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The Facets of Fiction course in writing short stories kicked off last week at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit Society, and threw up an interesting moment.

I had the group doing one of my favourite exercises: putting back together a short story that I’ve cut up into paragraphs – or groups of paragraphs. The purpose of the exercise is to remind us just how much we know about short stories already. The process of reconstruction draws on, and brings to the fore, our in-built ideas of what the beginnings, endings, and middles of stories ought to look like. Of course, individual stories often fool our expectations – whilst at the same time conforming to them. In retrospect, even if we’ve got it wrong, we can see that a story has done what we expected, but not quite in the way we expected.

Even if we don’t manage the reconstruction we do spend time focussing on the story in question in a deeper way than we might if we were doing what Edgar Allen Poe told us the short story was for doing: ‘perusing in an hour or two’!

The story we were looking at in Carlisle was L.A.G.Strong’s The Seal. This is a remarkably simple story, at least as far as ‘events’ are concerned. A woman goes to a beach, sees a seal, and sings to it. Her husband, a galumphing, insensitive sort of chap, blunders down the dunes to join her, driving the seal away. He does see it though, briefly, as it flees, and noisily enthuses to her, as if she might not have seen it at all.

It’s a story about their relationship, of course, but as we discussed it, it became apparent that there were different areas of interest on which we might focus. A single word in the story, used to describe the seal, had led me to one interpretation, but another course member had seen a much more specific reference in it.

For me, the core of the story was that relationship, and specifically the insensitivity of the husband to the wife. For my colleague, the seal represented the child that the marriage lacked, and, implicitly, would not produce. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but on reflection, I favour hers over mine!

What was revealed, though, was not merely about the story, but about the agendas we bring to story as readers. I had focussed on the relationship, and in particular on what the story was telling me about the husband. My colleague was more alive to the woman, and to the lack of a child in the marriage.

Curiously enough, part of the discussion, of short stories, rather than of this particular one, had revolved around the issue of what stories mean to their writers, and what to their readers, and which is more important, and to whom. Here’s a good example, I think, of a story being important in different ways, to different readers, whatever its importance might have been to the writer. It’s worth remembering that we read, at least in part, and perhaps in the most important part, to see more clearly ourselves in the ‘mirror of art’, rather than to see an author. Put another way, what we’re stuck with in stories, is our own limitations as readers!

The picture below, by the way, is of a beach not a million miles away from the one that Strong might have had in mind, from a clue in the text!

Eigg on my Seascape


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Writers Quarter returns to Carlisle as part of the Second Borderlines  Carlisle Book Festival in September (3rd to 6th September). This is the element of the festival specifically aimed at writers writing, and we have workshops (at The Crown & Mitre, Tullie House, and The Cathedral), in poetry, prose fiction, memoir and historical writing, and in using research, plus workshops on self publishing in both print, and digital formats. There will also be a Flash Fiction Forum, hosted by Dumfries & Galloway’s Crichton Writers, to which all are invited to bring, share and discuss their Flash Fictions, and their ideas on Flash Fiction.  Facets of Fiction colleague, Marilyn Messenger will lead another writing session in The Border Gallery at Tullie House, this time, using ‘antique’ letters as a source of inspiration. Finally there’ll be a grand celebration in the Cathedral Fratry, on the evening of Saturday 5th, at which Manchester based Flash Fiction writer David Gaffney will read, and will announce the prize winners for L’al Crack…Borderlines own Flash Fiction competition.

Details of all these events, and many, many more, can be found on the Borderlines website at  Have a good one!


While you’re waiting….why not read ……..

Departures, ten short stories by Brindley Hallam Dennis: Volume 1 (Story Times) by mr Brindley Hallam Dennis
Departures, ten short stories by Brindley Hallam Dennis: Volume 1 (Story Times)
by Brindley Hallam Dennis

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI ran a workshop for National Flash Fiction Day yesterday, at Carlisle Library.

Some of the students opted to write an exercise with one of my ‘catcher’ lines (that’s my term for the opposite to a kicker line, btw: a line with which to end, rather than to begin a story!). Just to make things fair, one of them suggested a line for me:

“He was left without his shirt, bloodied and in tears”. Sheesh!!

I got a page of crabby hand writing in the twenty or so minutes we devoted to the the writing, and finished it off this morning. I knew where I was going, and where I wanted you to think I was going, almost as soon as I started. I permitted myself the luxury of deleting one of the words – believing that the story always trumps the rules! So here’s what I came up with:

A Reverse

by Brindley Hallam Dennis

The problem was that Jenny didn’t understand. She never had. That was the problem. And it hadn’t got any better over the years. That was the problem. He looked down at Mutt.

The problem is, Mutt, that Jenny doesn’t understand, he said. He saw his own reflection in Mutt’s soft brown uncomprehending eyes.

Jenny had had that haughty look over breakfast; the look that said, Get over it! That said, Man up for Chrissake! The look that said, you never were much of a man anyway; said, I don’t know why I married you.

They should have had kids.

We should have had kids, Mutt, he said, standing up and stepping back from the edge.

But Jenny hadn’t wanted to have kids. Kids would have got in the way of her career. He should have put his foot down; not about the career. He wasn’t that sort of guy. He should have put his foot down about the kids.

But then we wouldn’t have had you, old feller, he said.

He had warned her so many times. Watch what you’re doing! If you just thought about it. If only she had listened, but Jenny never took any notice of him. He wouldn’t have to warn her again.

The grave was narrow and deep. The soil glistened with a dampness that belied the blue sky and the heat of the sun. Blood had got onto his shirt; onto his forearms, mixing with the sweat and dust; onto the sharp blade of the spade. A shadow passed across the sun and he shivered. He would need a shower. He stood up and felt for the spade. He remembered a funeral they had gone to, years before, where he had lingered in the churchyard, talking to one of the other mourners. Jenny had gone on ahead and was waiting impatiently in the car. He had heard the thump of the soil landing on the coffin lid as the gravediggers began to cover it up. There would be no thumping this time. The soil would fall back softly, the curled body giving slowly with the growing weight of it. He could not bear the thought of it falling onto the open eyes. He let go of the spade and tugged at his shirt front.

He should have put his foot down about the car. What did she want a car like that for anyway? It looked like a squashed sardine tin. All you could see out of the front was the underside of lorries, and the hump of the boot out of the back. You wouldn’t get any kids in the back of that car. Even Mutt would have been hard put to fit in, if he had been allowed.

Jenny’s voice sliced down from the house-back.

Have you finished yet? I need to go and get this bloody dent taken out of the boot.

When he appeared at the edge of the lawn, he was without his shirt, bloodied, and in tears. <END


There is a series of informal, drop-in workshops planned for Carlisle Library, starting next Saturday, 28th June, from 11.00am-1.00pm. Led by Darren Harper and Brindley Hallam Dennis (aka Mike Smith). There will be five in the series, fortnightly, ending just before Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival & The Writers Quarter (of which more next week).

 28th June. 11.00am-1.00pm Fifteen Minute Biographies – come and join Darren Harper & BHD writing short biographies of themselves, of remembered family and friends, of imaginary people, then post them on our wall!

 12th July. 11.00am-1.00pm Reading as a Writer/Writing for the reader. Join Darren Harper and BHD in a discussion about how reading and writing match up, and why they sometimes don’t, and have a go at some short & simple writing exercises.

 26th July. 11.00am-1.00pm The Useful Little Story Machine: Darren Harper & BHD sets some writing exercises to find the stories you are ready to tell.

 9th August. 11.00am-1.00pm Desert Island Paragraphs. Come along to share your favourite

sections of novels and short stories with Darren Harper & BHD.

 23rd August. 11.00am-1.00pm The Book Doctors: Darren Harper & BHD will hold a series of surgeries looking at your stories and how they work!


WRITING DAYS – run on Saturdays from 10 – 4.00.

Focussing on specific elements of writing technique.

Students have time to write during the workshop.

Drinks and light lunch provided.


Please contact Mike Smith 

for course dates and further information

Held throughout the year in Curthwaite near Wigton at a cosy Cumbrian cottage. The courses are held in the 200 year old restored ‘Stock Room’.

October 12th 2013

Narrative Voice – Workshopping the who-tells-what-about-whom-and-to- whom of stories! Where does the narrator sit (or stand, or hover) in relation to the reader (and the characters)? What tone of voice does he (or she, or it) use?

November 2nd 2013

Dialogue – Exploring to make your characters ‘seem’ to talk to each other (when we all know that really they are passing vital information to the reader)

December 7th 2013

Using Research – Exercises in using what you know (and what you don’t know) to provide credibility (and authenticity?) to your stories.





Would you like to come and join

a small group of people who enjoy meeting

to discuss their work?

Taught by writer and poet Mike Smith.


FACETS OF FICTION – two hour workshops.

Run fortnightly for students working

on texts that they have prepared in advance.

I’m recruiting for a fresh series of 5

Facets of Fiction fortnightly workshops

to run Thursdays 1.30pm-3.30pm

5 places available


for costs and further information

Three More Writing Days from Facets of Fiction for Autumn 2013 led by Mike Smith aka Brindley Hallam Dennis

12th October: Whose Story Is It? Variations on The Narrative Voice

[who is telling, about whom, and to whom?]

2nd November: Talking to Each Other: fictional dialogues

[Getting characters to converse]

7th December: Credibility & Authenticity Using Research & Experience

[knowledge, and bluff]

The F of F Writing days are built around a rolling series of discussion, exercise and review sessions, focussing on a specific area of fiction writing. They are intended to get you writing and to give you ideas and techniques for future use.

The groups are kept small, which demands high input, and output, from all course members.

The Writing Days run from 10.00am to around 4.30pm. Lunch is included.

£50 per session. £135 if all three are booked in advance.


Regular Facets of Fiction run fortnightly in groups of five 2-hour evening sessions for £40. These are workshop sessions looking at writing produced in advance, either from set ‘homework’ or from course members’ own ongoing longer-term projects. I have a group starting on 12th September with one or two places available…..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Facets of Fiction presents three ‘Writing Days’

led by Mike Smith aka Brindley Hallam Dennis.

  1. Stories in Time & Place

  1. Fictional Characters

  1. Storylines

Each day course is based around a rolling sequence of seminars and workshops with lots of opportunity for actually getting some writing done! Though each day stands alone, the three combined offer a broad based insight into the fundamental building blocks of story.

Priced at £50 per day, those signing up for all three get a 10% discount. Included in the price we provide lunch, plus tea & coffee throughout the day. The courses are based in the old ‘stock room’ at Todd Close but during the writing exercises course members may spread out, weather permitting, into the garden!

Places on the courses are limited to encourage maximum participation and give time for individual’s work to be examined in some depth.

Each day runs from 10.00am to 5.00pm and the dates are as follows:

  1. Stories in Time & Place, Saturday June 22nd
  2. Fictional Characters, Saturday July 27th
  3. Storylines, Saturday August 10th

For more details and bookings e mail

writing as BHD, Mike has published a novella and several short story collections including:

That’s What Ya Get! Kowalski’s Assertions

A Penny Spitfire

Talking To Owls

A further collection of stories is due out this year, plus a selection of his essays on the short story form. He has won many prizes and awards for his writing in fiction, poetry, and critical essays. He blogs at and can found reading both poetry and short stories on Vimeo at BHDandMe. Many of his stories have been performed by Liars League, in London, Leeds, New York and Hong Kong, and can be viewed on YouTube.


Facets of FictionAPennySpitfire-frontcover

in north Cumbria

Workshops for Writers with Mike Smith

aka Brindley Hallam Dennis

Mike Smith is offering places on the next sequence of his Facets of Fiction creative writing sessions, beginning on Thursday April 11th. The five two-hour sessions (fortnightly, 7.00pm-9.00pm) are aimed at writers looking towards, or just arrived at, their first publication.

Based on a close study of published fiction and group members’ own work these sessions offer insights into how writing works, covering such ideas as beginnings, endings, storylines, character, mood and settings. We look in detail at how words change their power, and sometimes their meaning, when used in different contexts; how changing even the order of words, or sentences, can alter the feeling and even the trajectory of a story. We look at how characters can be perceived in fiction – through the eyes of the narrator, of other characters, or from their own perspectives. We look at where the narrators stand in relation to their stories, and their readers, and ask why they want to tell their stories, and who they want to tell them to! We look at the sequences of events that stories are made up of, and beyond, to the emotions that those sequences stir up in the reader.

Writing exercises are set, to be carried out in the intervening fortnights, and are e-mailed to Mike, and to the other students before each session so that we not working ‘blind’ with previously unseen texts.

Each sequence of five sessions cost £40, and places are limited, enabling all course members to spend a substantial amount of time working on their own writing over the course of the five sessions. Course members are encouraged to produce completed work, and to submit it for performance, publication, or into competitions.

Mike Smith and BHD have published poetry, short stories, plays, critical essays & a novella. New collections of short stories (by BHD), and of essays (by Mike) are due out later this year.

for further details of Facets of Fiction courses & booking, contact Mike by e-mail at