Need help writing short stories? Here is some inspiration…

My wife said if you want to write better short stories (I do) why not read some good examples, like Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of his works first published in 1999. What a wise woman (my wife, not Neil Gaiman, he is a wise man).

I have finished now and I am inspired. Generally I find anything less than a full-blown novel difficult to write, but Gaiman can’t stop himself launching into an extra short tale in his introduction to the book that is full of them.

Simple words, nothing pretentious or fancy, but so imaginatively and brilliantly written with such lifelike characters. I feel like I know Mrs Whitaker – I really should nip around for a cup of tea and check she is all right. And somehow it’s very credible that she came to posses the Holy Grail.

As I progressed through the collection I found the stories quite mixed, some would work for young readers and some would be unsuitable. I didn’t really get on with the narrative poems, but no doubt that says more about me than Mr Gaiman’s work.

What the book left me with , apart from excellent entertainment, was a fine demonstration that while an obvious truth, uttered tentatively or timidly, can become doubtful and unbelievable, the impossible, stated with confidence and conviction, can become plausible and even probable…

Dear Mister Fantasy

Similarities abound, I love comparisons, how about the joy of reading and the joy of listening to music?

Helped in this example of some brilliant music (Dear Mr Fantasy performed by Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood) by the overlap of the word fantasy – my favourite reading and writing genre (possibly my favourite word).

And what about the lyrics (below) – it’s a short story in its own right…

Dear Mister Fantasy play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

You are the one who can make us all laugh
But doing that you break out in tears
Please don’t be sad if it was a straight mind you had
We wouldn’t have known you all these years

Written by Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi

Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

True Grit cover

Strong language from a protagonist in trouble!

Imagine [plot spoiler] a young woman falls down a hole out in the wild west. She can’t escape, her two friends may be dead. One arm is wedged, the other broken. It is nearly dark, there are bats, she is slipping further down. What harsh expletives will she utter?

“My thought was: This will not do.”

Then it gets worse, a rotting corpse with a nest of rattlesnakes coming out its ribcage, more slipping, a bad guy above – taunting. Does she finally lose it and curse or swear?

“This, thought I, is a pretty fix.”

Such restraint by Mattie in True Grit by Charles Portis (1968).

True Grit cover

The films were good, the book is excellent. Its all about Rooster Cogburn’s true grit, but of course it’s the girl who has even more grit in the end.


“…a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Thanks to the author William Boyd for recently quoting these powerful words from Vladimir Nabokov:

“…common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

This is from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: A Memoir (1951). I presume (in my ignorance) that the book contains more thought provoking content than this and I’ll seek it out and read it. It was quoted by William Boyd in his essay and interview for BBC Radio 2, Jeremy Vine  radio show on the theme of  ‘What Makes Us Human‘. I’m not a great fan of Vine’s show (too much speaking and not enough music) but this hooked me and stopped me changing station. William Boyd and Jeremy Vine

These few words, and some others well placed around them by Boyd, struck a chord with me.

He believes that the chaotic randomness of reality may end our individual existence at any moment. And forever – there is no afterlife. Not cheery thoughts! But he also says that as we know (deep down) the truth of this harsh reality of our brief sojourn on this planet, we should embrace it, use it to help us prioritise our actions and decisions. In other words seize the day, live life to the full, do stuff while you can.

Another point he stresses, is that we all seek relief from knowing this through love – the one thing we all yearn for.

Love and be loved if you can…





“We’re all a little dishonest. But cheating at bridge is a step too far…”


Inspiring on two levels, this article by David Mitchell in the Guardian was both brilliantly written and raised some really interesting points.

Not about the card game bridge, but about honesty. You can extrapolate that to the age old good and bad decisions and actions. I’d like to think that when a moral decision is called for I choose good because it is the right thing to do. But is that really true – I don’t know that I’ve really been tested in that respect. And what about everyone else? Putting aside those that make the ‘bad’ choices, do people do the right thing for moral reasons, or because they don’t want to deal with the guilt, or because they fear discovery and punishment (or divine judgement).

 “The rare occasions when I’ve broken David-Mitchell Picrules or laws led to traumatic breaches in my peace of mind. It’s a frailty of gumption that, luckily for me, shares the symptoms of a moral compass.”

That’s an honest and humble opinion by David Mitchell and I suspect this would apply to more of us than would readily admit it. Perhaps it is about evolution, we couldn’t live in such busy and highly populated societies if everyone made the decisions that only favoured themselves, taking no heed of consequences for others. David has a much better way of saying that though:

 “Honesty is very convenient – and that’s probably why most of us are mostly honest most of the time. Society functions more smoothly if the statistical risk of being misinformed, robbed, ripped off or murdered in any given situation remains low. The fact that most people realise this is a felicitous confluence of common sense and laziness – as much a victory of apathy over enterprise as it is of righteousness over sin.”

All good thought provoking stuff to inspire writers….

Game of Thrones Sets the Standard

Interesting to see this article in the Guardian recently by Anne T Donahue, commenting about the recent trend on TV for shocking plot twists, generally involving the deaths of main characters. (Some spoiler here).

Some extremely popular shows are mentioned but there seems to be no doubt that the standard has been set by Game of Thrones, particularly (but not only) with the amazing Red Wedding scene.

“Television’s long, drawn-out narratives used to offer a false sense of comfort against the big beats of two-hour movies. Now, shocking twists are necessary ways of driving the action.”

That’s a comment about TV in 2014 compared with an example from Game of Thronesa book published in 1996. Well OK it’s about the current and excellent TV adaptation, but that is of course based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. If you have read them you will know that this is just one element of what makes them great, the shock twists are but a part of a much broader realism and complexity.

In all the books I have ever read, the Red Wedding scene has not been surpassed – it would be hard to do so!


Today is Tolkien reading Day!


Today is Tolkien reading Day!

The Tolkien Society says

“Tolkien Reading Day is an international event held on 25 March – the day of the destruction of the One Ring – each year. It is held to promote interest in the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien, with many local groups putting on events at local library and book-stores.”

Reading The Lord of the Rings (the first time) as a young teenager was inspirational – it had a lasting effect that is still with me now (a few years on, let’s not be too specific). Reading, writing, nature, nobility of spirit, morality, strength of character – all hugely important aspects of life Tolkien touches still, long after he left us.

JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien

I love that the theme this year according to the Society is ‘hope‘ (I missed that above). He managed to take his characters and readers to places of such despair – but there was always hope that somehow shined through.