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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!

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

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!

You’ll often hear it said that ‘people-watching’ is an endless fascination. Sit in a cafe, or on a platform, or even just out in the street – there’s a sort of plinth outside a city centre clothing store towards the top end of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street that I’ve spent some time watching from, and, I think, being watched. I even wrote about it in a Kowalski story.

And that’s unusual, because however fascinating it is to people watch, what you see rarely translates into what we might call a short story. That isn’t to say stories don’t spring out of the details of such observations – we might even note them down in notebooks and use them later…the practice that H.E.Bates called ‘compiling’, and castigated A.E.Coppard for using!

But it’s rare, in my experience to get a whole story played out before your (astonished) gaze. It’s turning points we’re on the look out for, and starting points, and endpoints.  Somebody ending a conversation and walking away…somebody stepping up and beginning one…somebody examining a scrap of paper – we can’t quite make out what it is – and deciding to discard it in the waste bin.

V.S.Pritchett wrote that short stories make ‘explicit’ what real life only implies. Yet many stories seem to describe, in detail, tedious sequences of events, intricate foibles of character, forensic examinations of place, that not only don’t make explicit, but seem not to imply anything either.

Perhaps the readers who enjoy stories like this are really people-watching in the comfort of their own armchairs, instead of on the bum-freezing seats of the inner cities. Reading, perhaps, to find stories that the authors of the texts they are reading haven’t even considered, rather than to find out, what the those authors might be trying to tell them..

Of course it might be that such stories are merely too subtle, or too finely wrought for someone like me to perceive. But if they aren’t, then it might be a similar conundrum to that in the art world, of the splash of paint, or the pile of bricks? Who creates the Art? The splashers and pilers, or the people who look at them and imagine. (We know who has to pay, and who gets the money).

To what extent does our writing have to communicate something to someone? Anything to anyone? To what extent does a failure to do so reflect on the writer, and on the reader? To what extent must we be prepared to accept that some people are too stupid, lazy or ignorant to be successful readers of our stories, or, and it pains me, we to be their writers?

Have you checked out these guys yet? CUTalongstory

One of the Facets of Fiction that I’ve made a point of teaching – if that’s the right word – over the last decade, has been that of the narrative voice.

It’s not something specific to short stories, but to the short story it is critical. Short stories are in the lineage of anecdotes and tales: they predate the written and printed story, and are told – not shown – by somebody, to somebody else – to several somebodies simultaneously perhaps.

There are several implications to that telling. That the teller has a purpose (never travel without a porpoise – Lewis Carroll) is probably the most obvious, and possibly the most important. Another implication is that the teller will have a time and place in mind for the telling, and an appropriate voice – think Hyacinth Bucket’s phone voice. They might also, I think, match the story, and the telling to the imagined listener or reader.

But there’s another factor, easily forgotten, behind this created narration, and that is we ourselves. The author, masked, rather than killed off, remains the person who has imagined – or remembered- it all: narrator, telling, story. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that how the author does that gives us a mirror image of what he, or she, truly is. Ultimately, we are the ones who believe the story is worth telling, and who have at least an inkling of why that might be.

BFB coverBHD’s collection of longer (for him!) stories The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer is available here.

I’ve spent a lot of time considering the changes that adaptation can make to stories, but of course editing, even slightly, can have similar effects: sometimes changing the focus, or even the implied intent of a story.

Last weekend Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom was shown on terrestrial TV here in the Untied Kingdom. I’ve mentioned it before, and particularly the very short sex scene: as the two runaway children go into a clinch, he says, it’s hard, and she replies, I like it. This pithy analysis of sexual attraction resonates with more than just the characters of the film, but in the context of the film makes explicit what might otherwise be left implicit, and thus subject to being ignored, denied, or even not noticed.

And yet, and yet, the ratfinks and fuckwits who put out this stuff saw fit to remove that scene, and what’s more they did it professionally (i.e. for pay!). Wouldn’t it be a good idea, seeing as we can’t stop these people committing this sort of butchery on works of art, couldn’t we at least insist that they include a real time insert of blank screen where the intended content has been excised? Then we would get to see, not what was missing, but at least that there was something missing, and we would know that we have been sold an adulterated product.

The better the story the more difficult it is to make any changes without profoundly affecting it, and Moonrise Kingdom tells a very good story, when it’s allowed to.---_0261

And while I’m at it, I thought it must be may age, being unable to make out what was being said by the ‘Archer’ character in SS-GB…relieved to read that others – younger than me – had trouble too! Good novel. Shame about the adaptation (which looked like a good storyline. Never thought of using the subtitles, but wouldn’t have anyway).

Local writer and Creative Writing teacher, Darren Harper, asked if he could interview view me, in BHD mode, for a film to be made by film-maker Phil Hewitson of Toliver Productions. That put me on alert to think about what I might want to say, and to be seen and heard saying, about the process of writing short stories.

I found myself looking for the metaphor I’d use to describe what I think I’m doing when I’m setting out to write a story. I’ve used, and written about, such metaphors before. A favourite, which I use to explain the distinction I see between the novel and the unrelated short story form, is that one is a cruise and the other a crossing. But I was looking for a metaphor to capture what the process might be, rather than the product.

One that might suffice, is to describe the writing as analogous to climbing a mountain. Mountaineers will often say, when you ask them – bemused – why on earth they do it, that it is because it is there; and there might be a similar passion behind the writing of stories. Each one, for me at any rate, is an attempt on something – to capture a moment of perception, to reveal the hidden depths in something glimpsed, overheard – rarely imagined. Getting the story down, and making the capture, or the revelation, is like scaling the peak, reaching the summit.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And publication then becomes something like having your photograph taken on the top. The photograph isn’t the point of the exercise, only evidence that the point has been achieved. Publication isn’t always the point of the writing, nor its success, only a record of it having been done.

Of course, publication might be the point of some other endeavour, to which the writing is merely contributory, but then, perhaps we’d have to look for another metaphor.




If you are interested in scaled peaks, of a literary kind, you might like to read the three volumes of Mike’s12 more essays on short stories and their writers The Silent Life Within Readings For Writers series….in which short stories and their writers are examined.Readings For Writers cover

I’ve just been reading the terms and conditions for a short story competition. Should I tell you its name? It carries the logos of various Arts organisations and is glowingly endorsed by a well known media celeb and purveyor of language.

There are no prizes, but the winner gets an award (endorsed by those organisations) and twenty or so runners up get published alongside it. But what does the writer have to pledge to win this prestigious approbation? Perpetual, exclusive rights to everything you can think of (and clauses including that which hasn’t yet been thought of), without remuneration, I should add, including the right to hack, mutilate and transform the piece – into whatever those organisations want it to be….

Is it really worth it? The piece you submit will have to be (at least according to their lights) pretty good….and you won’t get anything except the kudos, ever; and you might have to suffer the indignity of being associated with an agenda quite at odds with any espoused by your original text…a few words changed, even only the word orders, can subvert many a story.

Perhaps what made it so pungent for me, was that I had been reading Dickens’ letters (in the single volume edition edited by Jenny Hartley and published in 2012), including several about his outrage at the way American publishers were pirating the works of English (and other) writers during his lifetime. Dickens was a long time campaigner for copyright protection. I wonder how he would have viewed these terms and conditions? At least no one has to involuntarily accept them, but only might be seduced by the possibility of being associated with the names of those offering them.

If nothing else it makes you realise it’s worth reading the small print of competition rules and conditions. Sometimes they just might be as eye watering as a kick in the crutch!mildred

.Cent magazine has one too……(a story by BHD ….hasn’t he been busy…sheesh!)BHDandMe at work