Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Category Archives: exercise

New hope for England

It is hereby recorded that, on this day, 25 January 2017, there was agreement between William Thirsk-Gaskill and Martin Edwards.

William Thirsk-Gaskill is a doctrinaire socialist of a kind that one seldom meets, nowadays. He believes in the diversion of resources towards the most basic requirements of humanity, particularly child health, infant nutrition, female literacy, general female education, and micro-finance.

One of the human development causes that William supports is Leeds United AFC, with its world-wide presence, and extensive youth development programmes.

Martin Edwards is some bloke that I first encountered in the high street in Chiselhurst. He supports Millwall. He buys meat for Sainsbury’s (a job I would quite happily swap with him). He has some improbably beautiful daughters.

But he is mean-spirited, including in ways that are contrary to his own interest.  You might want to stand next to him at a party, in case he said something offensive.  I still cherish the hope that, inside this carapace of right-wing clichés, there may be a glittering humming bird, ready to fly away in the most unexpected direction.  The evidence for this, so far, is not encouraging.

Nevertheless, at this point, we agreed that nobody knows what is going to happen next with regard to Brexit, and we blame Cameron.

We are not just arguing about football, ladies and gentlemen: we are healing the North-South divide. Believe me: if a Northerner can consciously live peaceably on the same island as Martin Edwards, then we are getting somewhere.

None of this would have been possible (or necessary) had it not been for Valerie Anderson.

Ozymandias, as it might have been written by Matt Abbott

He were reet, reet owd, this bloke I saw dahn Westgate.

He went on about two stones: he needed to confess it.

He were mostly drunk. Summat abaht summat “half sunk”.

I said I still don’t get thee, dad: you’ll have to come again.

This thin and wobbly old bloke turned the volume up to ten.

He said there’s stuff round Wakefield that’s owder than thee and me:

Some got shut by Thatcher: some you still can see:

Like winding-gear and foot-bridges and factories and canals

And them as carved yon pedestal were some of my best pals.

I hated that Ozymandias, allus broadcasting despair,

As if he owned mortality: it just weren’t bloody fair.

He governed like an Eton twat, as if he didn’t care:

Never went dahn Westgate: he just stopped inside his lair.

I peeked into his garden, once: it were boundless and fucking bare.

Lyrics news 2

I have reason to believe that there is an establishment in the largest city in Louisiana, entitled, “The Rising Sun”. It has become associated with poor life choices. I can say this from experience.

My mother worked in a very low-paid job in the clothing industry, but the family benefitted from the fact that she had the skills to make most of my clothes, including denim trousers.

My father was a rather unsatisfactory individual who spent most of his time playing cards and betting on horses, and he dwelt near the delta in Louisiana, which was inconvenient, because we live in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

The best thing that could be said for my father’s lifestyle was that his needs were simple, being confined to little more than the means to pack his goods. He was at his most content when his blood alcohol level was significantly over the legal limit for driving.

I have presented a seminar at the local SureStart centre on the subject of Life Choices. I specifically enjoined people not to frequent the kind of establishment mentioned previously.

I have a Billy Liar-style choice of what I might do next. I might choose freedom. I might end up in prison.

To summarise: there is an establishment in the biggest city in Louisiana, which has been associated with social exclusion, particularly among young men. I regret to say that this has affected my biography. This establishment is called, “The Rising Sun”.

[There used to be a pub on Kirkstall Road in Leeds called “The Rising Sun”, now sadly reduced to a furniture warehouse.]

[Now, sadly reduced to nothing.]

William Thirsk-Gaskill prose fiction critique bingo

Lose all the semi-colons.


Are you telling two stories, or one?


I love the title, but hate the story. Try re-writing this from a different point of view.


Show.  Don’t tell.


Is this important?


Get rid of the ellipses.


Break this down into shorter sentences.


This paragraph tells the reader nothing he/she doesn’t already know.


You seem to be engaged in what is known in cricketing circles as, ‘Taking a long run-up’.


The foot of this page is where the story really starts.


Get on with it. I hate this character.  Well done. Good use of detail. Why isn’t this in a standard format?
Yes. I love the story, but hate the title. Death to all modifiers. Now I am getting interested. I wish I had written this.
Your limited-omniscience third person narrator has ideas above its station.


Have you considered writing for Mills & Boon (no irony)? Now we are getting somewhere. Publish.


I’d like to buy this character a drink.

Walking The Line

Walking The Line

The cost is measured out in human lives:

the people, mostly men, who get sent down

for burglary, assault, or carrying knives,

their faces inked to resemble a sad clown.

I’m a liberal, and this fact makes my heart bleed:

some, when they are released, still cannot read.


We carried Simon Armitage’s sock

for forty-seven miles around the Dales.

We clambered over dry-stone walls and rocks.

Each night, we read our poems, drank real ales.

I wondered if this venture was worthwhile,

how much The Sock would do in ‘pounds per mile’.


I still have yet to meet this national treasure,

except, of course, on BBC Radio 4.

Few people prefer poetry to ‘Jezza’,

but Simon’s fame still travels more and more.

How much down its elasticated throat

could some brown, woollen item blackmail/coax?


My home town prison is a ‘Category A’.

A man in there lives in a Perspex box.

I struggled to see how we’d make this pay

even with Simon Armitage’s sock.

In Marsden, Hebden Bridge, in Bingley, Ilkley

we hoped the contributions would flow free.


Apart from a success at Hebden library,

the other readings were a crock of shit.

The Reader Organisation was conciliatory,

and I suppose that we all felt we’d done our bit.

Michael Stewart said that, after all four rounds,

we had collected just eighty-four pounds.


They say that it costs less to go to Eton

than to put some twat in prison for a year,

and socialists and liberals might feel beaten

by ‘under-class’ and ‘immigrant’ right-wing fear.

Incarceration, at the least, should lead

to books, so we can teach them how to read.

How I write 4: the 6-word story

I have recently entered a competition on http://www.readwave.com to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s famous exercise in writing a story in 6 words.  One of the Readwave editors then asked me to become an editor for this format.

The first thing to get clear is that the object of this exercise is to write a fictional narrative – a story.  Many of those I have seen so far on the Readwave website are not stories.   They are not even bad stories: they are philosophical statements, or motivational slogans.  The basic rules of narrative fiction are bound to be squeezed when we are dealing with such an impoverished format, but they are still to be observed as closely as possible.  That is the point.

Of the competition entries which are at least fictional narratives, the next biggest group of failures are the ones which are completely generic.  “There was a man, he lived, and then he died,” – even when condensed into 6 words – will not do.  Pieces in this category tend to be the beginning of a story, or the end of a story, but not a whole story.   Hemingway’s classic: “For sale: baby shoes.  Never worn” leaves a great deal to the reader, as much of modern literature does, but it does not require the reader to re-write the whole story.  The story must engage the reader.  To do that, it needs either details, or a narrative twist, or both – probably both.  The twist in Hemingway’s comes in the last two words.

My approach when I began this exercise was to begin by trying to get as far away from Hemingway’s classic as possible.  Rather than something in the form of a personal ad, I began to think about whether it would be possible to squeeze more subject matter into the story by only using nouns.  This is what I came up with:

Milk. Beer. Whisky. Meths. Milk. Morphine.

As a first attempt, I was quite pleased with this, because it has enough detail to engage the reader, and it has a narrative arc which would be obvious to most readers.  The idea of selecting 6 nouns with a discontinuity between neighbouring words struck me as quite a powerful technique.  This is my next attempt:

Scissors. Stone. Paper.  Machete.  Shears.  Bin-bag.

Entrants to the Readwave competition may notice that you can cheat like mad because the format of the Readwave website gives you a title and a strap-line, neither of which is counted towards the 6 words.  Many of the weaker entries are trying to set the scene or explain the point of the story through the title and the strap-line.  Hemingway’s piece has no title and no strap-line, and so I have left those out of the examples in this article.

The only other one I have posted so far is a variation of the sub-title of my solo performance at the 2013 Ilkley Literature Festival.

Abandoned in woods.  Raised by lawyers.

“Woods” provides (just) enough detail to engage the reader, and the narrative twist is provided by substituting “lawyers” for “wolves”, which also triggers the reader’s cultural view of the legal profession.

One consolation of this format is that, like writing a villanelle, you at least know almost straight away whether you are on the right track.

Point of view exercise: ‘the children were bored’

Third person narrator with limited omniscience

Benjamin, trying always to look cool and bored, walked round and round the room, never for an instant recalling the indiscretion in front of his father which had landed them all in this prison (Quentin and George had been sentenced along with him for laughing).  Quentin picked up a toy fire engine and began hitting it randomly against the edge of the table.  Benjamin found that this noise, which would normally have irritated him, helped to drown out the oppressive ticking of the antique clock on the playroom wall, which was driving him insane.   George languished in the corner, regarding the clock on its high nail above the fireplace.  “It’ll be out of harm’s way there,” Benjamin recalled their mother had said.  That was what she thought.  George stuck the muzzle of his spud-gun into his ‘ammunition’ with a vehemence that Benjamin thought was impressive.  Benjamin silently observed George’s experiments with differing trajectories.  George eventually locked onto one  that aimed slightly higher than the clock, and found he could hit it as often as he wanted.  Soon there was a satisfactory pattern of smears of potato-juice on the clock’s face, and a scattering of miniature, uncooked frites on the carpet.

Benjamin observed the contents of the room, evaluating everything for its potential.  Table, chairs, old-fashioned record-player, toy box, dressing-up box, bookcase, two bicycles, hamster cage.  Quentin and George were only allowed to cycle round the garden, and so their bikes were kept next to the playroom door.  Quentin’s was a kid’s trike with solid tyres, but George’s had pneumatic tyres and a bicycle-pump fixed to the frame.

Benjamin dipped his hand deep inside the waistband of his baggy trousers, and reached into the secret pocket he had sewn himself.  He took out a box of matches (padded with a cotton wool ball to stop them from rattling), a penknife, and a small lump of cannabis resin wrapped in cling-film.  He cut a small piece off the lump and inserted it into the nozzle of the bicycle-pump.  He melted the resin with the flame of a match, and got it to the point where it was beginning to smoke.  He inserted the nozzle between the bars of the cage, lovingly labelled “HECTOR” in parti-coloured, resin letters by Quentin.  He slowly pushed the plunger of the bicycle pump, trying to get the nozzle as close to Hector’s snout as possible.  Hector blinked, but did nothing more.   Benjamin was disappointed: he hankered for evidence that the rodent was off its face.

First person narrator

What the hell have they locked them up with me for?  What have I done?  My eyes will be popping out if that bastard Benjamin gets hold of me.  You know what a sadist he is.  Sick in the head that kid is, if you ask me.  Just because these looney tunes are wealthy and middle-class, it doesn’t mean they’re non-violent.  I was better off in that bloody pet shop.  At least it was always warm there, not like this stupid refrigerator of a ‘play-room’.   What the hell’s he doing now?  I do wish that idiot would pull his bloody trousers up.  You can see half his furless arse, most of the time.   He’s got something out of his “secret pocket”.  Secret pocket!  It’s not a bloody secret to me – he put me in it, once.  I was not amused, I can tell you.  Oh, please, no.  You cannot be serious.  I am in a cage in a substantial house in a supposedly respectable suburb of North Leeds, and I am being administered cannabis via a bicycle-pump.