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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.
BHD’s salacious story of dark veined Cubans and smooth skinned Connestogas (cigars!) Hecho A Mano is among Liars Leagues’ TOP TEN STORIES of all time (well, their first 10 years!)…. You can vote for it too….on the link below! Hecho a Mano, by the way, means – roughly translated – a hand job!
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…..
Have you checked out these guys yet? CUTalongstory
We’re having a lazy Sunday…..
So here’s a story (BHD made earlier)…
All In A Row
And you know what he said to her, when I introduced them? He said of man’s desiring? Joy Of Man’s Desiring. It’s from a hymn. And he did that thing with his voice at the end, to make it a question.
Mary smiled, and bit her lip gently.
And what did she say?
Well, she was all over him, metaphorically. She was like a school girl. Well, perhaps not like one of today’s school girls, but you know what I mean.
You do have to give him full marks, for effort, she said, tilting her head and looking at Martyn over her glasses.
Do you? I thought it was all rather cheesy.
Lighten up, Martyn. Harry always flirts, with everyone, you said.
Martyn shot her a glance. She hadn’t met him, had she? He’d always tried to keep Mary and Harry apart, keep her in reserve, so to speak, keep her clean.
You’re better off without her. If she can be won over that easily.
Won over by Harry, Martyn thought. Not won over by him, by Martyn. She hadn’t been a pushover for Martyn. He rubbed the flat of his palm around the rim of his wine glass, and it squealed delightedly.
I suppose so.
No suppose about it! Drink your wine. Relax. There are plenty of other fish in the sea.
Well, Martyn thought, I don’t know about that. In fact, from what he’d seen on the news and read in the papers that was the last thing there was. The trouble was, the sort of fish Mary was talking about weren’t on quotas. They were fair game for anybody, even for each other these days. They were fair game for the Harries of this world. But it was just a metaphor, a dead metaphor, a worn out, used up metaphor.
There are plenty of other pebbles on the beach, he said out loud, not meaning to.
You’re right. I shan’t worry about it anymore.
But he couldn’t help worrying. Wasn’t anybody safe from Harry? Wasn’t there anyone who Harry wouldn’t have a pop at? And always some clever little witticism, popping off the top of his head. Martyn wondered if they really were that spontaneous. Did he rehearse them beforehand, work them out in advance? He’d known Joy’s name in advance. Martyn knew that, because he’d made the mistake of telling him. I’m going out with that girl, he’d said, from the Health Club.
Oh? Which one’s that? Harry had asked, all innocence. Joy, Martyn had said, and then, and this was the really stupid thing, he’d said, why don’t you come and join us for a drink; because that’s what he always did, with Harry. He always asked him along, because Harry was Martyn’s sidekick. Or was it the other way around?
Well, he’d not made that mistake tonight. He’d said, we’re going for a quiet little drink together at the Curwen Arms.
What? That little place out in the sticks?
That’s the one. A little, quiet, tete-a-tete- for two.
And Harry had said, I thought you and this Mary weren’t like that?
You know, an item.
We’re not an item, Martyn had insisted, and they weren’t either. They were just good friends, and, so long as Harry kept his nose out, good friends they would stay. Unless of course they became an item, which Martyn hadn’t got around to testing out just yet.
Maybe he had a little book of them, Harry: those clever little things he said; ready to fling into the conversation when the chance arose. Women liked that sort of thing. How many times had he heard them say, because he makes me laugh. Bastard!
At least Mary wouldn’t fall for something like that, even if she did give him full marks for trying.
He took a long drink of the wine, tilting his head back as he did so, which brought the foyer of the hotel into his line of vision. Harry was standing just inside the revolving door, looking around. Martyn choked on the wine and two red dribbles like tinted tears ran down his chin.
Steady on Martyn. No need to drink it quite that fast.
Harry, he said.
Let’s not think about Harry any more, she said, reaching forward and laying her hand on his arm.
No! Harry, he said, nodding towards the door. At which point Harry spotted him, put a broad smile on his face, and crossed the room towards them. Bloody hell, Martyn said.
Mary twisted around in her seat. A rather good looking man, in a very well cut suit, that somehow seemed as casual as jeans and a T-shirt, was striding towards them with a cheeky grin on his face.
Martyn, you sly old thing, Harry said, thrusting a hand out.
What are you doing here? Martyn demanded, ignoring it.
And you must be? Harry said, and the hand twisted, into an open palmed gesture of supplication into which Mary, without thinking, laid her own palm. Harry’s palm ascended, carrying the back of her hand to his lips.
Mary, she said, half-amused.
He brushed the back of her hand with his moustache, his brown eyes gazing into hers. Quite contrary, I’ll bet….
Pewter Rose will cease trading at the end of the month, but there is still time to buy copies of their publications, including A Penny Spitfire and Talking To Owls by Brindley Hallam Dennis.
In the days before mobile phones, when coin operated phone boxes were never where you were when you had the right coins in your pocket, I hitched out of London unexpectedly one night, and got picked up by a somnolent driver who kept himself awake, and me on the edge of his passenger seat, by driving on the cats’ eyes at the edge of the motorway lanes. Eventually he dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, where I stood for several hours, with owls circling my head, until a fresh dawn broke.
Pewter Rose Press is closing down. This is one of the best independent small publishers that I have encountered.
I first came across Pewter Rose at the launch of Vivien Jones’ Perfect 10; short stories ‘about big girls and big women’ (and so much more!). It wasn’t only the quality of the stories, but the professionalism of the publisher, Anne McDonnell, that impressed me. That was the reason I sent my novella A Penny Spitfire for her to consider. That was published in 2011, and a year later the short story collection Talking To Owls followed.
Both of these titles, along with those by other Pewter Rose authors, will be available from the publishers – click on the images to link – until 31st of March 2017, so why not take this chance to get yourself some copies.
BHD on A Penny Spitfire – It all started with a photo album, and a conversation. Why, I asked my cousin – who was a decade older than me – were my parents in the nineteen fifties, so dour, compared to the laughing figures in our black white photographs from before the war? The war changed everything, she told me. When your dad came home, he wasn’t the same. So far as I knew he hadn’t been in any horrendous battles. Yet something had shaken the foundations of his life. Oh yes, and while I was clearing out my mother’s house I found a penny spitfire that he had made. [that penny spitfire dropped from my lapel after the book was published…I heard it tinkle as it landed, and looked around to see what might have fallen…but didn’t! Almost like a scene from the book – its job done, it was moving on]
BHD on Talking To Owls – I can’t remember, from my school days, ever being told about ‘the short story’. It was novels all the way. But once I’d discovered the form, whilst taking my M Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, I realised that I had been reading them for a long time – in Kipling, and W.E.Johns in my childhood, and in the Sci-Fi stories of various annuals, collections and anthologies. I’ve been BHD since the day I was born, but have only known it for the past twenty years. What better form in which to explore the people I might have been, and the voices I might have had?
I don’t so much launch my books as chuck ’em in the deep end.
Here’s one I chucked earlier. There are a dozen stories inside. Some have won prizes. Some have been published. All have missed the boats one way or another that would have put them into previous collections. One is so old that I was still using those wriggly little speech marks when I wrote it….and I’ve left them in. Irritating, I know. Click here to get a copy…