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.

 

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Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.

 

 

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.

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*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.

 

 

Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.

OldWomanLucieJansch

photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.

 

 

 

 

 

Readers, narrators and authors.

That I’m reading a memoir this week is either a happy accident  or serendipity, depending on how you view the world. Friday morning, as I was heading for an appointment that was guaranteed to include a waiting room, I grabbed a book off my to-be-read shelf.

After three months of focused studying, I was looking forward to some simple pleasure-reading.  My course paperwork was finished, and ready to post, the new classes would not be starting until mid-April. The long Easter weekend could be given over to indulgence.

I don’t know how I missed knowing that Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel.  If I had, it would have been shelved with the other memoirs that I’ve been gathering as background for the Writing Family Histories course that is next on my list of classes to prepare, and perhaps I’d be writing this post next week.

fever pitchInstead, I was several pages in before my suspicions were roused.  That’s the thing with first person narration of course, when it’s done well, it should convince us that the character and their world is as real as we are, even when we know it’s a fiction.  The thing that tends to give memoir away is usually shaping.  It can be tricky to translate the random, scoincidental nature of life as most of us experience it, into a convincing novelistic form.

Nick Hornby has shaped his life around an obsession with football in such an entertaining way that I’m hooked.  I still couldn’t answer a pub quiz sport question, but he has helped me understand something about the need so many people have to cheer on a bunch of players chasing a ball around a cold, muddy field.  Before this, my most entertaining connection to the game was thanks to Sarah’s Knitted Footballer blog, which demonstrates another approach to expressing passionate interest in a sport.

 

 

 

Dubliners

 

A-Birds-Eye-View-Of-Dublin-.jpgI’ve been preparing for the new class starting this week, ‘Meet the Dubliners‘.  Written more than a hundred years ago, these are individual short stories, yet read together they provide a portrait of Dublin city in early 1900, and are sometimes thought of as a novel.

41Nz+xOlieL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Whoa-there though, did I just suggest you could think of Dubliners as a novel?  Hesitantly, I say yes.

Why am I hesitant?  Because I believe that to get the most from literary short stories like Dubliners, we need to approach them as we do literary poetry. For me, that’s a slower read than I tend to give to novels.

It’s a single process too.  I don’t want to move onto the next piece of writing (or chapter) until I’ve had chance to immerse myself in the words.

My favorite sorts of poems and stories aren’t just capable of being re-read, they respond to it.  When I revisit them they give up an additional layer of meaning that I couldn’t have picked up without spending more time absorbing the meanings embedded between the lines and in the multiple interpretations our language is capable of providing.

So why suggest Dubliners could be read like a novel?  Well Joyce designed a reading order for us to follow, and taken together, the stories deliver a coded pattern to be unraveled.  A surprising number of critics do liken this to reading a novel.

Yet it is a collection of short stories.  The proof of this is that any one of the sections will stand a lone reading, and two of them, Araby, and The Dead, have been included in a variety of anthologies.

So, does it matter whether we call this a novel or a story collection?

I think that’s one of the questions I’m going to be asking the reading group.

 

 

 

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

Should I love what I write?

It’s one thing to go back to some story and cringe over the way you wrote, but what about the thing you’re working on now?  Are there times when you’re overpowered by insecurities?

facesI’ve deleted more than half of what I’ve typed for this blog.  Who am I to be posting it?  Hasn’t it all been said before?  And what a way to word it, do I have to be so stilted: so formal?

You know what?  I don’t, because haven’t I’ve said I can delete, or should I say edit ?  So I put together six or seven hundred words, then whittle them down to the three hundred and twenty-seven you are reading.  Since I know I’m going to edit, I can throw down every thought, no matter how daft it seems.  Which is great, because it’s when I write that I discover what I am truly trying to say.

Before you ask, no, I don’t think this is perfect, but if I could show you all the drafts…actually, I’d rather not.  If you were my only reader I’d be fine with letting you share the processes I’ve gone through.  But I’m hoping for a new reader, too, and what I want them to take away is an idea of my coherence and economy.

Do I love this piece of writing?  Well, truth be told, no.  I am quietly pleased with it, but I’m also certain that any time I reread this I’ll find ways to improve it, because that’s how I feel about all the things I’ve ever written.  At the very least I see clumsy repetitions that are too familiar to be noticeable in the heat of writing.

What I do love, is that the idea I started with grew into something that is, at this moment, complete.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get on and write something else that matters to me, despite my doubts, despite all the initial mistakes.

butterflies graffitti art