Thursday, 14 November 2013

Five writers, one agent, two days: Word Factory Short Story Master Class

Writers spur each other on at Arvon's Lumb Bank

Adam Marek, Julia Bell, David Vann, Alison Moore, Deborah Levy. This is a list of names that might make up a major literary prize shortlist, and one to make writers – and in particular writers of the short form – salivate. This is why I decided a two-day intensive course run by The Word Factory, with sessions from all these writers (and a Q&A with literary agent Carrie Kania) was not to be missed, and I am still happily digesting four days later.

The experience is worth sharing here, as I do think something happens in the head on these kinds of courses, even short ones, that is hard to believe in if you have not been on one. It happens on Arvon weeks, for example, even if you are not ideally matched to your tutors. Partly it comes from sharing time and space with other writers; another large chunk is the result of letting your mind follow somebody else’s tracks for a little while. For me, it is as if my campfire of beech branches is burning low, and I keep building up over the same structure I began with, then somebody comes along and shows me that oak, ash, chestnut, birch and hornbeam are all around me for the taking, and also that there are a hundred ways to build a fire with them. My campfire changes, and keeps changing, for several months afterwards.

I now find intermittent exposure to other writers very important for developing my writing. All the above writers gave me something valuable during the Word Factory master class, but delivered it in such different ways. 

Adam Marek began the first day with creative circuit training. If you think you’ve got it sussed as a writer, this is precisely the kind of exercise that can surprise you. Writing to film soundtracks, writing to pictures, writing to accommodate random words thrown at you, each for ten minutes, may not result in your best ever work. However, it shows you what can happen when you loosen up, or when you combine ideas gleaned from around you instead of within. This was the most effective session for getting out of a rut and finding a new way to tell a story.

Julia Bell gave us exactly the kind of exercise I would never force myself to do, but will from now on. This was to pick some recent event, and then describe it from the following viewpoints: five minutes before, during, a minute after, ten minutes after, one week after, six months later, a year later, ten years later. It was an extremely effective way to watch the shift between showing and telling, from immediacy to nostalgia, and to find – in less than twenty minutes – the best way into a story.

David Vann plunged us into close reading of text, right down to rhythms and word choices and the way these can create cohesion, much as they do in poetry. He also discussed what he avows is the golden rule of short fiction: that there is always a subtext, or second story. This in itself was food for thought, given the many ways in which subtext can show through. Just as enlightening was David’s admission that he had spent ten years trying to write fiction using a learnt approach, only to finally ditch this and find his voice by writing another way entirely. Every writer needs to be reminded to have faith in themselves and their methods now and again!

Alison Moore wanted to get us thinking about the role details play in a story. At first I thought this would be about making stories come to life and feel real, but it was really about atmosphere and priming the reader’s subconscious. Alison writes notoriously dark and unsettling stories, and when she read out her story ‘When the Door Closed, it was Dark’ I was stunned by the amount of portentous and symbolic detail that I had not picked up on when I had read it before. Things that seemed so obvious when you looked for them had not registered in my conscious thoughts, but clearly had hit the subconscious spot because this story had made me feel sick with doom (a good thing!). We then tried doing the same thing for ourselves, which proved to be extremely difficult, but taught me that I can afford to be a bit heavier with the hints in my writing sometimes.

Deborah Levy, I suspect, may actually be the goddess of charisma, masquerading as a human to teach us all some useful things. This she did, in her inimitable way, by reminding us how language has taught us to be polite and encouraging us to explore what happens when we ditch learned modes of expression. She finished by asking everybody to shout their main weakness and strength as a writer. This sounds silly, but in a group of 25 or so the admissions were fascinating, reassuring, and surprisingly varied. Deborah’s responses to them included great recommendations; when I boomed that I was afraid of endings, and therefore rushed them, she suggested I begin a story with the sentence ‘I am afraid of endings’. This I will do.

I choose to spend my wages on things like this, but I know not everybody has this option. Here are some wonderful free resources to inspire and make your writing mind work differently:

Thresholds Short Story Forum – join to watch interviews and master classes, read features and reviews, use writing exercises like those above, and best of all be in touch with other writers.

The New Yorker fiction podcasts, (also free on itunes), let you listen to a writer read out another author's short story and then discuss it, like a high-powered virtual reading group.
Writers on Youtube – for starters try Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of a story, and search on from there.

Last but not least! The Word Factory ran the weekend course I have described, but they are putting more and more material online, including videos of readings and interviews.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

My top five stories for a short story reading group: Carter, Davis, Hall, Parker, Selasi

All these stories will entice you in

“The young man in the new blue suit finished arranging the glistening luggage in tight corners of the Pullman compartment.”

“The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain.”

“He’s sitting there staring at a piece of paper in front of him.”

“Later, when I knew her better, Manda told me how she’d beaten two girls at once outside the Cranemakers Arms in Carlisle.”

“I am the full time driver here.”

I was asked a few weeks ago to nominate my top five stories for use in a short story reading group. Over those weeks I remembered more and more stories, and it was a kind of pleasant torture to try to commit to only five. These are not my five favourite short stories ever, nor even my favourites on the day I had to stop prevaricating and send the list off. Rather they are stories that are brilliant and clever in ways that stand up to, and deserve, picking apart. I can’t wait to discuss them with other readers.

The first quote is the opener from Dorothy Parker’s story, ‘Here We Are’, which I read in The Secret Self Vol 1: Short Stories by Women years ago, and never forgot, probably because reading it is a painful but amusing experience. (There is also a copy here.) I misremembered the author though, and went hunting through Katherine Mansfield, who also wrote some horribly incisive stories set on trains. In this one, a newlywed couple talk on the journey from wedding to honeymoon, revealing far more about themselves and their concerns than the surface content of the dialogue would suggest.

The second is from Angela Carter’s ‘The Erl-King’, which I read in her Burning your Boats: Collected Short Stories. (There is also a copy here.) When people ask what I love to read, this is the story I whip out. It is shamelessly verbose, mixing Anglo-Saxon and Latinate expression, shifting between first and third person, and is so rich in images, textures and gradients of dread that to read it in one sitting is like eating a whole Christmas pudding, with brandy butter and cream. Yum. The Erl-king is a folkloric character, a kind of male sylvan siren, and Carter was far from the first (or last) writer to re-imagine him, but remains my favourite. There is a great article by Ever Dundas exploring this story on Thresholds Short Story Forum, here.

The third comes from Lydia Davis’ ‘Break it Down’, which I read in her The Collected Stories of..., a hefty book full of small stories that surprise you with their longevity in the head. (There is also an audio version here.) I’d been dipping into that book as if into pick ‘n’ mix now and again having only last year found out about Davis, waiting for her magic to work on me, and it was this story that did it. At eight pages, it is longer than many of her pieces, and the subject at first seems so mundane, offensive even: a man sits working out what he has spent on a holiday with a woman, divided by how many times they made love, to calculate how much it cost per hour. First impressions are also broken down, however, as we watch his mind running back through the experience of love.

Fourth is Sarah Hall’s ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, the first story in her gorgeous collection The Beautiful Indifference. (There is also a copy available here.) I’ve heard Hall say (at the Small Wonder short story festival) that she doesn’t think all the stories in this book have that magic that a great short story does, but she can’t have meant this one. Following the teenage Kathleen as she befriends violent Manda and becomes fascinated by her charismatic family that ‘came from gypsy stock, scrappies, dog-and horse-breeders, fire-mongers’, I long to be there with her but am equally relieved I am not. As with Carter’s story, it is fifty percent this emotional dread-desire and fifty percent the language that makes this story so great. Hall draws on Cumbrian expressions and her own poetic leanings to original and beautiful effect.

Last but not least is Taiye Selasi’s ‘Driver’, which is published in Granta 123 but which I listened to as an audio-book read by Selasi herself. If you can get this audio version (it is on here) I would urge you to do so; her reading is beautiful and brings out the particular cadences and rhythms in the text that build towards its conclusion. The story follows a young man working as a driver for a rich family in Ghana, whose unassuming account of things reveals a gorgeous, divided and dangerous world. I have not yet seen this story on the page, but listening to it, it could often be poetry. Here is a little sample, where I think the rhythm shows:
‘Madam has the contours of a girl I knew in Dansoman and sculptures sold at Arts Centre and Bitter Lemon bottles. Slender top and round the rest. A perfect holy roundness that is proof of God's existence and His goodness furthermore. Her skin is ageless, creaseless, paint. Her lower back a hiding place.’

Whilst that first sentence, ‘I am the full time driver here’, may seem uninteresting, consider that the next is ‘I am not going to kill my employers’, and see if you can resist reading on.