Tag: short story

Politics and society in contemporary fiction – author interview with Ruby Cowling

Politics and society in contemporary fiction – author interview with Ruby Cowling

Ruby Cowling is one of the authors published in our collection of poetry and prose, I You He She It, published earlier this year. In this blog post she talks about how fiction writing can be an outlet for your own viewpoints, but also a way to explore societal issues.

Something to say? Tell a story

In my current work-in-progress, a novel, I have found myself writing about data privacy, corporate power, manipulative advertising, the mental health of young people and the ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence. Put that way, it sounds as if I’m writing some polemic, banging a drum for a whole range of troublesome issues, trying to do with fiction something I could do better through journalism or social action.

Maybe it’s cowardice. This way I can afford to put my head just slightly above the parapet, because I always have the excuse that it’s fiction. It was the character that made me say it!

But then, fiction has always done this – acted as a Trojan Horse to smuggle in disruptive messages about us as humans, about our society, about things we should be questioning if we’re going to progress in a humane way. Storytelling’s oral tradition, in particular, has been one of the most effective and enduring methods of resisting repressive power. So the guise of entertainment is not, I think, an ignoble one.

That’s the difference, though, between polemic and storytelling. The entertainment value.

The holy grail for me – as a reader as well as a writer – is a great story laid on a bed of, for want of a better phrase, “serious issues”. Story is hard. With my work-in-progress, I’ve actually found the story much harder to bring out than those issues, and have had to fight to prioritise it when the many “serious themes” have been falling over each other to be heard. But I knew I didn’t want to end up with some rant. I want readers to have a good time, first and foremost. Two spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down.

A note on the medicine

I think contemporary British society is particularly under-addressed in our (contemporary British) fiction. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but there’s a tendency to avoid referencing the enormous changes we’re going through – and a trend in publishing for nostalgia and “the known” (historical fiction; books based on true stories or real people) – and the risk is, we’re creating a cultural gap.

With technological and societal change affecting us so profoundly and so rapidly, our modern world is bewildering, it’s true. Further, I understand that for a huge number of people reading, as a leisure activity, is an escape; I appreciate that they want to be taken elsewhere, not forced to relive a printed copy of the tough day they’ve just had.

I mean, I’d love to be able to write poetically about the idyllic worlds of yesteryear, simple folk pursuing lyrical lives in the fresh air and so on, but apart from the fact I don’t have that skill, it just doesn’t seem honest. Instead I keep finding myself back chewing over the messy stuff we’re dealing with here and now.

Ironically, that often means I write speculatively about a very-near-future or just-slightly-alternative-present – as in the novel I’ve been working on. But that just takes us back to the storytelling tradition. Don’t tell it straight, or it risks being a rant. (And, it’s important to mention, in some societies it risks the wrath of the powers you’re questioning.) Twist it, reshape it, douse it in story. Make it an allegory, a metaphor, an glorious adventure. Ideally, the reader will come away saying Wow, I had a great time with that story – and it really made me think.

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John Beresford is one our authors published in I You He She It – a collection of short stories and poems developed out of the Grist project. As part of #OAWeek we asked him to discuss his writing processes and and how he approached the challenge of a short story.

You can read the Grist collection online, open access here.

Dealing with ‘writer’s block’

My Grist anthology piece is part of a “100 Day Writing Challenge” I set myself during a period of writerly inactivity following the publication of my first novel in 2012. I had several ideas for a second novel but while I was trying to decide on a direction, I hadn’t been doing any actual writing. A conversation with my daughter about how important it is to keep your hand in with artistic endeavour, flex the creative muscles, and not worry too much about the quality of the output (at least initially) but instead concentrate on getting it done and trying new things, uncovered obvious parallels between the painting challenge she was working on at the time, and my writing.

Writing as a challenge

Working from a list of 100 themes my challenge was to write for thirty minutes without editing or revision of any kind on whatever the theme suggested to me. There are many examples of such “theme lists” online. The one I used can be found here. Feel free to reuse it if the idea of the challenge piques your interest.

I didn’t intend to restrict myself to narrative fiction. If the theme evoked poetry then I was happy to rhyme for the period instead – I think there’s one example of this; an amusing bit of doggerel (what do you expect in 30 minutes?) entitled Never Again – or if it triggered a personal memory the writing took the form of a blog entry, but the majority of the 100 entries are fictional.

At the outset I expected there to be a large number of unfinished pieces, but it didn’t turn out that way. With some kind of innate writer’s clock I very quickly developed a feel for how much text could be contained in half an hour, and with the exception of three or four early attempts I was able to bring each entry to a satisfactory conclusion in the time allowed. I also hoped to come out of the challenge with a few gems – maybe a scene or two I could use in that novel I was heading towards, or the germ of an idea for a short story. In the end I did use adapted versions of several entries in Gatekeeper, and also began to develop an idea for a collection of short stories with a narrative link.

What I didn’t expect was empirical proof that writing becomes easier the more you engage in it. During the course of the Challenge my average word count for each piece rose from 550 to almost 900. At nine hundred words a day, in only thirty minutes a day, you could have the first draft of a decent length novel in the time I took to complete this challenge.

An absence of editing

I submitted ‘Stirring of the Wind’ to Grist exactly as it stood: still unedited. Looking at it now, to me it’s an object lesson in first drafting. I’d clearly been able to silence my inner editor for those thirty minutes. The piece flows quite well and, if you’ll forgive the self-critique, has some nice descriptive passages. The idea of Neil’s reflection turning into mourning for his lost first love only occurred to me during the writing, and I think brings added poignancy to what was already a subdued piece, with its parallel between the autumn of the year and of Neil’s life. With critical hindsight, it suffers from the lack of editing in what for me is a common slip – the reuse of similar words or phrases in close proximity. ‘Shook – or shaking – loose’ appears twice in the early part of the second (non-dialogue) paragraph. ‘Handfuls’ is not a word you would want to use more than once in a piece of this length, and even ‘leaves’, with some judicious journeying through thesaurus and dictionary, could have been spared its current exhaustion.

But that’s the point of first drafts. As Shannon Hale says: ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’ And the point of the 100 Day Challenge exercise is to let loose your creativity and try new things, where a degree of discomfort with the theme is probably a Good Thing.

With those few scenes in the bag, I completed Gatekeeper and it was published in 2015. I’m currently working on a sequel, which is proving to be several orders of magnitude more challenging than writing a novel in the first place, but that’s probably a story for another time.

You can read the Grist collection online, open access here.