Stories within stories.

‘So how long should a short story be?’ says Natalie. It’s week two with a new class, and a glance around shows me eleven faces expecting some neat definition.

‘As long as is necessary,’ I say, failing to recall if there was one particular writer I could attribute this to. That sounds flippant, so I add. ‘The rule, if there is one, is that you should use only as many words as convey your meaning, and no more.’ Was that paraphrasing Katherine Mansfield, or HE Bates? Dare I offer one of them, as ballast for my claim? It might be Hemmingway, so many truisms are attributed to him.

I’m not even sure when I read it, but I have, several times. Besides, the words are said, now.

How much easier these conversations are when I’m building them on paper, and can break off to check my facts, or better still, cut the tricky reference bit out altogether.

Natalie is frowning. I don’t think she’s disagreeing, this looks like another question forming.

I jump in quickly. ‘The shortest story is often said to be, For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’ I repeat the six words, slowly.

Bill says, ‘Is that really a story?’

I draw a theatrically deep breath, and say, ‘Well, it’s got the key elements, a situation that raises a question in the mind of the reader, the suggestion of something unexpected happening… There are a raft of possibilities lying behind this sentence. For instance, who is selling the shoes?’ I pause, to let that fester. ‘Possibly the bigger question is, why have the shoes never been worn?’

There is a moment while most of us contemplate the bleak answer to this. Then Bill says, ‘Perhaps they’re just the wrong size.’

Penny says, ‘Or there was a baby shower, and everyone bought shoes, so the baby’s wardrobe looked like it belonged to Imelda Marcos.’

‘What about,’ says Natalie, ‘everyone thought the baby would be a boy, but the scan turned out to be wrong.’

‘Can six words really count as a short story?’ says Reta.

It’s a good question.

‘It depends on how much more you expect from a short story,’ I say. ‘You, the writer, have to decide how much characterisation, setting, dialogue or action it takes to convey your idea.’ How vague this all sounds.

‘It’s time for pens,’ I tell the group. ‘Think about those six words.’

There’s silence. Some have shut their eyes.

‘Write a description of the shoes,’ I say, ‘in detail.’

‘Now, imagine this: No one has answered the advert. After all, it’s not the best wording to produce a sale. Eventually, the owner gives them to a charity shop. There no one knows anything about them, or their history. Picture the shelf, in the shop. That’s the background. Now write about what happens next.’

I set my five-minute timer, and we do that thing that always amazes me: we write.

Given a whole afternoon and a blank page, I might string together six words that I’m happy with. Set me in a group, with an unlikely trigger subject, and a deadline, and ideas fly from the nib of my pen.

When I call time, and we read back, we’ve produced twelve narratives with only one thing in common: the shop. Some of the stories have reached conclusions, others are the beginnings of something longer. Between us, we provide a range of genres and emotions. They’re raw, first drafts, but we listeners are hooked, intrigued.

‘Most stories,’ I say, ‘are distillations. What I’ve found, when I read about writers, is that few complete their story in one sitting. What they’ve done is capture the impulse. Some bits might need expanding, others cutting. The story is still immature. Sometimes it will get pared down, until it feels distilled. Other times, it will need rounding out. That decision lies with the author.’

I tell them that the six word shoe story may have been written by Ernest Hemmingway. If it was, he might have known about one of two articles in American newspapers

The first was a news story published when Hemmingway was about seven years old. The headline was, Tragedy of Baby’s Death is Revealed in Sale of Clothes.

About seven years later, an editor wrote an article in which he explained how a journalist might write about a similar situation. The title he suggested for such a story was, Little Shoes, Never Worn.’

A narrative tree

I recently got introduced to the narrative tree, and I’ve discovered what a useful tool it is for developing back-story.  This is not story planning, which I’ve never managed, my characters stray from their route as soon as I start writing.

The narrative tree, in my version, is a kind of mind-map for developing an idea.  The trunk is formed of basic story information: character, setting, situation etc.  After that, every action has to be mirrored by an alternative action.  So from the top of the trunk there are two main limbs that will split, to form another two, each of which will split to form yet another two.  Each new branch creates an alternative line of narrative.

I don’t use this technique all the time, or even most of it: I see it as an occasional inspiration booster.  For instance, here’s a very simple narrative tree for updating the story of Cinderella.

narrative-tree-demoThe original line of narrative still makes up one branch of the tree, but now I’ve also got a selection of alternative scenarios that I could develop. It might be that this is still part of the incubation process, and I’ll wake up in the morning with an even fresher idea.  The unanswerable question is, whether I would have reached that without going through this process first…

In fact, now I think about it, you could say that the information on the trunk is the end of another story, so with a sheet of paper taped onto the bottom of this, you could create a set of narrative roots, too.

The logical conclusion of this process is that it has parallels for gardeners.  You could sever a segment of story from root or branch of a narrative tree, set it on a fresh page, and let it grow into a new set of stories.

c2009-nancy-lovering-rosemary-cutting-in-water

C2009 Nancy Lovering: rosemary cutting in water.

 

 

 

 

Playful neolexia.

OED

 

This week I’m setting a creative challenge.  It’s an apparently simple task, invent a word, and write the definition of it – as it would be entered in the Oxford English Dictionary.

That means that after you’ve explained its various meanings you need to show the history of your word.  So:

  • Where was it written?
  • Who wrote it?
  • What date was it first published?
  • Quote a line from the publication that shows how your word was used.
  • Include at least two more quotes from later publications that used your word and reference them with author, title and date.

This is a task that we were set on the Imaginative Writing BA, by the late Edmund Cusick.  So far as I’m aware, he created this exercise.

 

OED mantrap2

Getting to know a character.

The other day I woke up with a plot idea.  I jotted down the gist and then took the dogs for a walk.  Sometimes when I come back to such notes, I find they’ve lost their shine.  This time they hadn’t.  All they needed was the right character and something was sure to evolve.  It would be a woman, I knew that much, but who was she?

I could almost see her, just beyond my page, as a shadowy presence.  I had an idea about her size and colouring, but that’s not enough to shape a story.  I needed to know what she was really like.

photo(10)But where to start?  One way is to follow a questionnaire.   There are hundreds of variations to chose from, and they’re easy to get hold of – you can find one of mine here, or check out a search engine.  There are all sorts of formats: all kinds of lengths.

But, how do you know which one is best for you?

Well, I’d say that depends on how you use them.  Generally the format will be a numbered list of questions.  The tone often gets deeper as you move down the page.

I suppose the most important thing to remind you is that these are triggers, and while it’s a good idea to go with your first answer, you should also be prepared to revise details as you develop the profile.

So answering number 1, I gave her a name…Pippa.  But apart from a few celebrities, who goes through life with only one name?  We usually need at least a surname to balance that, so hello Pippa Phillips.

But then, instead of moving on to consider her age, I found myself wondering,  Pippa Phillips, Pippa Phillips…who gets a name like that?  How do they get a name like that?

Who better to ask than Pippa Phillips?  This is how my side of the conversation went:

Are you married?

What was your maiden name?

Ahh, so have you married a relation?  Interesting.

Have you children?

Who’s surname do they take?

How did you decide that?

You have a good relationship with your husband then? Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t make assumptions.

How did your families take that?

So, how long have you been together?

Cleary I’d moved off the questionnaire, but that shadowy presence I’d perceived was talking to me, and I like the idea that the story leads the writer. I knew that soon, Pippa would step out into the light and become a describable physical being, and not at all the person I’d first thought of.

DSCF5296Does it matter that I went off on a lateral line?  Just in case you think it does, let me ask how often you’ve been sent a survey that restricted you to an inapplicable set of assumptions?

Questionnaires are a general tool.  They make a great foundation for all sorts of exercises and stories.  But sometimes we need reminding that they’re not a formula, they’re a kick-off for creativity.

How do you begin?

DSCF5213My nephews have toys all over the floor and I hear Sam say to Bevis, ‘Just pretend that I’m up the tower and…’

He didn’t say, let’s pretend, he said ‘just’.  There was no gap between reality and make-believe.  He was standing on the top of the lego tower being threatened by the giant plastic dinosaur and he was working out his action strategy.

On one level, it is that simple, that we ‘just pretend’ when we write stories.  Not only with straight-forward fiction, those of us using our lives as inspiration for stories need to hold onto that thought too, and learn to lie, convincingly.

Why not give it a go now?

Think back to childhood.

Who was your favourite relative?

Write a short description of them.

Now think: what did they do that made them special?  It doesn’t have to be anything fantastic, or exciting.  But try to visualise one event, in detail.  Find the starting point for the story.

Now change one thing – try gender – aunt becomes uncle or vice versa.  Describe them, and let go of the remembered truth.  Let the story follow, naturally.

Because sometimes a lie makes the best truth.