Writing to order.

‘Write a story,’ my mentor said. ‘Today.’

I took a deep breath and picked up my pen.  ‘Any suggestions?’

Mentor gave me one of those old-fashioned quizzical looks.

I said, ‘You’re thinking about that ‘finish the story’ flash competition I saw yesterday.’

‘Exactly.  Only 400 words.  It’s time you put all that wise advice you dish out into practice.  This has to be a perfect story-trigger: a ready made character with a situation to be resolved.’

‘Don’t call me hypocrite,’ I muttered, as I pulled the magazine out of the reading pile, and studied the 400 words already written.  It had a good hook, and finished on a cliff-hanger that implied a variety of possible outcomes.

Where do I start?  With setting I think.

A man visits a woman in a nursing home.  Her son’s been missing 48 years, and this man speaks as if he knows something about it.

Well, if the story is present day, the back-story is 1969.

How old are they both, these characters?  Initially, she mistakes him for her son, so I need to play around with some numbers, fix his age, then add on at least sixteen years for hers.

She’s alone.  Was she a single parent?  What’s happened to the boy’s father?

Each answer raises another question.  It’s like being given a jigsaw puzzle without a picture for guidance.  I match up pieces, and try to guess what the colours mean.  There’s a lot of gold, maybe a sunset?  But what about the jewel-bright flowers, perhaps it’s an impressionist corn field.

Working up from the bottom straight edge, I need to put a lot of it together before I reach an ivory ankle.  That’s what happens when you keep adding pieces, the picture begins to make sense, and once that happens… I’m flying.

The_Kiss_-_Gustav_Klimt_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

Thinking about building short stories.

‘I’m not happy with the ending of this one,’ said Anna, preparing to read out her story.  I glanced down at the sheets of paper she was shuffling together.  There seemed a lot of them, and they looked to be laced with far more words than the five-hundred limit I’d set.

The Reader by Irving Ramsay Wiles 1900Before I could frame a question, Anna was reading.  She began well, introduced three characters, provided nicely balanced dialogue that moved the action forwards, and delivered ambitions, and a situation.  It was only as Anna flicked over the page that I realised her story was printed double-sided.

I eyed the sheaf of pages, and began to multiply them by minutes, but after a paragraph, Anna left page two, and moved to page three.  As she flicked past that page after a couple more paragraphs, I realised that her redrafting had been printed out in the story.

The heap of paper was diminishing fast as Anna picked out solitary paragraphs from amongst the text.  The story picked up pace and jumped a few decades of time to round off in a neatly comfortable conclusion.  There was a murmur of approval.  ‘That was fun,’ said Emma.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Anna.  ‘It seems… unsatisfactory.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s not in your usual dark style, but the ending fits.’

It did.  ‘There’s a clear dramatic arc,’ I said, ‘and the characters are interesting and distinctive.  But, why that conclusion?’

‘I thought I’d be cheery for a change.’

‘Ah,’ I said.  ‘What about all those words you didn’t read out?’

Anna fidgeted with the edges of her pages.  ‘The story kept going wrong, drifting off.’

‘So you had that end in mind from the beginning?’

‘A happy ending, yes.’

I said, ‘You were writing against your instincts?’

‘Well, yes.  I wanted to write a happy story, for a change.’

I nodded.  ‘You’ve done that, and we enjoyed it, despite you trying to put us off before you started.  But maybe that other, darker story, is waiting to be told, too.’

*    Illustration: The Reader, by Irving Ramsey Wiles (1900)

life intrudes

It’s Sunday morning.

Last night I went to bed with a head full of stories, and today, woke to real-life horror in London.  At that moment, fiction seemed trite.   How could I be thinking about writing a blog when our emotional levels are raised to this pitch?

Yet here I am, at the laptop, tapping in words and preparing to post them into this public space.  Do I really need to say anything?  Should I say anything?  Do I have anything to say that is not already being said, and felt?

Journalists are busy responding all around the world.  That’s not who I am, or what I do, usually.  Any account I give can only re-process what they tell me, which makes this third-hand, as a piece of news.

So, perhaps I should ask myself why I am writing.

On the radio, some journalists and commentators are talking about democracy, and freedom of speech, human rights and civil liberties, not just here, but in those other countries who have recently suffered attacks.  They’re thinking themes, and that’s important, it’s part of the picture I’m responding to, but it’s not what I’m trying to say.

Then the eyewitness accounts come on.  These are everyday voices telling us of what they saw and heard : said, and did.  I don’t just listen, I stop.   Although I am staring out of the window, I’m not seeing the garden.  I’m restless.

The emergency services were efficient and brave, but so were the civilians caught up in this.  Some people tried to stop the attack.  Some stopped to help the injured, some ran towards the scene, not away.   Taxi drivers gave lifts for free, beds were offered to the stranded, strangers invited into homes.  Despite the fear, there was a need to help, to give, not take away.

I think about the hospital services in Manchester, who this week went on the radio to say thank-you, but we don’t need more blood-donations for now, the banks are full.

By the time this blog goes out, there will have been a tribute concert.  Artists seem to have queued up to perform.  Tickets sold out minutes after they were put up for sale, despite the awful possibilities of this Critical Threat Level.

Communities are pulling together, not apart.  Good or bad times, what we do best is empathise.  This, I think, is why I’m writing, because I need to hold onto this.

A breath of fresh air.

I’m sorting through the papers on my desk when the office door is slung open, and in walks my mentor.  ‘So, is this what you call writing?’ she says, nudging at the heaps of notes.

I put a saving hand on the avalanche.  ‘Just clearing a space,’ I say, ‘sorting it all out.’

‘Course you are.’

‘I can’t think in this muddle.’

Mentor leaves the doorway and leans past me to throw open the window, drawing in a gust of wind that scatters my tidying across shelves, floor and my lap.  All that’s left on the desk is my brand-new notebook.  ‘Look at that,’ she says.  ‘You haven’t even creased the spine yet. What would Ruth say?’

‘I would have found it.’

‘After you’d read everything on top of it.  Then what?  Lunch, I suppose, or do I mean tea?’

‘It wouldn’t have taken me that long.  Anyway, I’m saving this notebook,’

‘For something special?’  Mentor scuffs her walking boot through the drift of words on the floor, crumpling and creasing.

I wince.  ‘Do you have to?’  I say.

Mentor snorts, and turns abruptly, scrunching more paper, then exits, leaving the door and window open.

window

The Siren & Other Strange Tales: Six Supernatural Stories by Sheila Williams.

the siren 2Are you looking for something new to read?  Here’s an interesting selection of approaches to the supernatural that is well worth a look at, easily downloaded from Amazon.

There are a variety of geographical and historical settings.  My favourite is the title story, The Siren, a North-East coast of England story, vividly told.  I swear I felt the draft of that wind, despite sitting in warm sunshine on the other side of the country.

Sometimes, it’s good to dance with things that defeat rational explanation, and how better to do that than in fiction?  That’s just what Sheila Williams has done.  How do I know?  Because I’ve read her blog.  Click ‘This‘ and you can too.

We don’t often get the chance to see where a writer’s inspiration came from.  This glimpse provides a few clues about how you can use what you know to write what you don’t know.  I like that.

the siren

Writer’s Block

Everything’s off.
In the white heat of construction
thoughts fail.
The computer blinks:
other words beckon,
in books and stories I wish I had written.

But too late, for time works relentless,
tick-tocks like sand particles,
granular time. In time,
on time, outside in the grass
where childhood books were consumed,
pages torn and chewed in my desire
to absorb their worlds.

Old books with embossed covers.

Hand-me-down stories, solid stories
published by Children’s Press or Blackie
and glued to the fly leaves, glossy award plates
named and dated prize pupils
from an age of geometry, matriculation and scriptures.

Their pages were thick and soft.
I got close to those fibres
and the sharp edges of graceful alphabets,
racing from illustration to desert Island
breathless, as footsteps stretched across empty beaches
and bloody cries echoed through pristine glades
the sunshine hot on my neck.

Are you ready? I think I can write, now.

 

*(As mentioned in my last post, a poem read at the festival)

At the Cheltenham Poetry festival

I think it was in February that Miki first raised the idea that the In Your Own Words Poetry Group would read at the Cheltenham poetry festival.  I know it seemed sufficiently far away to contemplate calmly.  So I put my name on the list.

I didn’t exactly forget, in the intervening months, I was just too busy to think about it.  Then, for last month’s poetry group, Miki asked us to bring three poems so that we could have a read through.  That was, I realised, a make or break moment – the time when I could gracefully back out.

There was no pressure, only plenty of encouragement.  Read slowly, was Miki’s advice.  Make time to read to the mirror, several times.  Practice is the key.

I spend a lot of time advising other writers to step forward and speak up, extolling the advantages of sharing our writing.  What, after all, was there to be afraid of?  I had three poems that I was ready to share, and it’s not often that the opportunity to read at a festival is offered.  The choice, I realised had already been made.

So, yesterday afternoon I arrived at The Playhouse Lounge half an hour early, clutching my three poems, washed, pressed and polished for my debut poetry-reading performance.  Time did that elastic-band trick it sometimes plays, stretching so, so slowly, then springing forward faster than it should, so that before I knew it I was being called to read.

What me?  Are you sure?

I held my pages up high, and read…slowly.  I forgot the audience was there, and then I remembered them, and that I was supposed to glance around, include them.  I took a quick scan across the tops of heads, back down to the page…where was my line?  There, got it.  No way was I going to risk repeating that.  I’d look again when I swopped poems.

How could so much be going on in my head while I was reading?  I don’t know.  I seemed to absorb everything.  The quality of the  sunlight coming through the rather lovely old stained glass window, the dry air, my legs feeling as if they had run a marathon, and my voice, pacing the words, hearing them as if for the first time.  It was an experience I still cannot define, or pin down.

As I reached the last four lines of my third poem, disaster.  My throat dried, and the words were forced out over a parched larynx.  As Ray later said, the frog from my second poem, hadn’t actually left.

The one thing I had not anticipated, was the importance of those sips of water I’ve noticed public speakers pausing for at events.  As I coughed, and swallowed, I had a sudden image of the final scenes from that old John Mills favourite, Ice Cold In Alex.

ice cold in alex

Somehow, the final words were spoken, though.  It was over, and I was glad to have done it.  Despite the strangled ending, I got through.  I could sit back and enjoy the other readings.  I think we were all a little nervous, but we did it, all ten of us.

Miki took the stage to round our hour off.  With enviable sangfroid, she chatted with the audience, putting the group into context, introduced her poems and then performed them.  Her pages, it seemed, were only a prop, not her lifebelt.

Who and where?

Remember the days when camera’s only came out on special occasions?  We took them to weddings and holidays, and missed thousands of other photo opportunities, because cameras were bulky, fiddly and expensive.

My parents stored our developed pictures and negatives in a shoe box.  Occasionally we put some in albums, but even then, we rarely bothered to identify anything or anyone.  What was the need, we knew who we were, didn’t we?

Shuffling through them only a few years later, though, we discovered how fleeting the importance of those moments are. Who was that fourth child sitting by the sandcastle, in a green anorak?  Where was it taken?  Why were they with us?

red shoesI thought I knew some of the answers.  There was a slice of leg wearing a scarlet shoe in the right corner.  ‘That’s Aunty Deb,’ I said to mum. ‘Remember those heels?  She insisted on wearing them on the beach.  So this must be Gill.’

Mum nodded, ‘We stayed at a B&B in Blackpool,’ she said.  ‘Soggy bacon sandwiches, and the man with the kiss-me-slowly hat.’

‘That was Torbay,’ said Matt. ‘It rained for four days, and Gill cheated in our monopoly marathon.’

‘Did she?’

‘You caught her stealing from the bank and tipped the board up,’ said Matt.

Clive nodded, ‘I remember that.  We’d been playing for two days.  Gill was furious, and wouldn’t speak to you for the rest of the holiday.  The KMS-hat bloke was called Harry, and he had no thumb.  He said it had been shot off by a sniper, in the war.’

Matt said, ‘He told me he’d got frostbite while he was climbing Everest.  He said he was glad of the cold wind, as he was too self-conscious about his missing toes to go paddling.’

‘That doesn’t look like Blackpool beach, or Torbay,’ I said.  ‘Looks more like Weymouth, to me.’

What?’ said Matt. ‘No way.’

Clive shook his head. ‘Definitely not. That’s Barmouth.’

‘Actually,’ said mum, ‘you’re all wrong.  It was Blackpool.  That was the first and last holiday I had with Debs.’

‘Why?’

‘Turned out Harry had followed her.  He took that photo, then they went off to buy ice-creams and we didn’t see them again until five days later as we were about to drive home.’

I said, ‘But I remember her on the beach, in those shoes.’

‘Only on the first afternoon.  It rained for the next three and a half days, and I was on my own with you four children.’

‘Where was Dad?’

‘Posted to Germany for the summer.’  Mum sighed. ‘Poor little Gill.  I wonder what happened to her?’

‘She got stuck in our album,’ I said, as I slotted the picture into place and scribbled our names in the box beside it.

Thoughts on writing.

I’ve been reading novels, light reads, because classes finished, and I wanted to unwind with something that only required me to jump on board and follow the action.  If, after a few pages, I’m not engaged with the story, I close the book. It’s taken a lot of training for me to be able to do that.

BOOKSHELFGenerally I’ll take in any words on view, from cereal packets to old magazines and notices in waiting rooms.  I do the same with fiction, going from trashy novels to heavy classics to comics as they come to hand.

This eclectic approach means I’m fairly widely read, so I don’t regret it.  However, I’m glad that I got to the point, with Moby Dick, where I couldn’t face another graphic description of the killing and dismantling of a whale.  I needed a classic novel to make me understand I did not have to, and would not be able to, read everything.

I used to think that there was a list of fiction that well-read people knew, and I imagined it as covering, perhaps, two sides of A4 paper.  What I’ve come to understand is that there are lists of all kinds in circulation, mostly much longer than that, and they’re constantly taking account of new writers, and re-discovered writers, from the ancient to the nearly modern.

In case you haven’t noticed, let me tell you that there’s an awful lot of fiction available now.  With all the different ways there are to become published, it feels like we’ve come round to the heydays of the pamphlet all over again.  That means good opportunities for readers and writers.

My reactions to fiction are not fixed.  Some old favourites no longer work in the same way when I go back to them.  I enjoy them, and admire the writing, but my experiences of life, and other literature have all impacted on my responses.  So, that favourite-reads list is not just expanding, it’s also in a state of continuous flux.

When I decide not to continue reading something I’m not saying the writing is no good, I’m recognising that at that particular moment, it does not work for me.  On another day, this might be different.  What I had to remind myself was that reading should be about entertainment.

Gone, but not forgotten – reading short stories: a recommendation.

V.S. Pritchett, anyone remember him?  One of the great British short story writers of the twentieth century, but he’s not much read now.  Which is a shame, because there is still plenty to love in his short stories.

RSL_Pritchett-illustration-from-formIt’s not just for his fiction that I value him, though.  He thought and wrote about the processes of writing.  One of my favourite quotes is:

I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.

That seems as good a reason to be putting words together as any other that I’ve come across, and if you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll have gathered that I am a collector of wise-writing-words.

Pritchett died in 1997, and for the general reader apparently drifted from general consciousness soon after that.  Perhaps that seems natural.  There are an awful lot of new writers appearing all of the time, and we can’t read everyone.

But pick up an anthology of short stories produced in Britain, in the twentieth century, and the chances are it will contain a Pritchett story.  But he had other hats too, writing essays about literature, and teaching in American Universities.  He also edited the 1981 Oxford Book of Short Stories.

His stories are Chekovian.  He specialised in character studies: characters caught in a moment of stress, and explored, usually for comic potential.

The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.

How does that work?  Well it’s not a formula.  Each situation demands it’s own delivery.  Here’s the opening of one his 1977 stories, A Family Man:

Late in the afternoon, when she had given him up and had even changed out of her pink dress into her smock and jeans and was working once more at her bench, the doorbell rang.  William had come, after all.  It was in the nature of their love affair that his visits were fitful: he had a wife and children.  To show that she understood the situation, even found the curious satisfaction of reverie in his absences that lately had lasted several weeks, Berenice dawdled yawning to the door.

Compare it with the opening for On the Edge of the Cliff, the title story of his 1979 collection:

The sea fog began to lift towards noon.  It had been blowing in, thin and loose for two days, smudging the tops of the trees up the ravine where the house stood. “Like the breath of old men,” Rowena wrote in an attempt at a poem, but changed the line, out of kindness, to “the breath of ghosts,” because Harry might take it personally.  The truth was that his breath was not foggy at all, but smelt of the dozens of cigarettes he smoked all day.

Don’t both of these exemplify what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’?  Here are not just scenes set, but also tone, and although you cannot know it on first read, everything you need is there.  To me, Pritchett epitomises the ‘never a word wasted’ premise for short story writers.  He sculpted more meanings from most of his words than I can grasp with a casual read.  Most of his stories deserve a second read, and will repay that attention by revealing missed nuances.

If you haven’t tried him before, he’s one from my recommended reading list, and if you like slapstick, you might go first to The Saint, which I think is one of the funniest stories written.

And then, for the writers amongst you, there’s the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, which was set up by the The Royal Society of Literature (RSL), and is one of those prestigious awards to aim for.