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Category Archives: short fiction

Review: 20 Stories High, by Michael Yates

ISBN 978-0-9934811-8-5

Armley Press

GBP 8.99

This collection contains some experimental pieces, including one which has no human characters, and others in which some of the characters are human, but also dead.  There is a story set aboard a stranded spaceship, in which two of the characters are inscrutable robots with seemingly diametrically opposed moral purposes.

There are some references to what the Open University calls ‘sensitive material’ (substance abuse, violence, sex – particularly sexual impropriety) and a healthy amount of swearing.

I enjoyed this collection in two, separate ways.

The experimental stories intrigue me not so much in how the weirdness of the story is set up, but more by how it is resolved.  These resolutions, without contradicting any of the set-up, often emphasise the more basic elements of character, motive, and desire.

This leads me to the second way I enjoyed them, which was to dwell on Michael Yates’s own biography and career as a provincial journalist in the days before word processors and the smoking ban.  Whether set in a sub-editor’s office or a spaceship, Michael Yates’s most convincing characters are male, middle-aged, and have a chip on their shoulder about something they may or may not admit to.  The chap who might try to bore you to tears in a golf club or railway station bar is somebody we never want to meet, but I do like to read about him in Michael Yates’s stories.  Michael, like any good writer, can make a character who sounds as if he has had a boring life come clean about the one part of it that makes a good story.  An extraordinary person, telling interesting stories, will soon get boring.  An ordinary person, telling just one story, as if his life depends upon it, can be fascinating.

I will not divulge which among the collection is my undoubted favourite.  I will just say that it uses a borrowed title, a first person narrator who is clearly out of his mind, and it has no section breaks.

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.

‘Escape Kit’ free of charge until 25 May 2014

To encourage people to vote for ‘Escape Kit’ in the 2014 Saboteur Awards,  I am giving it away for nothing until voting closes on 25 May.  Fill in the form below, and I will send you the story in Kindle format as an email attachment.   This is a discount of £1.99.

The link to the voting page is here:


All the categories are optional: you can vote for as many or as few of them as you like.  There is no registration, or anything complicated about it.  It only takes a few seconds.  Your support is greatly appreciated.

The printed version is of course still available, but I am told there are only about 200 copies left.  The likelihood with the printed version, which is an extremely well-produced and handsome book, is that once it is gone, it is gone. 


Once again, I would like to thank the Grist editing team at the University of Huddersfield for enabling the book to get this far.  They are: Michael Stewart, Jayne Edge, Sarah Milne, Kate Pearson, and James Whitely. 



‘Escape Kit’ is nominated for a Saboteur award

‘Escape Kit’ has been short listed in the “best novella” category in the 2014 Saboteur awards.

I need votes.    Please follow this link, and vote for ‘Escape Kit’:


Voting closes on 25 May.

I will be attending the ceremony in Oxford on 31 May.  The results are not being revealed before the ceremony. 

If you want to go to all the trouble of reading it before voting for it, then you can obtain the printed version here:


and the Kindle version here:

Escape Kit – http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00JLKBWZM/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=19450&creativeASIN=B00JLKBWZM&linkCode=as2&tag=sproutnet-21

(If you use this link, rather than a generic search, the publisher gets a better deal from Amazon.)

Your support is greatly appreciated.

New publication: Escape Kit

Grist Books 2014

37 pages

ISBN: 978 0 956309945

GBP 5.99

My new publication is the first printed book in which all the writing is by me, rather than being a contribution to a collection.   It is a novella, and is also by far the longest piece I have so far had published.

This is one of three works selected for publication from the entrants to the recent Grist chapbook competition.  The other two are ‘Cowboy Genes’ by Wes Lee, and ‘A Call In The Night’ by Gabrielle Leimon, both collections of short stories.  You can read a review of the three works by Jim Greenhalf of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus here:


You can order ‘Escape Kit’ from here:


The launch party was held at Queenie’s Coffee Shop in Huddersfield, near the Lawrence Batley Theatre.  It was hosted by Rebecca Legg, and was a resounding success.  Gabrielle Leimon and I read extracts, and Michael Stewart read on behalf of Wes Lee. 

I thank the editorial team for their speed and professionalism: Michael Stewart, Jayne Edge, Sarah Milne, Kate Pearson, and James Whitely.


Review: ‘Staying Afloat’ by Sue Wilsea

Published by Valley Press

ISBN: 978 1 908853 127

156 pages

GBP 9.00




I bought this book at a reading hosted at The Leeds Library.  Jamie McGarry, the editor-in-chief at Valley Press, was on a promotional tour with some of his authors.  The evening featured readings by James Nash, Michael Stewart, Matthew Headley Stoppard, and Sue Wilsea: each author read his or her own work.  

The book contains 19 stories.  Most of them are about 7 or 8 pages long, making them on the “short” side of a short story, in keeping with the current fashion.  The blurb on the back describes the collection as being about “men, women, and children, and the ways in which they keep their heads above water.” I would have said instead, “and the ways in which some of them keep their heads above water, and some of them drown.” 

 Before I get carried away, I will set out everything negative I can think of about this collection.  The story, ‘A True Vocation’, while well-written and containing dramatic tension, is comic and, in my opinion, jars with the rest of the collection.  This story is like finding an orange segment in a salad: it is not that I do not want to consume it – on the contrary – it is simply that I would have preferred it separately.  Most of the subjects dealt with are dark, and a few of them are terrifying.  This comic story seemed like a deviation from the main theme of the collection.

 I also have a few minor, technical reservations about some of the narrative voices.  I spotted what I would consider to be minor inconsistencies, particularly when the narrative mode is third person with limited omniscience.  This, as I keep saying, is in my opinion the most technically difficult of all conventional narrative modes.  This is more a criticism of whoever edited the collection rather than of the author.  I also admit that this is technical nit-picking at its meanest. 

And I’m not mad-keen on the title.  ‘Staying Afloat’ is fine as the title of an individual story, but I think the collection as whole deserves something that, while apt, is close to being unique.  There are umpteen books called ‘Staying Afloat’. 

 Apart from that, this is probably the best collection of short stories I have ever read by a living author.  That assertion will sound exaggerated unless I explain in some detail why I make it.

 This collection is an outstanding example of what is possible in contemporary short fiction when the writer gets the simple things absolutely right. 

 The first thing that Sue Wilsea does faultlessly is to start in medias res.  There are no preambles.  The first word of the text is the first word of the story. All you get is the story.    That might sound obvious, but it is something one does not always see, and here it is a major contribution to the addictively page-turning quality of the collection. 

 The characters in all the stories are powerfully depicted.  After reading each one, I felt as if I could have written a companion story featuring the same protagonist because, in just a few pages, I knew who the protagonist was – no matter how conflicted, exhausted, broken-down, or insane, and no matter how different the character’s background and circumstances were from my own. 

 The stories are all stories – not just bodies of words.  There are hooks, inciting incidents, story beats, climaxes, epiphanies, and (contemporary) resolutions.  In short: there are beginnings, middles, and ends.  The subject matter and the style of these stories is contemporary, but the structure of them would have been familiar to Aristotle.  In keeping with contemporary fashion, the endings mostly “get out quickly”, Raymond Carver-style.  The exception to this is the last in the book, ‘Dabblers’, which is set over a span of many years, and is technically not a short story but a very, very short novel (but no less well-written and entertaining for that).  Not once in reading this collection did I get to a last line and think, “What was the point of that?”  Sue Wilsea has assiduously applied one of Kurt Vonnegut’s maxims: the one that says, “Use the time of a complete stranger in such a way that he or she will not consider it to have been wasted.” 

 Those are the basic things.  There are many other things to be commended. 

 One is that several of the protagonists are, as the blurb suggests, children.  The age-range of the characters is from the unborn to the cradle to adolescence to adulthood to senility to the grave.  This lends the collection a universality which one seldom sees so powerfully.  This universality is strengthened by the themes dealt with: conception, childbirth, infidelity, bereavement, self-deception, self-realisation, loss, survival – all depicted through characters and details, strictly according to the method of “show, don’t tell”. 

 As one would expect in a contemporary collection, characters in various states of mental extremis – nutters, if you prefer – feature largely.

 The collection has a sense of place.  The cover illustration, featuring a stylised depiction of the Humber Bridge, indicates Sue Wilsea’s connection with the East Riding of Yorkshire, and its coastline.  In this, and other subtler ways, the personality and genius of the author becomes evident as the stories progress.

Review: Front Lines, edited by Dan Formby.

Published by Valley Press

ISBN: 978 1 908853 10 3

56 pages

GBP 7.50


‘Front Lines’ is a collection of short stories by writers under 25.  It is edited by Dan Formby, who also wrote the opening story, ‘Dead Stone’.  There are 6 stories, each one between 6 and 10 pages long.

 The stated theme of the book is ‘modern society’.  I bought the book in spite of, not because of, that billing.  When I was in my early 20s, an age at which I had the aspiration to be a writer but no idea how to go about doing it, I was interested in writing fiction which had a social or political message.  Everything I wrote during that era was garbage.  Since then, I have grown to loathe didactic fiction.  I am not saying that fiction cannot or should not have a message.  I am saying that the basic rules (show, don’t tell; create convincing characters; depict an engaging setting; load the dialogue with sub-text) have to be observed.  The characters, the inciting incident, the twist(s), and resolution should come first, and the message, if there is one, should come afterwards. 

 ‘Dead Stone’ by Dan Formby begins with a quotation from another work.  As I often find, the quotation gave no insight into the story the first time I read it, and seemed scarcely less opaque after I had read the story.  The first three words of the story are ‘I heard tell…’ which sounded alarmingly archaic.  I looked in the rest of the text for a reason why the narrator’s voice sounded like this, but did not find one.  The protagonist admits in the first half page that he is an idiot.  There are stories which are engaging, in spite of having a dislikeable protagonists (an outstanding example of which is ‘Doctor Jack O’ Bear’ by Richard Yates).  There are, more frequently, stories which are supposed to have an empathetic protagonist, but which don’t succeed in generating the empathy.  ‘Dead Stone’ is in that category, in my opinion.  This is a story about a self-involved character who makes a bad life-style choice for no good reason.  The ‘modern society’ theme that is examined is homelessness, and the ways that the homeless and the not homeless regard each other.  The story erupts into violence towards the end. In spite of this, most of the impression I was left with was dissatisfaction with the narrator’s voice, which uses far too much telling and not enough showing. 

 ‘Stop Gap’ by Felice Howden is, like much of my work, a modern version of ‘Little Red Riding-hood’ (“If you go into the forest, do not talk to the mysterious stranger”).  It is narrated in the third person, and concerns a protagonist called Roger.  The handling of the third person narration is competent, but I think it would be better if Roger were a first person narrator.  Roger has eighteen hours to kill before he catches a plane.  He goes to a pub, meets the mysterious stranger, and is then taken to a squat.  Alcohol and drugs are a factor from then on, and the story becomes a stream of consciousness, written from Roger’s point of view.  This is quite a vivid and convincing description, but it reads as one thing after another, rather than a set of story beats.  I got to the end of the story without seeing an epiphany, nor anything to indicate why there was no epiphany. 

 ‘Viral Marketing’ by David Whelan is the second story which begins with a quotation.  The quotation is something to do with greed, or mindless consumption.  Again, I saw no reason why the story needs the quotation. 

 This story is narrated in the third person, is 10 pages long, and yet contains four section breaks, each one with a change of protagonist.  It therefore breaks the rule that you should not change the narrative point of view until the character and voice of the first narrator has been properly established.  It also breaks the rule that you are allowed to break a rule if it is for a worthwhile reason. 

 The final section of the story, about half a page long, is an apocalyptic about a (conventional) war between the USA and China over water resources which are being strained by rising population and global warming.  I dislike apocalyptics as a genre: I have yet to read one which I find scientifically and socially plausible (even including ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ and ‘Brave New World’).  This section was ludicrously short for the breadth of the subjects it touched on.   

 ‘This Hopeless War’ by James Mcloughlin sounded from its title that it was going to be a anti-war story, but is in fact about self-delusion and mental illness.  It indirectly recapitulates the earlier theme of homelessness, and the fact that it does so indirectly is a good thing.  This is the best story in the collection, mainly because it is the one that treats its disturbing subject while sticking to the rules of short story writing: the protagonist, while insane, is empathetic.  There is a twist near the end.  There is no epiphany, but there is enough to show the reader why there is no epiphany. 

 ‘Climb’ by Ryan Whitaker is narrated consistently in the first person by a single protagonist.  Unfortunately, I do not like the narrator.  I find the subject matter uninteresting and I do not see what this story has to do with the theme of the collection.   

 ‘Patrick’ by Nathan Ouriach is an evocative depiction of a relationship between the narrator and his pregnant partner.  This story breaks most of the rules.  There is characterisation, but there is no detectable inciting incident, or development, or climax, or epiphany, or resolution.  The timeline of the action of the story is very short, but contains reminiscences about how the characters met.  It reads like a piece of life writing rather than a short story, but does have page-turning quality.  Nathan Ouriach can therefore be congratulated for breaking the rules but still producing a readable and engaging piece of writing.  There is no didactic point in this story, but it maintains the theme of ‘modern society’ because of the life-style of the characters. 

 In the ‘ABC’ philosophy of creative writing (Art – Business – Craft) this collection does have things to commend it.  The main thing I admire about it is the business element: the fact that it was published at all.  Valley Press is one of the most dynamic independent presses that I know.  For these six writers to get their work into a Valley Press printed book (produced with Valley Press’s accustomed high quality) is no mean feat.  To do that before the age of 26 is outstanding.  I hope to see more work from these contributors, preferably in collections which are open to writers of all ages.  In order to continue to be published, I believe that most of them will need to pay much greater attention to the craft elements of writing, and cultivate the ability to write about edgy and contemporary subjects without breaking too many of the basic rules of story-telling.


My name is Cassandra. Maybe you have heard of me already. I don’t mean to appear egotistical when I say that, but it never ceases to amaze me how many complete strangers seem to know about me. I don’t know if that is just because of my striking appearance (I am rather tall, and my hair is very red, and I wear rather outré clothes) or if it is something else. It appals me to think that strangers might know my business. I must not give way to paranoia: I am crazy enough already.

Would you care for some vodka? It’s Polish, and very smooth. There is plenty of ice, but I don’t have anything to mix it with. Yes, I know it is rather early, but what the hell. There was some Guinness in the fridge, but I think I’ve drunk it all.

You can probably tell I have been crying for a long time. On and off for nearly three days, in fact. I heard the news by letter. It seemed a strange coincidence, that I had just been thinking to myself that I must take the time to make a trip to Bruges and see Georges again, after not having seen him for nearly two years. I didn’t know how I had lasted that long without seeing him. I would usually see him at least every six months. Even a day or two in his beautiful flat would make me feel re-charged: relaxed and happy in a way that no other experience produces in me – not even drinking the very best champagne.

Some people seem to think there is – was – sorry – I think I am starting to cry again – something kinky about the relationship between Georges and me. I know he is – was – forty years my senior, but what is wrong with that? He was so full of vitality. Our trips round Paris and Brussels and Amsterdam used to tire me out much more than they did him. And of course, he was as queer as a nine-shilling note (though not so energetically promiscuous as he was in the old days). But we just got on so well together. I think he was my only real friend.  As I was his.  At least I was nice to him, which is more than I can say for those street-urchins in designer clothes that he used to dine with.  The things they used to say to him, and their breath-taking ingratitude!  Talk about biting the hand that fed you.

You’ll never guess where I met him. Go on: have one guess (but if you don’t know, you’ll never get it). What was that? No. I first met him in – of all places – Tallinn. Have you ever been there?  It’s a funny place. It has become very modern in the last few years, but it still retains much of its mediaeval character. Parts of it look like the set for a Dracula film. It has some little cafés and bars in very atmospheric, dark, stone cellars, with arched ceilings and cobbled floors. You wouldn’t want to wear high heels in those places: you’d go flying. I was having a row with a little pipsqueak of a desk clerk about some misplaced allegations to do with the mini-bar, and Georges intervened. He spoke to the chap in fluent Finnish (a lot of Estonians speak it, and they are remarkably more forthcoming in Finnish than they are in English). The problem just seemed to melt away. He does – did – that with many of my problems. I am a person who has a lot of problems.

I could never understand how some-one with such impeccable taste as Georges could also work so hard for a living. I am absolutely allergic to work, which is one reason why I have always been so poor. He ran a designer clothing company, marketing mainly to a network of wealthy gay men, most of whom were his personal friends, or friends of friends. This handkerchief I’m using is one of his. See how superb the quality of the silk is? He designed some dresses for me when we were seeing each other more frequently. They are breathtaking, but I hate to wear them in restaurants or clubs – anywhere outside the apartment, in fact – I would be heartbroken if they got stained or wore out. They will be my best reminders of him, I suppose, along with the letters he wrote to me. How many people do you know who still write letters? Georges could be very expressive, in several languages. I really think he loved me, even though there could never be – have been – anything physical between us.

Anyway, I should be able to endure my grief in tolerable comfort, because the letter I told you about was from the lawyers who are handling his estate, and he has left me ninety-eight million euros. That little fashion-house of his must have been doing rather well.

Review: The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes, Part 1

Paperback: 206 pages

Publisher: Unthank Books (14 Feb 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 095642239X

ISBN-13: 978-0956422392

Price: GBP 12



 I requested a review copy of Ashley Stokes’ first collection of short stories in 2012, before it was published.  I have not written a review of it before, because it is taking me a long time to decide what I think about it, which is a good thing. 

 I have still not made up my mind about the collection as a body, and so I have decided to review individual stories.   I’m starting with the last story in the book, which is entitled ‘I Remember Nothing’. 

 Like many of Stokes’ short stories, it is a long one by contemporary standards – nearly 30 pages.  It is a complicated story and, given the timescale of the narrative and the amount of development that the protagonist undergoes, I would suggest that it might be considered to be a novella.  It would also, in my opinion, make a good film script. 

 The story opens, like ‘The Great Gatsby’ (a book on which Ashley Stokes and I have diametrically opposing views – he loves it and I hate it) with some historical reminiscence which is, by contemporary standards (the second time I’ve used that phrase) arguably irrelevant and mis-directing to the reader. 

 The protagonist is an intellectual 15-year old boy.  Like many intellectual teenage boys, he finds himself the victim of the school bully.  This is just one strand of a multi-threaded story.  The protagonist is neither a goodie or a baddie – he is a human being with limited resources, filled with self-doubt, and just trying to do the best he can.  This is very contemporary. 

 The narrative mode is first person unreliable, past tense.  The protagonist is only referred to by his real name nearly at the end, and turns out to be called Foxton.  There is quite a lot of direct speech, mostly conversations between the Foxton and either his amazingly enlightened history teacher, or the elderly and mysterious Mr E.  Foxton is Mr E’s paper-boy.  Foxton and Mr E talk about Foxton’s history lessons, which are concerned with Nazi Germany.   It is left to the reader to decide what he/she thinks about Mr E’s opinions. 

 The setting for the story is elaborately developed, which is another aspect of it which makes it feel like a novella rather than a short.  This development takes place mostly inside Foxton’s head.  He devises an alternative set of names for the places and things in his surroundings.  For example, he calls the school bus Kindertransport 151.  This did make me empathise with Foxton.  It is the kind of thing my contemporaries and I used to do at school as part of the struggle to escape boredom.  Foxton’s implied yearning for the conflict and complexity of Weimar Germany contrasts with the backdrop of the 1980s, which is convincingly-created. 

Given the story’s themes of survival, teenage confusion, and the colossal shadow cast by World War Two, I would be very interested to hear what Ashley Stokes thinks of my forthcoming novella, ‘Escape Kit’.

Review: Collected short stories of Richard Yates

Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 3rd 2002 by Picador (first published May 3rd 2001)
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
ISBN 0312420811
ISBN13: 9780312420819

This book contains the collections ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ and ‘Liars in Love’, and also some uncollected stories. The titles of both those collections are impeccably well chosen and accurate. It occurs to me that a technique for writing short fiction might be to think of the title of a collection before thinking of any individual story.

Richard Yates is possibly the best value for money short story writer I have ever come across. There is not a single poor or unengaging story in the book. The quality is astonishingly consistent. Unlike with Raymond Carver, or a lot of contemporary collections, there is no story which leaves you thinking “What was the point of that?”

The biggest theme in Yates’s stories seems to be vulnerability. At times, one finds oneself captivated and horrified at the same time. An outstanding example of this is ‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’. This is that most technically difficult of writing projects – a story without a single empathetic character. The pleasure the reader gets is from the acuity of the observation of human behaviour, and the expertly controlled way the story unfolds.

Yates began publishing these stories in the late 1950s. Many of them have an evocative, post-war atmosphere, like the American equivalent of Graham Greene. At the same time, the themes are universal and the style is contemporary.

The settings and the life-styles of the characters are comparable to Carver’s. The characters are unglamorous, often short of money, often hate their jobs or surroundings, and are nearly always unfulfilled. Another difficult feat that Yates achieves (several times) is to write engaging stories about characters who are writers.

When I was collecting critiques of my story, ‘Can We Have You All Sitting Down, Please?’ a friend compared it to Richard Yates. I can now see a thematic resemblance – miscommunication, frustration, unfulfilment – and it is one of the greatest compliments my writing has ever been paid.