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

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. 

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!

http://www.liarsleague.com/liars_league/2017/04/vote-for-your-top-liars-story.html

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:

Location

Narrative Voice

Ambience

Focus

Which, like any definitive list of such things, might do to be going on with…..

Kowalkski – no thinking cap! (drawn by Alex Halfpenny)

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

Martyn winced.

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.

I’m sorry?

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?

Like what?

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….

>END

You can find other BHD stories in The Writer’s Secret. Just click on the image. 

Radio 4 pissed me off this week. (No! Never! Well, hardly ever…). They announced a short story slot with the phrase ‘by the novelist’.

 

 

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.