Wednesday 30 May 2018

The End of the Beginning: Endings in Short Stories

By Dan Powell

The end of my first year as a full-time PhD student in Creative Writing is fast approaching. It’s a landmark in my studies that seems double-weighted given the focus of my research-led creative project: the endings of short stories.

Over the last year I have read hundreds of British short stories from across the last 200 years, compiling lists of sample stories for four self-selected periods of focus. I’ve experienced the breadth and depth of endings on offer, in a dizzying kaleidoscope of style and structure and voice. The goal of this research is to identify structural and linguistic trends at work in the sentences that create closure in the story. The data from the initial reading study will be used to build writing frames which I will use in crafting the study's creative element: a collection of short stories. 

I had hoped, back when I began drawing up the proposal for this piece of research-led practice, that examining the endings of so many stories might make writing the endings of my own stories a more straightforward activity, that writing endings would cease to be so damnably hard, or failing that, that they would be, at least, a little easier. Alas, wrestling my own endings into submission remains a complex and exhausting exercise. 

However, completing the analysis of fifteen contemporary British stories written and published between 1995 and 2015, and reading hundreds of other stories written between 1800 and 2015, has sharpened my understanding of this, the slipperiest feature of any narrative. So here’s the top five things my first year of PhD study has taught me about endings in short stories:

1. There are as many ways to end a story as there are stories. Don’t let your How To Guide to Writing tell you different. Every story needs its own unique solution (or negative solution in the case of contemporary British short stories). The greatest short stories were all lucky enough to have an author who took the time to find that story’s own unique ending.

2. Don’t be happy with the first ending that comes to mind. The first thing you think of is almost never the most fitting, or indeed surprising, ending for the narrative you have set up. Take the time to explore the weirder, darker, more hidden corners of your story. Or if the story is driving inevitably toward an ending that is visible from a distance, find a way to veer off just enough to make it memorable, to make it strange. 

3. The most effective endings are those you feel rather than those you have to think about. Endings aren’t about tying up the reader’s understanding of what they have just read with a neat little bow so they can take it away like a party treat. Endings are not a take-home message in a PowerPoint presentation. Endings should be a punch to the gut you weren’t expecting, a slap in the face you didn’t deserve; they should be the unanticipated stroke of a stranger’s fingertip across your skin.

4. Endings are as much about the journey as the end. My research maps (in part) the staging of closure within my sample stories. All of the stories I have studied feature preclosural sentences that mark the end of alternative stories within the overall final story, which is itself marked by the story’s final sentence. Each preclosural sentence, each alternative story, is a stepping stone to an ending. In a short story the end is both imminent and immanent. Build steps toward closure into the very fabric of your stories.

5. The real end of a short story happens off the page, somewhere in the post-narrational thoughts of the attentive reader. It seems Chekhov was right, short stories are, in fact, all middle. Or as Carver put it, "Get in, get out, don’t linger." Or as Vonnegut half-said, "Start as close to the end as possible" and stop just before you reach it. Of course, this means that even the final closure sentence of a story is preclosural. 

In short, there are no easy fixes. Endings are slippery beasts. Sometimes you have to wrestle them to the floor and pin them down. Sometimes you have to let them loose and pick up the pieces afterwards. Sometimes you have to stalk them from a distance, until they get where they have always been going. Writing a story that can stand on its own four legs is all about being able to tell when to do what.

About the writer
Dan Powell’s debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize and longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. The recipient of a Royal Society of Literature Brookleaze Grant and Society of Authors Award, he is currently a Midlands3Cities-funded Doctoral Researcher in Creative Writing at University of Leicester and a First Story Writer-in-residence.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Poem by Victoria Pickup

Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the CafĂ© Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken. 

This moment too

Will be forgotten.

Through the foggy bedroom landscape 
And a muted dawn chorus
Curtains grow lighter
As the prospect of another day looms
Spent slumping over an empty coffee mug.

Snatched naps and
Fearful awakenings
Numbed by a cool breeze. 
The perpetual state of weary bouncing,
Which darkness brings with hushed sing song,
Lingers in aching joints.

And of you, 
Sacred, nocturnal child,
All I will take forwards
Is the day you placed your hands on my face
And kissed me. 

Sunday 20 May 2018

My Work Experience at Shoestring Press

By Sonia Tailor

Whilst studying my MA in Creative Writing at University of Leicester, I had gained an interest in the book publishing industry. In order to work in that field, I knew I needed to gain some experience first. I was faced with the daunting task of applying for internships. One afternoon, whilst I was filling out a long application form, I received an email advertising an intern role at Shoestring Press.

I researched the independent publishing house and saw that it specialises in publishing poetry sequences and collections. This sounded appealing to me and I sent a letter to John Lucas, the publisher. Around a week later, I received call from him and we arranged a meeting. John kindly guided me through the different processes and encouraged me to get involved as much as possible.

I was provided with the opportunity to build brilliant work relationships with a variety of people, including writers. I had frequent meetings with one writer in particular, Alan Brownjohn. We would meet in coffee shops in London and discuss different ways to promote his novel, Enjoyment. This included having it reviewed by newspapers and magazines. John provided me with the contact details of the editors. I wrote a persuasive press release and began phoning and emailing them. It was an exhilarating feeling when I saw the first review published on London Grip. Although not everyone was interested, the experience gave me an insight into how the marketing side of publishing works.

I also had a number of admin tasks to do. For example, John asked me to arrange the location of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann’s book launch. I learnt how to contact venues and deal with a variety of people. This helped strengthen my communicational skills. When I was at the launch, I was happy with the large turnout. It made me feel proud knowing that I helped with the arrangement of the event.

John also opened me up to the sales side of publishing. I was asked to assist with Shoestring Press’s stall at States of Independence, a book fair held in the East Midlands. I sold a number of books and pamphlets. It enabled me to meet more people who had a genuine passion for books. Furthermore, I was responsible for introducing two key speakers who had their poetry collections published by Shoestring Press. It was extremely exciting.

The experience was helpful and rewarding. It developed my transferable skills and gave me a true insight into how a successful publishing house is run. Plus, there was every book lover’s dream: free books!

About the author
Sonia Tailor studied an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She is a peace activist who enjoys writing short stories and monologues. She has organised vigils and demonstrations, and in 2007, she travelled to Jordan to make a documentary about Iraqi refugee children. She currently runs a book blog on Instagram: @soniareads. 

Thursday 10 May 2018

G. S. Fraser Poetry Prize: Call for Submissions

This is a call for submissions from current University of Leicester students for the annual G.S. Fraser Poetry Prize 2018.

A prize of £50 will be awarded to the author of the winning poem.

Any student currently enrolled at the University of Leicester may enter.

Entrants may submit up to three poems.

Poems may be on any subject but must not exceed 40 lines.

Poems must not have been published or have won another prize.

To enter please email your poem(s), one poem per page, in a Word or pdf attachment from your University email address to Nick Everett, with ‘G.S. Fraser Prize’ in the subject line and your name in the message. The deadline for submissions is: 5 p.m. on Friday 8 June 2018.

The result will be announced on Friday 22 June.

Good luck!

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Creative and Critical Digressions: On the Creative Writing PhD

By Paul Taylor-McCartney

I’m now a third of my way into a six-year part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University, working on a 50,000-word dystopian novel, entitled The Recollector, with an accompanying reflective commentary of 20,000 words exploring the function of memory and identity in works from across the genre, including my own. Ask any part-time doctoral researcher about setting aside some dedicated time to study and they’ll tell you it’s a slow-burn process – a little and often should do it. Indeed, taking a measured approach to formulating, creating, revising and continually reviewing sections of material, whilst receiving objective but supportive tutelage from an expert supervisor, comes with its challenges, but also a wealth of opportunities to explore and ideate to the heart’s content. 

For example, it’s taken the whole of my first year to get anywhere close to settling on an appropriate register for the creative piece. Third person - second person - then finally choosing first person and locating it entirely in the present tense. The course requires me to balance creative and critical interests, meaning I’m pursuing a range of digressionary journeys away from the core material, but each one actively deepening my appreciation of the processes and discipline required to achieve at this new level. A panel seminar at last year’s NAWE Conference has become an academic paper due to published later this summer. Last month, I returned to painting and the easel to create miniature canvasses to help define the sombre mood of my text’s dystopian setting - a setting in which the majority of the population suffer memory issues in one form or other, with a staggering rise in dementia cases. Elsewhere, drafting confessional poetry is helping sharpen the voice of the text, and I’m currently re-figuring the opening section of the novel as an installation piece for a small gallery in New York. This alone is asking me to re-engage with my previous performance work as both theatre director, actor and musician.  

At another extreme, I’m planning on producing a paper version of The Recollector using an antique 1930s Olivetti typewriter, in line with my protagonist’s need to avoid committing his memories to electronic devices of any description. 

Some may consider these various digressions unnecessary and even vain enterprises. For me, a PhD in Creative Writing is not simply about completing a full-length study suitable for publication across its creative and critical elements – although that is ultimately one criterion against which I’ll be measured. It is, more crucially, proving to be a fully-immersive exploration of the artistic process in its entirety, spiralling outwards from a central conceit – and the greatest expression of my writing career to date.     

Thursday 3 May 2018

Masterclass with Kerry Young

By Nakisha Towers 

On Monday 30th April, novelist Kerry Young came to give a writing masterclass on Memory and Fiction as part of the Creative Writing MA. The masterclass was also open to other students and the public. 

Young, writer of three novels, Pao, Gloria and Show Me A Mountain, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Chinese father and a mother of mixed Chinese-African heritage. She has used her childhood and upbringing as inspiration for her novels. In the masterclass, she spoke about her ‘half-remembered’ memories as a child, and the process of reshaping these experiences as an adult and constructing a work of fiction around them.

Kerry read out an extract from Pao, and  she did so in the distinctive Jamaican accent in which it is intended to be read – it was captivating! Although this was primarily a workshop, Kerry has a wealth of experience and advice that left me feeling inspired and informed. In particular she spoke of the importance of pin-pointing what it is that drives us as writers, our core values; because once we understand what it is that is driving us, we’ll understand what it is that we are writing – and become better writers for it.

A truly remarkable woman. Admittedly, I hadn’t read any of Kerry’s novels, but after the workshop, I immediately bought all three!

Nakisha Towers is a student on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.