moved away, drawn by the black lines of its track, carried, beneath its ermine cloak of steam, a single point of fierce orange light, lustrous as a new-made penny.

5.0 out of 5 starsA compelling glimpse into the aftermath of war

 

By Anne McDonnell on 8 Jun. 2011

Format: Paperback

In a Midlands industrial town, partly bombed, the locals are coming to terms with the legacy of World War Two. Their world has changed and yet their patterns of behaviour were set years ago.
In A Penny Spitfire, we follow Derek Fitton, as he struggles to connect his pre-war life of work and picnics with the experiences of war in India and post-war expectations. Jack and Paul, too young to have fought, fall in with Clive Dandridge, their Corp, who trains youngsters in his version of commandoes. And Charles, the younger son of the local industrialist who feels there has to be another way. Class and social distinctions are no longer so certain and no-one knows how to discuss any of it.

With evocative descriptions of an industrial world that no longer exists, and a style of writing that blurs the edges between thought and speech, Dennis opens a door on a time and people often forgotten. The characters and their lives remain with you long after the book is finished.

 

By Nicky Harlow on 8 Dec. 2011

Format: Paperback

Penny Spitfire is a poignant and prescient study of the impact of World War II on a small midlands town. We see the world largely through Derek Fitton’s eyes. A car mechanic foresighted enough to open a garage before the war began, he has returned from India to find that he can no longer connect to his own town, community, even his marriage. Dennis’s prose pulses with sensory detail. It seems coated in axle grease, powdered with dust. Read it and you smell metal and oil, turpentine and cigarette smoke; you can hear the clank of trains shunting into the nearby station, the revving of automobiles unused since 1939. It tastes of blood.
In this town the war is almost a character in its own right. It is the glue that holds together a group of dispossessed men and women – and the wedge that has been driven between them. The novel exists in a silent, held breath, a time between two worlds. The war is over; the process of change – social, ideological and technological – is already in motion. But for all the distant clanking, the dust has yet to clear.
This is a technically adept work. Dennis’s omniscient narration is no Dickensian voice, haranguing and moralising. More it is the voice of a presenter or an MC; a slow strip-tease revealing a society in flux. His characters – the dreamy socialist, Charles Bury, the traumatised Burma Sammy, the lying ne’er-do-well, Clive Dandridge, and Fitton himself – have been curtailed, interrupted. Their relationships are still dominated by the war; just as the town is still dominated by a huge bomb crater. It seems that death is all they have to look forward to.
Only the ever buxom and garrulous landlady of the Odd Dog demonstrates any joi de vivre. But even this seems forced. The past is not `another country’ in this novel. It is more vivid than the present into which it bleeds. It infects the town with a hazy nostalgia, filtering everything through its sticky nicotine-stained lens.
Penny Spitfire’s poetry clings to you long after you have read the final chapter. There is a strong metaphorical element here, exploited to great effect by Dennis. The railway carrying trains that are either going away or being shunted into sidings, the penny that pops up under many disguises: as payment for thoughts, for the spitfire, a lapel-pin fashioned from left-over metal, or to close the eyes of the dead. And there is something inevitably Denis Potterish in the sexual repression that seeps into all the characters’ actions.
The ending comes as a cruel irony. In what is considered by the characters to be a symbol of hope, we are offered a glimpse of our own twenty-first century crisis.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Dennis finds the seeds of our destruction in his story of post war Britain. Writing of this quality is as hard to find as a penny spitfire on a bombsite.

 

After failing to read to the end of any of the stories in A.S.Byatt’s Sugar and other stories – something that has never happened to me before – I began to look at the cover blurbs with fresh eyes, especially the bit that said she ‘displays all her talents as a novelist.’ Was somebody, Penelope Lively in the London Evening Standard, in fact, just ever so slightly putting their head above the parapet and whistling a faint bar of ‘The King Is In The Altogether’? It might also explain why I had trouble with some of the stories in Henscher’s 2 volume British Short Stories collection (dedicated to Byatt), and to the Oxford English Short Stories which she edited (in pencil on the title page of my copy…’some poor stories from writers who have written better ones’… and over the page…’the tedious listing of what is seen oin the background’. I must have been having a bad day. (three OKs, two goods, one goodish and one liked it. Plus the wonderful Little Brother, by Mary Mann)). Sheesh!

I wouldn’t have dared, perhaps, to have raised the issue, if it were not for the fact that recently I had been reading Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph, exhorting us to boo when the Art we are encountering simply isn’t doing its job.

I have also been reading L.A.G.Strong’s (not in the Oxford) collection of short stories, Travellers, winner in 1945 of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Strong, it seems to me, is largely forgotten now, but if this collection of thirty one stories is anything to go by, he knew his way around the form. Some carry uncomfortable markers of a time when language could be less than politically correct, but all have a story to tell, and several have a very good one, told with a good telling.

Whether or not one likes something is, according to some, not the point. But to those of us doing the liking, and disliking, of course, it is the whole point.

And all the talents of a novelist, I suspect, are about as much use when writing a short story, as all the talents of a golfer would be when making fairy cakes.

A good journalist never reveals his sources, they say, and the bad ones certainly don’t! But fiction writers, poets and playwrights are always getting asked, where do you find ’em?

And there isn’t always a simple answer, in my experience. With my latest  offering to CUT, though, (Contributory Culpability) I can throw a little light… A walk on an abandoned railway track in the north east of England threw up an old guy in an oil stained cap, who told me a story about the railway we were standing on, and how, with the last passenger train of the day, the engineer (or driver) and the fireman, would leave the train simmering at the nearby halt while they popped into the pub for a last pint. (I’m reminded that in my home town, where there were miles of Brewery Railways, a man used to wander the site, officially, offering pints from a small barrel -firkin perhaps? – to all and sundry, even those operating machinery!) I transposed my oil-stained cap man’s story to West Cumbria, changed trains and added some consequences…. but did I do it right? Only the reader can tell.

Here’s a link to the story on CUTalongstory: MY ebook entitled Contributory Culpability