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Carnivale was written after my first encounter with Venice in October of 2016. I found the city amazing, I might even say awesome, if I knew the word. Right down to the window catches and the door latches, it caught and held my attention. What helped, perhaps, was that I was staying – for two nights only – in the north west, not far from the old Jewish quarter. It is an area of workshops and old houses, of decaying brickwork and all the narrative killing description that had to go into the story of Carnivale. The places in the story you could find, with a little luck (and that canal-side bar comes highly recommended), including the costumier’s shop. It was not open on the day I walked past, but the window, both literally and metaphorically, was a window onto another, imagined world: a world for which the word ‘imagined’ seems a pale representation. It was a fantastical world, and the perception that were you to dress in those clothes you would be changed utterly, and the world changed with you, was immediate and overwhelming.

It was that epiphany that I wanted the story to evoke, but also the realisation, that for each of us, as individuals we have to have the wit to see the gulf, and the courage to o’er leap it. (That’s the first time, I think, in sixty and more years that I’ve used the word ‘o’er’).

The Carnivale that you see in the Black Market Re-view, and, potentially in a ‘2017’ collection, intended to be published in 2018, is the 6th draft. It was a problem story right from the beginning – having to decide whether it was about Venice, or about its protagonist for example. And all that detail. It had to be overpowering within the story, but not get between the story and the reader. It had to be readable, yet the images had to be crowded in on each other. I wanted those narrow twisting streets with their four and five storey buildings, and their insistent detail, to crowd in on you – but not to the extent that you gave up on the reading.

Then there was the ending. A much earlier edition was sent out and got a useful rejection slip, with the sort of commentary that tells you it’s worth working on. That editor didn’t like the ending, wanting a more definitive one. I’m all for sharp endings, that stick it to you so you know where and how deep! But here I found myself wanting to leave it unsaid – to let the reader’s disposition tip the balance. Short stories, after all, are about the reader to some extent. How would they feel, think, and act in the situation? What would they expect their partner to do?

Later versions got into Longlists. Longlists can mean everything that was submitted – but in these two cases I think did not, and, like that helpful rejection, they can be an encouragement. Particularly pleasing about the BMR acceptance, was that it was made with so little tinkering required. A missing word here, a changed word there, a couple of re-ordered, rather than re-written sentences. In a 2000 word story (long for me) that was pretty minor – though it shows I could have paid more attention! In fact, reading through the story again did make me pay more attention, which is a curious thing. Knowing that someone is about to publish a story, sharpens the senses more than hoping they might, it seems.

Writing Carnivale came at an important time for me. I’ve been writing short stories for nearly twenty years, and two decades seems to me to be long enough to convince yourself you can’t do it. The last eighteen months or so have been a conscious last push before giving up. In fact, I’ve wrestled with the problem of just how to do that.

There has been a series of stories over that period that have been consciously different, at least in my mind, from those that went before. A series of so called ‘flash fictions’ also began to come to fruition during this time. Getting a higher than average proportion of them into print, with magazines, e-zines and journals, and perhaps into competition shortlist and prizes, might be a last gasp validation, perhaps, of that twenty year undertaking. Yet, the true, and proportionate success must always be that you’ve said what you felt needed saying, whatever anybody else might feel. You can find Carnivale in The Black Market re-View #4, here.

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So the BBC had their man interview Tom Hanks yesterday, about his new collection of Short Stories (power to the man!)…but asked him how he felt about becoming ‘ a novelist’. Shades of Muhammed Ali – what’s my name? – but no blows rained sadly.

Today they topped it off with a decent short story on Radio 4 ….and you’ve guessed it….. ‘by the novelist…’

When will these people learn?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a date for those of you in or near Carlisle, England: At Darren Harper’s Phil and Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Friday, 3rd November 7.00pm-8.30  English Short Stories between the Wars… a talk by Me (with help from BHD), looking at A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and others. (£4.50 members, £6 non-members). Book through website https://www.darrenharper.net/

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!

There was a wicked little device used in the Middle Ages (and later), to cripple cavalry horses.  I think it was called a caltrop. Thrown onto the ground it was so constructed as to fall always sharp side up. A three dimensional piece, you might imagine it as having a triangular base, from which three other triangles rise to that upward pointing sharpie.

The triangle as a metaphor for story – characters at the point, relationships along the lines, is a two dimensional object, but we could add that third dimension to it as well. That would be the narrator. But where is the author? Where is the reader (or listener, if the story is being told)?

Why not come along on Thursday 5th October to Mike Smith’s Facets of Fiction Workshop at Carlisle Library (10.00am-12.00 noon) and join in an exploration of this and other triangular conundrums about how we write short stories, and what we think they might be.  Tickets are available via the link, here.

You see, never to be left out of it…now BHD’s gone and got something else into print….in Issue 4 of the Black Market Re-view which that was a link to, back there <. Thankfully, he’s buried among lots of good writing, from all over the place. So, why not go and take a look?

Also, while we’re here….Did you know BHDandMe are leading a workshop as part of the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle? 10.00am-12.00 noon, Thursday 5th October, at the Library (in the Lanes)? Come along and play around with ideas of how the humble (or even arrogant) triangle can inform the situations we create for our fictional characters in the short story.

A recent editorial bemoaned the fact that poets ‘can’t’ read their own work these days – can’t read it well that is. If that’s true, might the reason be that we’ve been persuaded – or at least some of us have – that the poem is a thing of print and writing, rather than sound, and speaking.

Writing, that oh so useful recording system for saving the memory (dumbing down you might call it), has been confused with the practice of putting words together, and perceiving them that way. The solitary, silent imagined-voiced reader has (or perhaps had for a while) supplanted the hearer of the real voiced speaker. And as we consume our poetry that way, so we begin to think of producing it that way too. Gone is the voice music that made poetry memorable, and that brought emphasis and meaning in the right place, and in the right tone of voice and at the right volume, tempo and pitch. If you haven’t written with that in mind then you will have difficulty foisting it on whatever you have written. And if the rhythm, and the stresses are broken or absent, or inconsistent (or inappropriately consistent) then read out loud – never mind the whistles and bangs of a performance that will distract us from, rather than focus us on the words – the language will be broken too.

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet, told me once, that the length of his lines was mostly controlled by the stretch of his breath. A reminder, perhaps, that poetry is of the body’s making as well as, and maybe more so than, of the intellect’s.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the experience of hearing someone attempt to read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem as if it were a ‘rap’. It wasn’t a rap, though, and hadn’t been written as one, and it fought back, imposing its own rhythms and music on the reader. Though not the intended ‘liberation’ he might have been expecting, it was a useful lesson, at least for this listener, in the power of a good poem to fight its corner, and win.

It goes almost without saying that when I’m writing prose fiction, let alone poetry, I do so with the intention that it should be read aloud. Even when I’m writing essays I take account of how they ‘read’ – and by that I mean how they read out loud. Do they roll off the tongue smoothly, powerfully, and coherently? Or are they fragmented, disjointed, jerky. Do they stick in the throat and choke the reader? Do they run out of breath and mangle their meanings? If you can’t read out a piece of your own writing well, you’re taking a hell of a gamble on whether a stranger – who has no idea what you are trying to say, but only what you have said – is going to be able to, whether in a voice that is being imagined or one that is real. It’s not just about your competence as a reader, but about the piece’s readability.

When I get my copies of poetry magazines, short story collections and journals though, I have to confess, I don’t read ’em all out loud! Words in the mouth and in the ear might still be the home of language, but the ink mark on paper (or its digital equivalent) makes a good holiday residence.

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).

 

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.