Inspired readings…

I’ve been reading a short story anthology called The New Uncanny this week.  There’s no horror in the amityville sense, nor gallons of gratuitous gore.  These gems, as the subtitle suggests, are Tales of Unease.

the new uncanny  ...tales of uneaseIn varying degrees, they sent tingles down my spine.  Some happened as I read, others were slow burners that seemed fairly innocuous in content, but resonated hours later.

And if you’ve ever wondered where such ideas come from, then try looking at the source of inspiration for these stories.  Comma Press commissioned fourteen established writers to create stories based on Freud’s 1919 essay, The Uncanny.

That fascinating piece of literary analysis was inspired by a 1906 essay, The Psychology of the Uncanny by Ernst Jentsch.  Both essays based their investigations on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Sandman.

Convoluted, isn’t it?  But personally, I like a few twists along the way, and I shall definitely be keeping a copy of the eight tropes Freud listed.  In case we don’t want to explore the essay, Ra Page gives us the ‘eight irrational causes of fear deployed in literature’  in his introduction to The New Uncanny (thought I’d best repeat the title, in case you’d forgotten what I started with).  I make no excuses for copying them out here, but I hope you’ll still go out and get a copy of this anthology.  There’s some lovely writing in it.

  1. inanimate objects mistaken as animate (dolls, waxworks, automata, severed limbs etc.),
  2. animate beings behaving as if inanimate or mechanical (trances, epileptic fits, etc.),
  3. being blinded,
  4. the double (twins, doppelgangers, etc.),
  5. coincidences or repetitions,
  6. being buried alive,
  7. some all-controlling evil genius,
  8. confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).






Radio Tales.

Some of the writers from my groups have been taking advantage of an invitation from the Writers’ Room for local writers to read their stories on Corinium Radio.

Unless you live in Gloucestershire you’ve probably never dreamed such a broadcast existed.  I do live in the county, and didn’t realize until I was forwarded the email calling for contributors to volunteer for a short story slot in the schedule.  Since this discovery I’ve been tuning in and enjoying an eclectic range of subjects, styles and approaches.

So why don’t you check it out too?  It’s available on-line as well as via the air-waves.

corinium radioI’m looking forward to more stories, over the next week or two.

Perhaps you should also check out your local radio stations and see if they have similar opportunities.  If they haven’t, it still might be worth approaching them with the idea…

It’s all too easy to get locked into thinking the only way to share our words is through the printed media, but the truth is there’s a whole other world of performance opportunities out there for prose people, from slams to story-telling events to internet podcasts.

Reports from the first recordings have been trickling back to me full of positive vibes.  Scary but fantastic, is what they say.  I say, what a buzz.

Reading for writers

This week I’ll be starting the first of my Autumn reading groups.  Lined up are two seven week courses and a day school, that means I’ll be discussing one novel and two short story collections.  So alongside the writing groups that are already up and running, I shall be kept on my toes until Christmas.

I’m not complaining.  What I’ve found is that these two strands compliment each other. At the first pass, I read purely as a reader, sometimes racing, at others, taking my time, getting involved with the characters: enjoying the story.  It’s only after that my work starts.

I see my role as being to help a group get the most from what we’ve read.  Book coverSo I re-read the set piece again, and again.  I delve into the writing, asking myself questions about what the author was doing.  I construct a series of feasible theories, suggestions, questions and ideas that I can take in to intrigue and challenge my class with.

The interesting and intriguing thing about this process is that no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve investigated a story, when we get into a group discussion, we always find at least one more way to read it.  Everyone brings their own understanding of the world to a story, and sharing our ideas opens up our perspectives.  I learn loads.  

book coverReading groups seem to me a perfect place to investigate how skillful writing can be. I take my discoveries not only into my own writing, but also to my writing classes.

Finding space for another book…

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to the Stroud Short Stories anthology.  It gathers together, ‘almost every story read at the nine Stroud Short Story events from June 2011 to April 2015.’  I’ve had a lovely time dipping in and out of this collectionIt’s a good cross-section of styles, tones and genres.

With an upper limit of 1500 words, and a minimum of 100 (though few are quite so brief as that), these stories are great for those short reading spaces, such as between trains; in waiting rooms; or instead of watching a pot boil.

Stroud revised (1)So, I hear you say, what does Stroud Short Stories offer?

I can do no better than quote John Holland (the organiser) in his introduction to the anthology:

The event we call Stroud Short Stories (SSS) was initiated by writer and artist Bill Jones in 2011.  The format is a simple but effective one.  Local authors submit stories and the organiser/editor/judge chooses ten, which are read before a large and appreciative audience at the Stroud Valleys Artspace.  There is no winner.  The authors who have appeared on stage (and who appear in this anthology) range from rank newcomers to experienced professional authors.

Holland goes on to say that the stories were ‘chosen not just for their quality, but also for how they contribute to a varied, stimulating and enjoyable evening’s entertainment.’  These, then, are performance stories.

Aside from their entertainment value, this anthology provides an opportunity to think about the differences between stories made for the page and those for the ear.  So it’s earned a space on my bookshelf…


I’d like to recommend, the Castle Rock stories by Alice Munro

This is a book that I’ve been dipping in and out of for about a year.

These stories are like the box of very expensive chocolates that our friend, Gail, gave us for Christmas.  I don’t always trust manufacturers claims about the passion and individuality of the chocolatiers who’ve created their products, but that was a savour-one-flavor-a-day box that lasted right into the second week of January, because each chocolate was an individual treat.

Munro demands a similar kind of reading attention.  For a start, these are long stories.  They build gradually, revealing blended layers of ideas, memories, scenes, history and character.  I can’t rush one: I want to pay attention to every aspect of it.  How patient a narrator she is, and yet how concisely she explains geography, history and language.  In her hands, these elements are not just a backdrop, they are story.

The high stony farm where my family lived for some time in the Ettrick Valley was called Far-Hope.  The word hope, as used in the local geography, is an old word, a Norse word – Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic words being all mixed up together in that part of the country.

Taken alone, this could be called trivia.  Read in context, it does more than orientate me to another era: it sets a tone and the mood.  And we do need to know these things, they give weight to the characterisation. These are stories of clear, clean prose with hidden depths.

alicemunroWhat makes them a little different to the usual Munro style?  The first half of the collection are stories drawn from Munro’s investigations into her family’s history.  She begins in Scotland, traces their journey to Canada, then relates some of the events that happened there.

Munro says in her Foreword:

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories.

She describes this process as, ‘a curious recreation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.’

True is a word I would use to sum-up this collection.  The voices, the situations, and the events all feel authentic.  The things that happen are domestic, often mundane, yet Munro draws our attention to their importance in the shaping of these told lives.

The second half of the collection is loosely biographical.  For anyone wondering how to use their own experiences in their writing without creating a memoir, always a tricky undertaking, then this collection provides an interesting approach.

I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.  I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could.  But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things that they had not done in reality…In fact, some of these characters have moved so far away from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

‘These are stories.’ Munro states.  I can only agree.


Heard any good stories lately?

KuchaleeWe’re at a local fete.  Lots of people drifting round stalls, greeting, sipping tea and eating cake in a sunny vicarage garden.  The story teller wanders in.  He wears a big woolly hat and bright, Caribbean style beach clothes.  He carries a drum.  Heads turn, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

He settles on a low stool under a broad leafy tree, crosses his legs around the drum and taps out a soft, regular, rhythm.  Children pause and turn to look.

The Story-teller speaks, just loudly enough to be heard above his drumming.  ‘The Mosquito,’ he says, ‘had a beautiful yam.’  An audience begins to form.  With a gesture, the Story-teller encourages them to settle around his feet.

His drumming builds into a crescendo, then dies away and he says, ‘The Mosquito boasted about his beautiful yam to everyone.  They were so impressed that they all came to his house to taste some.’

His audience has expanded to include adults, standing.  A few are parents, waiting within reach, but they’re listening too, to the story of a boastful mosquito.

The Storyteller slaps at his drum and calls out in the neighbour’s voices, ‘Let us in, Mr Mosquito, and share some of your wonderful yam.’  His drumming softens and, he tells us, ‘Mr Mosquito was terrified.  He stayed behind the door pretending to be out, but the neighbours wouldn’t go away.’

The Storyteller pounds at his drum and raises his voice.  He says, ‘They said, “We know you are in there, Mr Mosquito.  Why do you not answer us?”’

The Storyteller drums soft and fast, and his voice drops.  ‘Mr Mosquito said, “Zzzzzzz.”

“What?”’ The Storyteller calls out above the heavy beating of his drum. “What is that you say?”

The Storyteller pauses, and into our silence he loudly sibilants, “Zzzzz.”

We are all wide-eyed.  I am vaguely aware of the fete, busy behind us, but, what is going to happen now?

Our understanding of the shape of a tale is something we practice from the moment we learn to communicate.  Once we can begin to say, this is what I want to do, or this is what I have done, or even that he or she did to me, we are putting together narratives.  If we’re lucky, someone has already been regularly reading to us, or even telling us stories.

The traditional stories I grew up with, European tales, were sculpted for the page. Stories from other cultures often don’t work in the way we’re used to.

Kulchalee, The Storyteller, drew his story to a close in one line: ‘And that is all Mosquito ever said again.’kulchalee

A couple of useful Short Story Quotes

Book coverFor those of us trying to understand how short stories work, Barbara Korte’s introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, seems pretty useful to me.

She theorizes that it was through the writers who were experimenting with short stories during this period, and Katherine Mansfield in particular, that…

…the short story acquired the reputation of a form congenial to the modern condition.  Its emphasis on isolated moments and mere fragments of experience, its art of condensation and ambiguous expression seemed ideal for capturing modern life with its hastiness, inconclusiveness, uncertainties and distrust of traditional beliefs.  For the same reasons, the short story was deemed to have an affinity to the first fully technological and industrialized war, which exploded extant norms of perception, interpretation and representation.  Its aesthetic seemed highly suitable for articulating the experiences of the front with its moments of violence, shock, disorientation and strangeness.

She quotes Edmund Blunden, who wrote in 1930:

The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without conclusion.

It’s an anthology well worth a look through, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.

A lesson from my nephew

Sam, who’s six, is an expert on Ninja turtles.  He’s seen all the animations, loves the comics, can name each character, give you their histories and play the stories out in Lego.

‘The sword of Tengu,’ he says, watching his father and I load the trailer with chainsaw, ropes, ladders and safety gear, ‘can cut through trees.’

I suggest that this must need good muscles.  Sam climbs off the gate, does an impressive spinning jump and as he lands has reached behind his shoulders with both hands and grabbed the two plastic swords that he has tucked down the back of his tee-shirt.  ‘Only Shredder can use the sword of Tengu,’ he says, ‘and he’s evil.’  He strikes a new pose with his twin swords and makes a series of lunges at the fence.

The other day, as I took a short cut, I glanced over the hedge, and there was Sam on his trampoline.  He bounced, did a forward roll, and as he recovered, reached back and pulled the twin swords out of his tee-shirt.  By the time he was upright, he was poised for action.

It was only then that I was struck by how dedicated a student Sam is.  Everything he sees and has to do is filtered by its reference to Ninja lore, and that’s been the way of things for at least a year now.

There was a time when I never left the house without putting a notebook and pen in my pocket, and since I often forgot to take them out again, this meant I generally carried several.  I made notes in queues, shops, fields and carparks, during intervals at the theatre and cinema or breathers on long walks.  But at some point, in an attempt to be more organised, my handy pocket-sized notepads got tidied away.  My Mslexia diary was designed to double as a notebook and I kept it in my bag, so it seemed efficient concentrate on that.

DSCF5518The thing is, I don’t take my diary everywhere in the same way.  Notebooks can be folded and crammed into pockets.  The best of mine are only one step on from being the back of an envelope, ideal for long walks, or tree-felling expeditions.

Inspiration belongs in a different sphere to the public spaces where I might need to check a date or jot down a reference or idea.  My notebooks are a licence to dream.  The efficiency they reflect is my commitment to writing.

‘Sam,’ I say, ‘Tell your Dad I’ll be back in a minute.  I’ve just remembered something else I need to bring.’




Some thoughts on why writers should read fairy stories

This week I’ve been reading The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, by A.S. Byatt.  It’s both the name of a collection of five fairy stories published in 1995, and the title of the last story in that collection.  I could discuss the whole book.  There’s a lot going on between these pages, but in the interests of brevity, I’ve decided to focus on the title story.

the-djinn-in-the-nightingales-eye-2To be picky, this one is probably closer to being a novella than a short story, though since the definitions for either of these modes of writing seem to be flexible who am I to quibble?  Besides, for writers who don’t have to confine themselves to competition or submission guidelines, I suppose the whole classification by word-count thing is irrelevant.

What matters is quality.  Well, in my humble and only slightly biased (slight being an entirely subjective unit of measurement of course) opinion, each story in this collection is a gem.

The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye begins with a traditional fairy-story phrase, and then goes on to list the usual trappings: the dreams that initiate quests, the magical attributes that enable the protagonist to overcome hurdles, and the amazing wonders that materialize along their way.

Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jeweled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.

Think about it, that ‘Once upon a time.’  It’s ageless, isn’t it?  It is the start of a thousand and more tales that trace their lines back beyond the moment of writing to firesides and gatherings all around the world.  It’s the link between what got fixed onto pages and the shifting, adapting tales of the traditional bards and storytellers they came from.

Byatt’s narrator first removes our sense of time, and then re-places us, making our view of today slightly aslant.  That repeated ‘when’ keeps us aware we are in the past tense, but her choice of images belongs to the near past.  Airplanes and scuba diving, the study of marine-life, of the variety of our modern diet, these are things we often take for granted.

How does the fairy-story fit into the modern world?  Byatt gives us a protagonist whose ‘business was storytelling.’  She’s an academic, a narratologist:

…whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians.

If you’ve wondered who reads fairy-tales today, Byatt’s just told us.  We most of us do, either through the media or in the pages of our novels.  The stories get updated, twisted a little, and that’s good, isn’t it?  It makes me feel that writers are still connected to the oral tradition, moulding their material to suit the audience.

This is not just a story about reading, it’s a story about telling.  Who tells, how they tell, and what they tell are all included.  If you’re someone who believes that fairy-stories are for children, this story might make you investigate further.  It is an adult tale, both in form and content, and that’s as much as I’m willing to tell you.

If you’re someone who already enjoys a good tale, and you haven’t stumbled upon this one, then why not set yourself the task of reading it?

If you should be a writer in search of a story, this one might make you look back to some of your childhood favourites for inspiration.


I’d like to recommend…

…Roald Dahl.  He never seems to have gone out of favour in the children’s market, but when was the last time you tried one of his adult short stories?

Most of them were televised for the long-running Tales of the Unexpected (TOTU)show.  That series made quite an impact when it first aired, in 1979.

It wasn’t just the catchy tune, with its suggestion of sex, violence and the supernatural, the stories were, as the title makes clear, cleverly twisted.  They were a challenge, a tale that seemed to be moving towards an inevitable conclusion only to be turned on its head at the last moment.

It seemed like the whole country must have been tuning in for them.  ‘Did you see..?’ we asked each other in school, at work and on the street. ‘Did you work it out?’

We were fascinated, hooked by the package. What would happen; how could the character possibly overcome their crisis?  It was great entertainment.  For a while it seemed like we couldn’t get enough.  Series two and three followed.  At first they were all Dahl’s stories, but gradually other writers of the same vein were introduced.

In those early weeks some of us were so fascinated that we bought the books and read ahead.  Even when I knew the outcome I watched them.  It didn’t matter that the situations and settings seemed to be looking backwards, so much of what was on our TVs was doing that in less entertaining ways.

What worked for TOTU were the twists.  Even though we knew they were coming, most of the sudden reversals were neatly set up rather than tricks.  The clues were embedded in the early stages of the story as casual asides, snippets of information that seemed no more than added colour, until the conclusion was achieved.

Take Parson’s Pleasure, a story about Mr Boggis, an antique dealer who ‘always bought cheap, very very cheap, and sold very very dear.’  His clients are those who lived in, ‘comparatively isolated places…large farmhouses and …rather dilapidated country mansions’.  Because these sorts of people are a ‘suspicious lot’, Mr Boggis decides to disguise himself as a Parson.  He carries a business card:

                                      THE REVEREND

                            CYRIL WINNINGTON BOGGIS

President of the Society                                In association with

for the Preservation of                                      The Victoria and

Rare Furniture                                                     Albert Museum.

to give his story credibility and is careful never to park his large car where his victims might see it, as it wouldn’t fit the character of an impoverished and respectable Reverend.

The story begins with Mr Boggis driving along enjoying the beauty of the countryside.  His name, you’ll note, is remarkably close to the word ‘Bogus’.  He is full of optimism.  The weather is suggestive of a good summer to come, and the village he’s heading for is easily reconnoitered because it’s in a valley below the road he’s approaching it on.  From his high vantage point he can map out in advance which houses to try, and see the best place to park his car conveniently close but out of sight.  He has, it seems, an almost omniscient vantage point, and starts from a position of power, in that he is keyed up with his past successes.

While he can see only opportunity, we, the reader, are already anticipating a reversal.  It’s a beautifully layered opening.  Dahl has arranged all the information we need before us, neatly interspersing the necessary exposition (explanations) between segments of action so that the narration moves us forward in neat arcs of drama.  I won’t spoil the ending, if you don’t know the story.  Read it, or watch it.  You can do either on the internet.  I can give you the Youtube copy, but you’ll need to use a search engine if you want the text, as I can’t seem to upload it.

I hope you do read it.  Wonderful as the dramatized version is, the benefits for the writer come from looking at it in word form.  Only then can you fully appreciate Roald Dahl’s artistry.

The twist-in-the-tail story has a long and chequered history.  While several writers have excelled at them for a while, many have floundered.  I think this one is a fine example of what it takes to write them successfully, but be warned, write too many of the same strain and you’ll soon wear out the reader or viewer.

The TOTU series may have stretched over nine sets of series, but I suspect I was not the only viewer who was drifting away long before they were halfway through those years of shows.  Even the unpredictable becomes, in a sense, predictably unpredictable if the template isn’t varied occasionally.