The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Advertisements

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

IMG_0212

*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown

 

 

 

Finding the end of the story.

Kitty, arrives at the class with three pages of writing.  She’s created a feisty main character with an interesting dilemma.  ‘I know exactly how it will end,’ says Kitty.  ‘I’ve just got to work out the bit in the middle.’

‘So,’ I say, ‘you’ll finish it for next session.’

Kitty fiddles with the pages of her notebook and looks away.  ‘Maybe not,’ she says.

street artBeneath her fingers are three other projects that she has started with great energy and abandoned at the half-way point.

‘Could it be,’ I suggest, ‘that you’re thinking too far ahead each time?’

I have two problems in pre-plotting endings.  The first is that my character might not decide to go in the direction I need them to, and so I am continually placing them in situations that haven’t evolved naturally.  The second is that because I’ve already worked the ending out there’s no sense of excitement about my writing.

This does not mean that planning is wrong.  It works for a lot of writers.  There are plenty of planning styles for big projects, ranging from the paper-based versions, such as postcards pinned to a wall or shuffled into order, to sophisticated computer programmes that can either lead you with prompts, or be used to store your ideas.

‘What if,’ I suggested to Kitty, ‘you write up that ending you’ve anticipated, and put it aside.  It can be your back-up, but also, because you’ve written it, you can let go of that idea.

Then you can pick up the story from the point it is at now and let your main character work out what happens next.  Don’t think about an ending.  Let it happen.’

‘I could try that,’ said Kitty.

I said, ‘What have you got to lose?’

 

 

*Photo by Leon Keer.

Snail, and The Simple Linear Plot.

DSCF5265Despite being an enthusiastic, if erratic gardener, I’ve always had a sneaking affection for snails.  It’s not just their shells, which are actually far more decorative and varied than seems necessary, I like the delicate elegance of their antenna, and I’m fascinated by the way they move about.

Out walking on damp mornings, I find them crossing the slick tarmac lane.  Sometimes I anthropomorphize them.  Why did the snail cross the road? Are they fearless, or just oblivious? I’ve often stopped to move them onto the verge.  It’s a quiet lane.  I wonder what I shall say if someone sees what I’m up to?

This is despite the fact that at this time of year, when I’m trying to raise a veg garden, the battle between me and the various gastropods turns epic.  In one night, a sneaky squadron of six slugs turned the leaves of my four young courgette plants to lace, and lacerated the stems either on the way to or from their feast. 

My tolerance doesn’t stretch that far.  I found them skulking under a potato plant nearby.  Don’t tell Dad, who tried to teach me that there’s no place for sentiment in gardening, but I launched them over the fence into the field.  There’s a lush headland of weeds there that ought to keep them happily fed, if they can overcome their homing instinct. 

Yes, snails do have one, (so I assume slugs share it) it was proved in the radio 4 great snail-expirement in 2010.  Apart from anything else, I was glad to discover that I’m not the only gardener who’s too soft-hearted to extinguish them.  Why else would someone have set out to prove that they return again and again?

My gran kept a giant slug in a pot on the garden wall, when I was little.  She called it George and said that he was the biggest she’d ever seen.  That could have been just for entertainment, or to teach us about gardens.  I like to think there was an element of affection involved, that eventually she released him into the wild, rather than ended his life in a salt bath.  It’s far too late to ask, but I thought of her when I turned the bathroom light on the other evening and discovered an uninvited visitor travelling across the window sill.

 After I’d taken a few pictures (well, it’s a talking point, isn’t it?), I un-suckered my mollusc from the tiles, took it out to the hedge and hurled it into that patch where the others had been sent. 

Next night Snail, the same one, surely, was back.  This time Snail had made it past the windowsill and was heading down the wall to the bath.  I’m too well versed in linear plotting to take this lightly.  In making a second attempt, after overcoming my first obstacle, Snail had achieved the status of PROTAGONIST.

Something big was required, something that would leapfrog the story to its third and climatic stage, and have an outcome that was good for me, the ANTAGONIST.  If Snail got the happy ending it was intent on, then one evening I might find tens of freshly hatched snails traversing my bathroom tiles.

So I took Snail on a hike to a woodland glade, about half a mile down the road.  It’s well supplied with tasty flowers and leaves, sunshine, dappled shade, and plenty of protective cover from predators.  It’s surely a snail des-res.

baby snailsI wonder if I’ll feature in the epic stories Snail will recount to all the hatchling snails as a benevolent giant, or an indomitable ogre…Either way, I didn’t give Snail chance to lay a trail of breadcrumbs or pebbles. 

I’ll be keeping close watch on that bathroom window, but I don’t think Snail will be back.  It’s occurred to me that travelling up a wall, a pane of glass and over the window-ledge could be counted as Snail’s first obstacle, and therefore all three plot points have been achieved.

 

 

Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

An exercise to try for the fun of it – not for the claustrophobic.

A poet-friend of mine has been in hospital for seven and a half days, and expects to stay there another week.  ‘Four wall sickness applies,’ Mike says.  I’ve not heard this expression before, but think I get the gist.  She says that what’s keeping her sane are books and her laptop.

One friend has offered to bake her a cake with a file in it, which set me thinking about the nature of our reading escapes.  I’ve travelled through space and time thanks to stories: I’ve also escaped from some tedious travelling experiences in the same way.

There are many valid questions we can ask ourselves about technique and theory in writing.  Those tend to be specific, and engaging with them can help us to progress.

One of the commonest question that comes up in both my reading and my writing groups is, What makes a good story?  I think this is an inspiration-blocking question for writers.  The possible answers are as varied as the number of readers who are out there.

But, here’s a fifteen-minute exercise that comes off the back of it.  The aim is not to think too hard about this, just go where inspiration takes you.off the camera hard-drive 020

  1. Imagine you are imprisoned.  Your bodily needs are catered for, but you are held within a small cell with nothing but plain-painted walls to look at.  You have not committed a crime, so you have no need to worry about trials or punishments.  You have no pens, pencils or instruments to scratch words into surfaces or dig your way to an escape.   What faces you is time and idleness.
  2. As a special dispensation, you are allowed three reading books.  Which titles would you chose?  List them: they’re yours now.
  3. Time passes, and you’ve read every word of them, including all of the publication details.The walls are as bare as ever.  You’ve done handstands against them and meditated.  You’ve bounced on the mattress until your legs turned to jelly, and there are still hours and hours of light-time when you’ve nothing to do.  What sort of book would it take to transport you out of this situation?
  4. List a few subjects.
  5. Since you have so far been a model prisoner, your guard is pleased, and decides to give you a treat.  When you wake up one morning you find a cardboard box has been placed in your cell.  It contains four paperback novels by authors you’ve never heard of.
  6. Invent names for the authors.
  7. Chose one author.  What is the title of their novel?
  8. Do the same for the other three.
  9. Which title sounds most intriguing?  Name the main characters in it.
  10. Write a short synopsis – one paragraph – for this title.
  11. Now write a list of titles for the chapters within the book.

Well done.  You have just completed a rough plan for a novel.  Who knows, you may have been inspired to start writing it in full.

You are free.  The walls of your prison have disappeared.  All you need to travel now is your notebook and pen/ laptop.DSCF5507

Happy writing.

Building a metaphor out of a crisis

Cheltenham derelictionI’ve had a challenging week, technologically speaking, which I trace back to a moment of over-confidence.  It seemed such a simple task, to update my computer’s protection programme.  All I had to do was follow the instructions.

I opened the website and hit the big download button.  Boxes opened, more buttons appeared: agree this, click next, choose that, add the other.  This is a bit much, I thought, but I felt a little smug about doing what I view as a tedious, time-consuming chore.  A finish button came up, and I didn’t even pause when another dialogue box started a new set of instructions.

I was on a roll.  It felt good to be in control of my computer.

That happens with my writing sometimes.  I have characters racing around my story doing all sorts of fascinating things, and the word count is rising so steadily that I can hardly type fast enough to keep on top of it all.

That’s great, that’s my ideal.  Story building from instinct, most of us aspire to that.  The theory is that if you can surprise and entertain yourself, then it’s likely that your reader will have a similar experience.

Except, sometimes, we run out of steam that way.  How many of you have also set off at a cracking pace only to find, two pages in, that you’ve hit a wall.  You have no idea where your character is going to go next.  The story has become either too mundane, or too ridiculous and you can’t think how to rescue it..

Those who’ve already foreseen the outcome of my computer upgrade will probably have guessed that my careless box ticking corrupted my poor little laptop.  It won’t surprise you to hear that I spent the next three days chasing error messages around my screen as I fed it passwords and new logins, to no avail.  It was the weekend, so I resisted the urge to phone our friendly expert, until today.

‘You need to do a system restore,’ he said, and clicking through the control panel, he showed me how to return the computer to the settings it had been at before I began downloading.  Just like a story, I thought, read back to find the point where you began to drift, then start writing again.

At this point, I would like to drift a little from my metaphor title, and suggest that it’s best not to be be quite so drastic as a system restore, which wipes out everything that happened after the date you chose.  I advocate keeping a copy of all your story changes, just so that you can go back and reassure yourself that you were right to cut it.  Otherwise, those permanently deleted moments of flying inspiration will always haunt you.

 

The nature of plot

Perhaps it’s because we’re now past the halfway point in our reading of Anna Karenina (from this point on, to be referred to as AK) that my thoughts are turning to plotting again.  I’m re-discovering how impressive the design of this novel is.

To say design makes it sound like Tolstoy had some kind of plan to work to.  Ah, yes, the D word, the secret formula.  It’s one of those things that block so many would-be writers from starting out.

DSCF5160

We have an idea for a story, but are not sure how to manage or shape it.  That formula, the one that successful writers use, and seem to hint at, but never quite explain, that’s what we’re after. If we can once discover the trick, then we know that we too can begin to tell our stories.

Apparently, Tolstoy took his inspiration from the tragic death of a neighbour’s mistress.  That and reading some Pushkin.  A week later he was writing to tell his friend that the novel was finished.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what would come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it, then of course, altered it, and suddenly it came together so neatly and nicely that there emerged a novel, which I have today finished in rough, a very lively, ardent and finished novel, with which I am very pleased and which will be ready, if God grants me health, in two weeks.

Now before you accuse me of a typo, Tolstoy really did claim to have written a novel in a week.  You’re jealous, aren’t you?  That is a phenomenal achievement.  Actually, it wasn’t AK as we know it, and he never sent the letter.  Instead Tolstoy got stuck into reworking his material.

We might more accurately call his novel at this point a rough draft.  Some of the events he described were subsequently included in the final draft of AK, but the characters were re-named and transformed as Tolstoy developed his ideas.  Now, if we’re looking for direction in our own creative writing surely that flexibility is a lesson to think about.

There was a plan.  You can read accounts of it in various academic books and essays.  Just note that he didn’t stick to it.  If he had, I’m not sure we would be studying his novel today.

Tolstoy made major changes to the central characters which affected their motivations and actions.  He introduced new characters and changed the narrator’s tone.  He expanded his original plot out.  He didn’t just write onwards, when he realised that he was telling too much back-story, he re-set his beginning to an earlier date.  The story evolved.

There is evidence from Tolstoy, his wife and his friends, that a great deal of thought and planning went into developing these ideas.  He talked a great deal about ‘linkage’, and themes and symbols.  It seems he envisaged the patterns he would create with his forty two named characters.

Around the time he was writing AK he abandoned an old project to write about Peter the Great.  He couldn’t seem to get started on it.

Funny that, sounds familiar, and perhaps a little reassuring to find that one of the great novelists was also floundering around with an idea.  Go back up this essay a little and look again at how Tolstoy came to start writing AK.  It wasn’t just an idea, he’d been reading Pushkin.  A fragment beginning, “The guests were gathering at the dacha,” was the inspiration.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what could come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it…

Two things I take from this.  First, writers read, and are influenced by other writers, and that’s a good thing.

Second, don’t wait.  Trust your subconscious.  Let your material direct you.  Worry about sorting the technical bits out later.

Finding Story.

DSCF4872We agreed that we wouldn’t need much.  We would only be away three nights, after all, but then the weather could go either way and walking these days is not simply a case of wearing a coat and a pair of boots.

We seemed to be kitting up for the arctic, and we’re nothing like as labelled as we could be.  In addition to our regular clothes, there were four sets of walking poles, fleeces and over-trousers, as well as the binoculars, camera, compass, map.  So by the time we added in the laptop (there would be WiFi, after all) and the groceries that would perish before we got back, the boot was crammed.

It is an ambition of mine to travel light, to be the kind of person who carries one small back-pack for their holiday.  The trouble is, I can never be certain what the essentials are until the holiday is over.

It’s the same with writing.  Sometimes I know exactly what I’m going to say and can keep myself to the point easily.  More usually, I don’t keep to the idea I started out with, and it’s not until I find an ending that I can go back through my writing and see which segments I don’t need.

I’m not a planner, you see.  Even with holidays I tend to have only a rough idea of what I would like to do while we’re away.  We probably don’t get the most out of our time, but we often find unexpected gems that way.

Take Llandovery, for instance.

We’d already had lunch out, so we were only looking to pick up a few things for a snack tea.  Which should have been simple, but by the time we’d meandered across The Black Mountain, frequently stopping to admire the view, most of the shops we passed were closed.  What we needed, we realised, was a town, and Llandovery was near our route home.

It was busier than we expected, and smaller.  The main route through was a twisting street, lined with painted houses, cafes and little shops that passed by too quickly to take in.  It was the wrong time of day for indecisive tourists.  Working people were trying to get home.

We turned a corner for the car park and the view changed from dumpy houses to castle ruins.  The pay-and-display, black tarmac and white lines, butts up to two sides of the steep grassy mound that was the base of Llandovery castle.

I hadn’t done my research, I was not expecting the broken boulder wall, let alone the shining white Knight standing guard over the car-park.  It was a simple outline of a figure, without face or body.  In fact, to compile the components is to list helmet, cloak, sword, spear and shield.

What it was, of course is art.  Something far harder to pin down.  A story, we are told is a beginning, a middle and an end.  The art is in finding the right place to begin it, building it with just enough words to settle an image, and then stopping it in the place that creates the greatest resonance in the reader.

Sometimes it’s fascinating to see the minutely accurate features of our history.  Realistic representations of life have their own artistic merit.  But, it’s worth thinking about what happens when we leave some things out.

Could that monument have had such a powerful effect on me if the artist had created form and feature for Llewelyn ap Gruffyd Fychan?

Looking for Structure

Image

off the camera hard-drive 020The plumbing has gone wrong in our bathroom.  It’s not too serious, no flooding, just a constant dripping in the cistern.  I’m not sure why we thought taking the lid off was a clever idea, neither of us are practical.  I know where the stop-tap is, and he can wire a plug or reset the trip-switch, but we should have known better than to unscrew a modern flushbox without making notes.

The old toilet, the one we replaced because it kept leaking, had an old-fashioned ballcock.  There was a brass lever with a plastic float on the end, and a bit to unscrew so that we could replace the washer.  See, I even know a couple of correct terms for that one.

The new one though, that’s a complicated system of nylon levers, tubes and boxes that were holding the lid in place.  So, as soon as we undid the top we began to dismantle the mechanism, and now we’re stuck.  The only kind of deconstruction and construction I’ve ever been any good with is the literary sort.

This means, that I can see how the saga of our toilets could become a metaphor for story on several levels, but can’t figure out how those nylon tubes slot back together.  So let’s set aside that trail of plumbing-innuendo I am working hard to avoid, and think about short story structure.

We start, surely, with the simple linear plot: a beginning followed by a middle that leads to an end.  Nothing neater.  Those linear plots may be as old as speech, and they’re not worn-out yet.  They make a lot of readers and listeners and writers happy, and don’t be misled by the word ‘simple’, pulling off a successful story is no easy task.  If it’s going to work properly everything has to fit neatly, just like that cistern.

The advantage of something straightforward is that it’s open to re-interpretation.  Technicians can make dynamic or sophisticated designs based on the principles of collecting and releasing water: writers can follow or work against the form.

Only there’s a ‘B’ word to use here.  It’s a ‘But’, because they have to know and understand the form first.  Okay, some people appear to be natural story-tellers, and have an instinctive understanding of what is needed to engage us with a tale.  Do they?  Are we sure?  Is it really down to natural genius?

Let’s say it is.  Where does that leave the rest of us?

How about with the trainee plumbers, mechanics, watch-menders and technicians, taking the backs off stories and opening them up to see how they work?