Great telling, great writing

It’s a well known adage that writers have to read. The advice is indispensable. There’s a corollary: if you want to write well, read what’s well-written. By analogy, a storyteller needs to listen to stories – and if you want to tell well, listen to stories that are well-told.

I’ve been persuaded to enter another short story competition. Since we’re much closer to the submission deadline that I’d wish I’ve had to rush the writing – not something I’d choose to do – so I fear the product isn’t my best. However, perhaps my fear is exaggerated. I’m being more self-critical than usual because in addition to reading novels by the brilliant Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain I’ve now started one to Julian Barnes – the first Barnes I’ve read for a while – so my mind is awash with prose fiction of the very highest quality. Who knows whether this exposure to top-rate literature has raised the quality of my short story, hurry notwithstanding – as well as making me suspect that, relatively speaking, it’s tripe?

Several storytelling commitments lie ahead – I seem to be booked for storytelling on at least four successive days in early April – and a recent experience has made me doubt my skill as a teller but at the same time inspired the urge to improve. Two evenings ago (March 14th) I took three other members of our creative writing group to hear a performance by Hugh Lupton. He told a collection of Russian fairy-tales, and then he recounted the escape from the newly-formed Soviet Union, in 1919, of the journalist and folktale collector Arthur Rackham (perhaps better known for his children’s stories such as Swallows and Amazons and for his illustrations of story collections). Arthur Rackham was Hugh Lupton’s great-great-uncle. Hugh made the tale of the escape (a true historical account) sound exactly like another fairy-story; but by the same token, he  convinced much of his audience that each fairy-tale he told was true!

Like Julian Barnes’s novels, Hugh Lupton’s storytelling performances set a very high bar at which to aim. There’s no chance of my making the height, either as writer or as teller, but the attempt is going to be an enjoyable as it is challenging!


  • Mishka Zakharin 28.03.2014 - 06:15am

    Russian fairy-tales? Cool! I’ve actually been exploring Russian myth and folklore for my next (potential) novel… And I have to agree about Julian Barnes–he’s so delightfully morbid! (But an off-hand, almost jovial kind of way…) One of my favorite quotes is from his book Flaubert’s Parrot: “Deep within me there is a radical, intimate, bitter and incessant boredom which prevents me from enjoying anything and which smothers my soul. It reappears at any excuse, just as the swollen corpses of drowned dogs pop to the surface despite the stones that have been tied round their necks.”

    • Mark Henderson

      Yes, that’s a gem, isn’t it? The novel I’ve read most recently is Love, Etc., which is funny and cynical and a masterclass in the art of writing in several voices, each consistent and persuasive in itself.

      The next novel I plan to read is the one you e-mailed to me a little while ago! If you can work another opus based on Russian fairy tales, then it will be a rewarding read if you achieve anything comparable to what you did in Dostoevsky for Children.

  • Mishka Zakharin 28.03.2014 - 19:32pm

    I believe I have Love, Etc–but I didn’t finish it. As I recall, I was actually trying NOT to be in love at the time I attempted to read it, so it was not great timing; I will inevitably revisit it. (Or is that the one where the guy slits his own throat at the end? If so, I finished it, but it didn’t rest easy with me…) But I have to agree, for a writer who wants to read how it (writing) is done, they can do far worse than to visit Mr. Barnes.

    And as for my next novel–thank you for the compliment… the big thing, I think, is not getting myself bogged down on “what went before.” I think about previous successes, and find myself thinking “Wow– I don’t know if I can do that again!” Just have to take it as it comes, I guess. Though (for “major” writing) I do try to always exceed what I’ve done before, and if this next one works out… I may have to retire! (Or just continue on with my “on the side” writings of short, inane, goofy stuff… which is also fun.) Butanyhoo…

    • Mark Henderson

      I’m happy to see there’s no throat-cutting at the end of Love Etc. – at least, not in the literal sense.

      It’s fortunate for me that each new “major” writing project is a new departure and my mind doesn’t dwell on what went before – except in the sense that like you I hope to keep improving. I understand your “Can I do that again?” concern, though!

      At present I’m working on a rather complex multi-PoV novel that combines a spoof on modern romantic fiction with a murder story, but affords me the opportunity to explore characters in depth. It’s going to be a big job… and I’m still waiting for the professional critique of the novel I completed a few months ago, though (yet again!) it’s been promised “very soon”!

  • Mishka Zakharin 29.03.2014 - 19:27pm

    Ah, murder and romance! Love is funny that way–can make life worth living, yet you’d be willing to die for it… and not always just to escape!

    If Perilaus is anything by which to gage your novelish writing talents, I’m sure the new novel will be a delightful read!

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