Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The Ten Shilling Note

My story The Ten Shilling Note has been published in the 27th May issue of Woman's Weekly, out this week.

"The ten shilling note fluttered down like a large brown moth, then it swooped under the table where the boy was sitting cross-legged, fluttered again one last time, and finally came to rest on the linoleum floor beside his knee.

The boy held his breath. He looked at the ten shilling note, then at his mother’s unmoving American Tan legs. She was standing at the kitchen table, counting out the money she had saved in the tin from the dresser. The boy was sitting under the table pretending it was the Blitz and the bombs were raining down. When the bomb hit their house the ceiling would collapse, but he would be the only one to survive, safe under the heavy kitchen table. Ka-boom!
All this and some great cake recipes too! Rush out and buy it now . . .

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Pounding at the Gates of Literature

After yesterday's posting (which I'm afraid turned into something of an essay) I reread a story by an American writer who seems to be little known here in the UK. Richard Brautigan was big at about the same time as Crosby, Stills and Nash and in my longhaired youth he seemed to be the literary voice of my generation. His short story ⅓, ⅓, ⅓ is set in 1952 and is about a kid who owns a typewriter and is therefore employed by a ‘trailer trash’ couple to type up the novel that the man is writing and the woman is editing. The plan is they will each get a third of the royalties from the novel. The story ends like this:

There were about twenty-five or thirty pages of writing in the notebook. It was written in a large grammar school sprawl: an unhappy marriage between printing and longhand.

“It’s not finished yet,” he said.

“You’ll type it. I’ll edit it. He’ll write it,” she said.

It was a story about a young logger falling in love with a waitress. The novel began in 1935 in a cafe in North Bend, Oregon.

The young logger was sitting at a table and the waitress was taking his order. She was very pretty with blond hair and rosy cheeks. The young logger was ordering veal cutlets with mashed potatoes and country gravy.

“Yeah, I’ll do the editing. You can type it, can’t you? It’s not too bad, is it?’ she said in a twelve-year-old voice with the Welfare peeking over her shoulder.

“No,” I said. “It will be easy.”

Suddenly the rain started to come down hard outside, without any warning, just suddenly great drops of rain that almost shook the trailer.

You sur lik veel cutlets dont you Maybell said she was xxxxx holding her pensil up her mowth that was preti and red like an apl!

Onli wen you tak my oder Carl said he was a kind of bassful loger but big and strong lik his dead who ownd the starmill!

Ill mak sur you get plenti of gravi!

Just ten the caf door opend and in cam Rins Adams he was hansom and meen, everi bodi in thos parts was afrad of him but not Carl and his xxxx dad they wasnt afrad of him no sur!

Maybell shifard wen she saw him standing ther in his blac macinaw he smild at her and Carl felt his blod run hot lik scallding cofee and fiting mad!

Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a xxxxx flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.

One of my favourites!

Monday, 19 May 2008

A Shot of Vodka

What is a Short Story? You might think this is a stupid question, but I’m not sure enough novice writers give the matter sufficient thought.

In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories (1981), the great exponent of the short story V.S. Pritchett described the form as independent of the novel thus: ‘the novel tends to tell us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely’. Anton Chekov once described reading a short story as ‘rather like drinking a glass of vodka’. It should be quick and sharp and hit you with a kind of shock that makes you see the world in a new way, if only for a short while.

Pritchett agreed, suggesting that the short story should be a ‘glimpse through’ resembling a painting or even a song which ‘we can take in at once, yet bring the recesses and contours of larger experiences to the mind’. During the twentieth century, Pritchett thought the short story writer had become ‘less bound by contrived plot, more intent on the theme buried in the heart. Readers used to speak of “losing” themselves in a novel or a story: the contemporary addict turns to the short story to find himself.’

Pritchett went on:

Many of the great short-story writers have not succeeded as novelists: Kipling and Chekhov are examples and, to my mind, D.H. Lawrence's stories are superior to his novels. For myself, the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse – yet is not 'poetical' in the sense of a shuddering sensibility. Because the short story has to be succinct and has to suggest things that have been 'left out', are, in fact, there all the time, the art calls for a mingling of the skills of the rapid reporter or traveller with an eye for incident and an ear for real speech, the instincts of the poet and ballad-maker, and the sonnet writer's concealed discipline of form. The writer has to cultivate the gift for aphorism and wit. A short story is always a disclosure, often an evocation - as in Lawrence or Faulkner - frequently the celebration of character at bursting point: it approaches the mythical. Above all, more than the novelist who is sustained by his discursive manner, the writer of short stories has to catch our attention at once not only by the novelty of his people and scene but by the distinctiveness of his voice, and to hold us by the ingenuity of his design: for what we ask for is the sense that our now restless lives achieve shape at times and that our emotions have their architecture. Particularly in the writers of this century we also notice the sense of people as strangers. A modern story comes to an open end. People are left carrying the aftermath of their tale into a new day of which, alarmingly, they can as yet know nothing.

Margaret Atwood has said that she feels uncomfortable when asked about what constitutes a ‘good’ story. She avoids making lists or devising rules for stories. ‘We don’t judge good stories by the application to them of some set of external measurements, as we judge giant pumpkins at the Fall Fair.’ I think that’s fine if you’re an extremely talented and experienced writer like Margaret Atwood. For those of us not (yet) in that league, I think it’s important to stick to the knitting – to follow the rules until we are experienced enough to know when to break them. And there are rules – and the more ‘commercial’ you want your fiction to be, the more important it is to follow them.

For example, I would suggest the key components of a good short story are:

- A good idea that provides an insight into the human condition
- A small group of believable characters
- A convincing background
- A good opening
- Conflict
- Suspense
- Structure (i.e. a beginning, a middle and an end)
- A satisfying ending

‘A short story is always a disclosure,’ said V. S. Pritchett in the above quote. James Joyce referred to this as ‘epiphany’, a moment when a person, an event or a thing is seen in a light so new that it is as if it has never been seen before. Someone in the story, usually the protagonist, then has to deal with (or avoid) what has occurred. The character may meet the change head on, or they might try to behave as though everything is the same as before. Either way, the disclosure or epiphany cannot be ignored by the reader. Check out, for example, Chekhov’s ‘Let Me Sleep’ or Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Revelations’.

Edith Wharton called a volume of her short stories Crucial Instances. A good short story should show us a character at a crucial instant in their life and trace the effect of that instant upon them. That, I think, is something every aspiring writer ought to keep in mind.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Review - White Nights by Ann Cleeves

A guest at the opening of a Shetland Isles art exhibition breaks down in tears as everyone else looks on in embarrassed horror. Jimmy Perez, on his first real date with one of the artists, Fran Hunter, helps the man to his feet, feeling it is his duty as a policeman to do so. The man, who is English, claims to have no memory of who he is or why he is there. Perez thinks that it has something to do with the light, the fact that the sun never quite slips below the horizon even at midnight. Here in the Shetlands they call it the 'simmer dim'. Everyone in the Shetlands goes a little crazy at this time of year. In the morning, though, the Englishman is found dead, hanging from the rafters of a fisherman's hut.

Who is the mysterious southerner? Why was he found with a clown's mask over his face? Why had he tried to ruin the art exhibition opening? More importantly, who strangled him and then tried to make the death look like a suicide? There are so many questions, but one thing is certain: there is a killer at large in the small island community of Biddista, and unless they are tracked down soon they will surely strike again.

Read the full Bookbag review here.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Review - Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

A psychoanalyst hides a terrible secret as he struggles to deal with changing relationships.

Dr Jamal Khan is a successful psychoanalyst but he is approaching a difficult age. His son Rafi will soon be a teenager and they will soon no longer be able to greet each other by touching fists and exchanging the traditional middle-class greeting, ‘Yo bro – dog!’ Already, the twelve-year-old hides his head when he sees his father. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother Josephine, from whom Jamal separated eighteen months ago, has a new boyfriend.

Jamal has to come to terms with these life changes while hiding a terrible secret. He is a man who deals in secrets for a living yet he himself is haunted by one of his own. His career as a reader of minds and signs began with a brutal act of violence – a murder which resulted in his first love, Ajita, going away forever. The book opens on the anniversary of these traumatic events, and as the story unfolds the past will be coming back to prod at his conscience. Ajita will return from her thirty-year exile, and one of Jamal’s accomplices from that fateful 1970s night will also turn up looking for some form of retribution.

Read the whole of my review on The Bookbag website.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Best of the Booker

The shortlist for the Best of the Booker, a one-off celebratory award to mark the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize, was announced today.

The six shortlisted books, chosen from the list of 41 Booker Prize and Man Booker Prize winners, are:

Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (1995, Viking; paperback Penguin)

Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1988, Faber & Faber; paperback Faber)

JM Coetzee's Disgrace (1999, Secker & Warburg; paperback Vintage)

JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, paperback Phoenix)

Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (1974, Cape; paperback Bloomsbury)

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981, Cape; paperback Vintage)

The shortlist was selected by a panel of judges - the biographer, novelist and critic Victoria Glendinning, (Chair); writer and broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, and John Mullan, Professor of English at University College, London.

The winner will be chosen by the public and you can vote here for your favourite 'Best of the Booker' novel.