03 October 2009

Caught short

On the last day of the first Didsbury Arts Festival, I've left my Chorlton comfort zone and taken part in a workshop on fiction writing. It was held by novelist and short story writer Robert Graham, who is a lecturer for MMU Cheshire and has published the useful tome How To Write Fiction (And Think About It) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, £14.99).



I've been reading a lot of short stories lately, notably Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl, and was after a bit of guidance to help me get my own ideas down on paper. We learnt about characterisation and immediacy, and we wrote some stuff off the cuff, there and then, in the class, hangovers and all. Here are three of my stories, each written in about five minutes flat.

This one was about a man, of whom I had been given a photograph and had previously been tasked with describing. I picked the situation "walking into a party" from a list we were presented with.
Standing at the edge of the room, Michael nursed a warm bottle of Old Speckled Hen and eyed the other guests cautiously. Realising he had been loitering alone a little too long, he made a beeline for the table where a simple buffet was laid out, and perused the food on offer. It was just as he was reaching out for a coronation chicken sandwich on white sliced that a voice made him jump.
"Do you come here often?"
He swerved round, holding the beer and sandwich up and close, and peered at the intruder.
"My name's Susan," she said, smiling.
"Oh, er, Michael. Er, Mike," he replied, putting the bottle down and holding out his right hand.
"I saw you standing on your own and thought I'd come over and make sure you're OK," said Susan.

This one was to lead on from the sentence: "I wonder if this happens to a lot of people".
I wonder if this happens to a lot of people. It's certainly not the first time it's happened to me. I supposed I really should learn, but I'm always in a hurry, and generally I have my hands full as I'm on my way to work. The first time it happened, I managed to ram my hands onto a black lady's ample bosom. It was so embarrassing but thankfully she saw the funny side of it.

This one was following an exercise when we worked in pairs to come up with three scenarios which included a person, a place and a problem. We then had to pick one person, one place and one problem, but not the ones that went together. I ended up with "teenage girl", "park bench, eating lunch", and "loses her son".
Bethany liked going to the park to have her lunch; it got her out of the poky council house she shared with her mum and younger brother. It also meant Ryan, who was now two and quite boisterous, could run around and wear himself out so she could have a nice, fuss-free evening in front of the telly. That wasn't going to happen this Thursday, however, although as yet she didn't know that. As usual, she laboured with the pushchair on the rough ground just inside the gate and went straight to the bench near the tree. She unclipped Ryan and lifted him out, then watched as he ran over to the roundabout where some other children were playing. She sat down and reached under the pushchair for her sandwiches, wrapped in an old Sunblest bag. She pulled one out and sank her teeth into the soft white bap, the tang of Cheddar almost a surprise. Looking over towards the roundabout, she saw it spinning, growing gradually slower, but the children were gone; the two that had been there and Ryan, who had joined them.


I really enjoyed myself, and hopefully I've learnt something useful. Robert Graham was a good teacher and a very nice man, and everyone seemed to have fun.

Robert is taking part in the upcoming Manchester Literature Festival
(see www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk for full details), in a free event called Northern Salt on Sunday 18 October at 3pm at the Whitworth. This is a showcase of Northern talent, all published by the independent publisher Salt, and Robert will be reading some of his work, alongside prizewinning writer Elizabeth Baines, novelist Mark Illis and poet John Siddique.

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