Sunday, 16 October 2016

Autumn Poems

Autumn moonlight--
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut. 

–– Matsuo Bashō

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō, had been in my bookcase for several years, and every now and again, I’ll bring it out, read a few more of his wonderful haiku, and find myself inspired to write some of my own.  Bashō was born in 1694 and became a teacher, but loved to wander throughout Japan, far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing. I understand that lust for walking constantly towards the horizon, but I’d rather wander around my mere half acre, enjoying what we’ve created, dreaming my dreams, and planning the next garden jobs. 

When I turn to haiku, it’s often because I’m being influenced by the seasons, their turning and changing.  

Pagans celebrate autumn as the season of harvest – from the time of golden wheat and barley, through the last of the green beans and courgettes, to apple-picking and beyond, all the while trying to catch and enjoy the last temperate moments before winter. We start the season of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness' off by celebrating Lughnasadh, move through the autumn equinox,  and complete our autumnal journey by bringing in the 'bleak, wailing winds' of winter at Samhain .  

In our garden in West Wales, we've had fifteen consecutive golden autumn days, warm sun on our backs as we sweep up the fallen leaves. It's been so balmy, the final flowers are still blooming, and that sent me out with my camera. I had to capture those last, fine moments of autumn.

But it's a busy time, with all that chutney to make, all those beans to freeze, and my writing has become, short, sweet and to the point.

Autumn is the perfect season for haiku, those beautifully tight and rounded gems which originated in Japan, and here are some offerings for autumn days.

This robin, trilling
While the earth is temperate,
Knows of hard winter

The ash bucket's full.
Still warm from evening's fire.
Fruit trees gave their all.

The song of a bird
Perched free in his blue-gold cage,
His heart has filled mine 

Fairy mist, surging
last night from the vale below. 
Now, trees drip like rain.

Rosa Rugosa,
The syrup tastes of summer,
Keeps our colds away.

Midnight silent chill. 
In the branches, an owl,
white from moonlight, watching.

Seven am, the sun's
First rays at the horizon.
Cold now, winter, soon.

Monday, 10 October 2016


The modern short story is one of the great art forms of the last hundred years. I read them all the time, especially online and on my kindle, and I’ve won prizes for my own short stories. Now I’m ready to write another – and I'm preparing by reading shorts stories all over again.

I’ve been writing a novel, the 4th in the Shaman Mystery Series, published by Midnight Ink, and I’ve finished a good draft. I always recommend that writers put their work away, let it rest, once you’ve got a draft that’s holding together. Bringing it out and reading it again a week, or even a month later, really helps you see its flaws…and meanings. Luckily, I’ve got Lisa, my agent, who is reading it for me.

So I can relax, write a short story. Frankly, I find this almost as difficult as writing a 100,000
word novel. Make no mistake, the great modern short story is not a doddle, and I’ll need all the motivation I can get. There are books out there with realms of advice…introduce your character, initiate action, get a satisfying end…but  none of that feels very real, written blankly like that. What I need is inspiration, and the best always comes from the great writers themselves. I find if I immerse myself in reading short stories, in no time at all, I’m soon desperate to start my own – not because I’m copying what I’ve read, but because all their varied ideas will have percolated like magic into my imagination.

So here are seven wonderful stories, each with their nugget of gold, seven revelations which are also fundamental axioms of short story writing. I’m going to make new beginnings with them, and I hope you can do the same.

AXIOM ONE: take a scientific theory and play with it.
Bradbury adopts a theory that was still developing at the time he wrote this story – chaos theory, often called the ‘butterfly effect’…the flapping of a butterfly in one part of the world might create a hurricane on the opposite side of the globe. However, this term was actually introduced in the 1960s, while The Sound of Thunder was first published in 1952. Bradbury uses a golden, prehistoric butterfly to demonstrate how time travellers drastically change the future, so it may be that the term come directly from this story. Here, we meet the big game hunters who are after Tyrannosaurus Rex:

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker's claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight.
Ray Bradbury’s  A Sound of Thunder  from R is for Rocket, (New York: Doubleday, 1952)

AXIOM TWO: Use a real person, place or incident to kick-start your story. 
Jeffrey Ford’s inspiration for his story about Emily Dickinson comes from something he read in her correspondence; “I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none.” Ford says…I imagine the “terror” Emily refers to is her experience that plays out in my story. After mulling it for a year, I’ve imagined she decided to capture it in that famous poem…Because I Could Not Stop For Death…

Viginia Woolfe
Writers often use famous people in story. Hilary Mantel recently wrote  about Margaret Thatcher, and Virginia Woolfe, whose essays and journals offer rich pickings, has been constantly purloined. There’s nothing wrong with using real people or events, or lifting ideas from poems, or even stealing other writers’ characters, so long as you give them new life. But do check for copyrights to work before actually quoting from a writer. 

In Ford’s story, the terror Dickinson wrote about becomes a brush with Death, who wants her to help him take a little boy kept alive by witchcraft:

The boy turned at the sound of his mother’s voice, and Emily desperately tried to stifle her astonishment, knowing her life depended on it. Still, an expression of awe escaped her lips, and she instantly recovered by turning the sound into the boy’s name. “Arthur, I’m Emily and I’ve come to keep you company.”
His complexion was tinged green and there were scabs and oozing scrapes across his cheeks and forehead. The whites of his eyes were yellowed and the pupils faded to white. Behind his crusted lips, his teeth were brown pegs. He looked to his mother and grunted. Cautiously, he left his chair and stepped across the room to hug Sabille’s legs.
Emily lowered herself on her haunches to the child’s height. The boy smelled like a muddy streambed, and there was something shiny dribbling from the side of his mouth. “I’m Emily,” she said again. She reached out to take the child’s scabbed hand, but at the last second he drew it quickly away. His sudden movement frightened her and she reared backward, nearly falling over. As she stood, he opened his horrid mouth at her. A second later, she realized he was laughing.
A Terror by Jeffery Ford

AXIOM THREE Keep the timeline as tight as you can.
The breadth of a story may run over a longer time period, but it’s better to use flashback and start very close to the end, rather than plough through all the backstory. If your story has too much breadth, maybe you should be writing a novel.

In Mysterious Kôr, two lovers, Pepita and Arthur, wander through London in wartime. There is a rare lapse in nighttime bombing, and the moon is out, changing everything. They imagine another in a fantastical place, where they could actually be happy. In reality they have to sleep in Pipita's lodgings, chaperoned by her friend, Callie. In the story, we move in time and space through what seems eons, while only one night has passed. When consolidating time and space in this way, take a tip from Bowen and get to the heart of characters by using symbology. Moonlight permeates and penetrates the entire story,  meaning different things to different characters:

Below the moon, the houses opposite her window blazed back in transparent shadow; and something - was it a coin or a ring?- glittered half-way across the chalk-white street. Light marched in past her face, and she turned to see where it went: out stood the curves and garlands of the great white marble Victorian mantel-piece of that lost drawing-room; out stood, in the photographs turned her way, the thoughts with which her parents had faced the camera, and the humble puzzlement of her two dogs at home. Of silver brocade, just faintly purpled with roses, became her house- coat hanging over the chair. And the moon did more: it exonerated and beautified the lateness of the lovers' return. No wonder, she said herself, no wonder - if this was the world they walked in, if this was whom they were with. Having drunk in the white explanation, Callie lay down again. Her half of the bed was in shadow, but she allowed one hand to lie, blanched, in what would be Pepita's place. She lay and looked at the hand until it was no longer her own.
Elizabeth Bowen, Mysterious Kôr, The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen Vintage Classics

AXIOM THREE: Find the right Point of View.
Going for the Orange Julius is my all-time favourite short story set in a mall. It’s the story of Carrie, who is being looked after by her grandmother right now. Prepubescent Carrie is the narrator, an essential factor in the success of the story. Choosing the right point of view is a crucial decision; although this story is almost as much about ancient loose woman Grandma, it would be very different if it had been narrated by her. Note here, how Goldberg uses repetition to get close to Carrie’s young mind:

It’s not about looking good. If you’re just looking good, you’ll probably be able to get a cone or a soft pretzel, but definitely not an Orange Julius.
“Carrie,” Grandma says to me as we walk into the mall, “are you feeling like a lady?” The ceiling of the mall when you first walk in has mirrors on it, so you can see yourself and whoever you’re with.
“Yeah, Grandma,” I say back. “I’m feeling like a lady.”
Then we both look up at the ceiling so we can see each other and Grandma says,
“Well, here we are, two ladies going out to see the world.”
Grandma only wears real gold and keeps her cigarettes in a genuine leather cigarette pack holder…
Myra Goldberg, Going for the Orange Julius,  Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery,  Bloomsbury

AXIOM FOUR: Go for as few characters, in as few settings as possible.
Typically, an effective short story won’t be able to develop more than two or three main characters. There isn’t room to describe a load of different landscapes, or get into the heads of a dozen characters. If you’ve recently started a short story that you’re having trouble completing, check this axiom right away. Cutting down on any unnecessary characters, especially those that don’t work for their fictional living, and concentrating the story into a single place, may be exactly what your story needs to save it from the waste bin.

Ted Hughes was a poet who knew how to create an aura of mystery, and in this short story, he gives us lyrical prose, a single, enigmatic setting and strong imagery, but he also builds huge dramatic tension in a realistic tale. The lexicon is simple and the symbolic use of nature versus humankind has been done many times before, but this is a most powerful story, with only two characters; a man and a majestic, but frightening horse:

A wave of anger went over him: anger against himself for blundering into this mud-trap and anger against the land that made him feel so outcast, so old and stiff and stupid. He wanted nothing but to get away from it as quickly as possible. But as he turned, something moved in his eye-corner. All his senses startled alert. He stopped.
Over to his right a thin, black horse was running across the ploughland toward the hill, its head down, neck stretched out. It seemed to be running on its toes like a cat, like a dog up to no good.
From the high point on which he stood the hill dipped slightly and rose to another crested point fringed with the tops of trees, three hundred yards to his right. As he watched it, the horse ran up to that crest, showed against the sky – for a moment like a nightmarish leopard – and disappeared over the other side.
Ted Hughes, The Rain Horse, first published in Wodwo, but now available online at

AXIOM FOUR: Never use more than one plot arc.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a short story must have a complex plot with a twisty finish that keeps the reader guessing. It can have that, but presenting big, intriguing plots is a job for the expert. Most short stories stay simple, because the bedrock of a short story is simplicity. Never introduce a second or sub-plot, and never try to introduce more into the story than its word count can hold.
In Why Don’t You Dance, almost nothing really happens, and what does happen is shown in real time with a distant point of view, which forces you to make up your own mind, checking the story for symbols and subtleties. A man is drinking whisky as he tries to sell his house furniture in his front yard. A boy and girl pass by and get interested in the sale of goods.  The man offers them whisky and  demonstrates his items for sale, the bed, the TV, the record-player. He puts on a record and suggests they dance. After a while, the man dances with the girl instead:
“Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “It’s my place,” he said.
“Let them watch,” said the girl.
“That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?”
He felt her breath on his neck. “I hope you like your bed,” he said..
The girl closed and then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s shoulder. She pulled the man closer. 
“You must be desperate or something,” she said.
Why Don’t You Dance by Raymond Carver from What We Talk about When We Talk about Love Vintage Classics

AXIOM FIVE: Start with a bang
The opening must compel capture the reader’s attention, establish where you’re taking them and make them long to know what happens next. On the other hand, summing up the story to come is usually a bad idea. 
Of course you want a great opening paragraph, but don’t get bogged down with it. The first lines are the most difficult so get past them as best you can and write on. You can’t really tell what your first lines should be until the story is complete and then you’ll know if that first paragraph was always perfect. If it’s not, work on it. 
The first sentence in a story can vary enormously, depending on the mood, tone,  style – even genre – you want to impart. It might be zany, intriguing, enchanting or a simple, uncluttered statement. It might be long, convoluted, or intense, even abrupt. In his collection  Under the Dam, David Constantine demonstrates just how varied the first para can be. The Loss starts like this:
Nobody noticed. Apparently they never do. Or if they do, the Misunderstand. It might be one of those sunder pauses – a silence – a gap – and somebody will say: An angel is passing. But it is no such thing. It is the soul leaving, flitting ahead to its place in the ninth circle.
The LossDavid Constantine Under the Dam, Comma Press
Two words in the first sentence, 52 overall. In total contrast, In Another Country, a story recently turned into the film, 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, directed by Andrew Haigh, the first paragraph takes up the entire first page. You can hear the story read by the author at 

AXIOM SIX: A good short story establishes its own rhythm at its very beginning, and the reader has a sense of the rhythm reaching ahead, towards the end.

So said A.S. Byatt in the Sunday Times Culture section, and she amply demonstrates what she means in every short story she writes, often using magical realism. Allowing a story to follow its natural direction, to speak for itself, to drive towards its inevitable end, prevents the reader breaking off and putting it down. A short story is defined by being able to be read in one sitting, and that’s what you want, an unputdownable story.  In A Stone Woman, an elderly woman needs an emergency operation:

…She heard the creature moaning. She tried to telephone the doctor, but the thing shrieked raucously into the mouthpiece, and this saved her, for they sent an ambulance, which to the screaming thing to a hospital, as it would not have taken a polite old woman. Later they told her she had had at most four hours to live. Her gut was twisted and gangrenous. She was number and bandaged, and drifted in and out of blessed sleep.
The surgeon came and went, lifted her dressings, studying the sutures, prodding the walls of her belly with strong fingers, awakening sullen coils of pain somewhere in the deep…
The Stone Woman  Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt Chatto & Windus.

The constant, driving rhythm is particularly needed in this story, as it’s quite long, and ignores axiom four, moving in time, place and character, but always rhythmically pulling you along.

AXIOM SIX: Be sure there is a Core Emotional Truth

Core Emotional Truth –  CET – is a compact summary of the deep core of what you’re saying through your story. It should be attempted in a single abstract sentence. In other words, the CET of, say, A Christmas Carol, would not be…"Scrooge learns to be a better person when he’s visited by the ghost of his partner"…That’s more of a ‘blurb’ really. The CET might be…"only by understanding ourselves can we truly empathize with others"…or possibly…"Being mean and cross will never make you happy". Writing your CET is amazingly revealing and can help whittle all those disparate thoughts down to a single essence. If often helps open and lift your narrative, so you can write from your heart.

When reading, it’s easy to spot a story with a deeply meant CET. Katherine Mansfield is particularly adept at understanding the emotional core of her own stories, and often uses an epiphany to demonstrate this. Miss Brill overhears a throwaway sneer about her fur necklet which tears down the fantasy she’s invented about her life, changing her perspective:

     But to-day she passed the baker's by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room - her room like a cupboard - and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.
Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill, Penguin Little Black Classics. Read it here –

Axiom number seven is probably the most important of them all, partly because the time to write it is when you have finished at least a single draft. Doing this gives you the chance to subtly change the work once you’ve searched out the CET, to give it a core strength. At the same time, you can check through the other axioms…and read another short story. Scroll down my Facebook page Kitchen Table Writers to find links to many of the great recent short stories you can read for free online.
I used the Core Emotional Truth to complete my last published short story, The Library at Alexandria, From  UNCHAINED (Tangent Press), an anthology celebrating the 400th anniversary of Bristol Library, and I will try the method again,  following all my axioms as I write my next short story. What this space!