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Something to Boast About

What follows is a post from one of our current students, Jodie Boast, about how structured reading can help the creativity flow, giving us ideas, inspiration and clues as to narrative design. The post can be seen in all its full glory here: https://somethingtoboastabout.com/2016/10/14/a-small-good-thing-review/

(Spoiler Alert!)

Throughout my writing journey, I have found that Raymond Carver is one of my favourite authors. His writing and short stories are usually uplifting and quite entertaining. They have meaning and are very easy to read.

This particular reading: A Small Good Thing– was a brilliant, yet sad, read. I had recently had some bad news regarding some distant friends and this story really was emotionally touching for me. I thought it was brilliantly thought out and the contrast between the family at the beginning to the way the sit and eat together- but not as you imagined at first… I was really happy I came across this short story for my ‘Writing Fiction Workshop’ module. It really establishes a brilliant narrative- which gave me inspiration to creative a narrative structure for my own story.

The short story is a very simple structure- the plot is very basic: mother buys cake, boy gets hit by car, a phone call is made followed by them all dining together. I liked how the story really took a different turn on the effect of someone’s child being gone. I liked how the author, Carver, really portrayed other characters to be part of the crime. As the ‘driver put the car into gear and drove away’, (pg 309) we don’t actually know who the driver was. Carver presents other characters as the driver or hints that they could be. Was it the baker? The person who actually initiates the notion that bad things happen in life, and sometimes people have their own things going on. The baker didn’t know what had happened, as he continues to ‘haunt’ and pester the family about the ‘Scotty’ cake that they didn’t pick up for their dead child’s birthday. This suggest that before we know he didn’t know himself, that he could have been the driver- however we learn that he isn’t when he comforts the parents at the end.

After close reading, I soon came up with the idea that maybe the doctor was the killer. As the child has clearly entered a coma, the doctor refuses to call him that. He tells the parents that it cannot be a coma and that he will wake up. He is very persistent in telling them this and not telling them much about what is going on with their son. He conducts numerous tests on their son, but he still keeps them in the dark. This suggests that he was the one who ran the child over, and assumed he would be okay, which would surprise him when he is in hospital, unable to wake up.

I feel that Carver really gained an emotional response with this piece reflecting on the feelings of both the mother and father. The writer even focuses on the baker and how he reacts to the people not picking up the phone to how he reacts when he finds out about their child. I really think Carver used emotive language to draw you in, so you cannot put it down.

Overall, this is a brilliant short story with a very emotional feel. I was sad and intrigued when reading it, but it was good to get closure for the mother. Would definitely recommend this short, quick, interesting short story… or anything by Raymond Carver!

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Plot – and how to do it…

What follows is a guest post from Alan Brenik one of our recent graduates, about his current writing and the problems causes. It was originally posted here: http://www.alanbrenik.com/2016/11/something-something-plot.html

We’re delighted to say that Alan is now working at Carcanet Press, in Manchester, as a direct result of his studies at The University of Bolton!



As a child I believed in luck. I’d skip over cracks in the pavement; hunt through the local streets and parks for discarded pennies; even descend into a panic if I saw one magpie instead of two. I knew that luck was real, and that it had to be appeased. Courted.

I suspect this was just my way of seeing meaning in life’s complex blend of cause and effect, my method of coping with the seemingly random chaos. After all, life’s a pretty scary place to live without luck on your side.

And I still do it today, to some extent. I imagine we all do. How easy is it to see the hand of bad luck in our daily lives? When things don’t go our way, we sit up, take notice; and when things are on the rise, how careful are we not to “jinx” it? We mistrust so-called good luck for the same reason we’re inclined to believe in bad luck: because we know that at its root, life is conflict, and at some point soon, if we keep breathing, that’s exactly what we’re going to encounter.

So what does this have to do with plot?

Coincidence in real life is fine. We note the effect, the relevance, and we chalk it up to life, or luck (good or bad). But when it comes to storytelling, no matter how much the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, they are always aware on some level that there is an architect behind events, pulling strings and leading them on.

Coincidence in fiction is fine as well, when it’s to the detriment of the plot. We trust bad luck. But coincidence used to resolve the plot, or assist characters in doing so, immediately smacks of convenience. As a reader, I rebel against it and against the author in turn. It shatters my suspension of disbelief and mule-kicks me out of the narrative. Now perhaps that’s just me, but nothing draws my attention to the constructed nature of fiction more than a convenient plot.

Fiction, just like life, is built on conflict, and when that conflict is tritely resolved, or a character’s struggle (physical or emotional) is side-stepped or circumvented, I feel cheated. Now that’s not to say I don’t understand this pitfall from a writer’s perspective. Plot is difficult, especially when writing a novel; tying up all those threads while marrying them to one or more characters’ “inner” journeys can be headache-inducing. But in my opinion the effort is well worth it.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what’s this philosopher’s stone of a solution you’re skirting around?

The answer: I don’t have one. Like all things concerned with writing, there’s as many approaches as there are writers. However, here’s one method that’s worked for me: reverse engineering. Even when I don’t construct a narrative in this way, I find it can often be a useful tool to help diagnose any problems or roadblocks in a plot.

For an Urban Fantasy novel I wrote last year, I knew my protagonist from the outset. I understood the kind of person he was; I knew those benchmark moments in his past that defined him; I could list his proclivities and idiosyncrasies; but perhaps most importantly in terms of my plot, I knew the kind of person I wanted him to become. I knew the emotional journey, the inner change, that I wanted him to undergo as a result of the novel, and once I knew that the rest was relatively simple.

So the question becomes how does my character get from A to B? Once I know the ending, I find it so much easier to work backwards. And here are three questions that I use as a framework when doing this:

  • What needs to happen to get to this point? If the climax of your story takes place in a hospital for example, how do all the characters involved get there and why? If the villain is defeated with a magical bedpan say, the same questions apply. It should make sense to the reader (at least in retrospect), even if the chain of events leading up to this point are complex. And this goes for every scene.
  • At the same time as asking what needs to happen, you need to ask what would my character/s do, what choices would they make, at every turn? As much as the physical events need to have a logic, so do your characters’ actions – this can be a broken or flawed logic, of course, but the choices a character makes should reflect the person they are and the person you have led the reader to understand them to be. The danger here is that you end up with a boring, linear plot that reads like a checklist to explain the finale – but don’t be afraid to embrace a circuitous route; let yourself have fun getting there.
  • This does lead on to the final question, though: is everything driving the storyforward? If your plot deviates for 400 pages without getting any closer to the resolution, but it follows a logical progression – change it. If, however, those 400 pages are necessary for your character/s to change and evolve emotionally to fit your ending, well that’s not a deviation at all. That’s driving the story forward. Still, my policy is one of economy… rather than force the reader to slog through sentence after sentence to explain a character’s development, I find it’s better (albeit more difficult) to find that one act, that one image that says it all. Hit that beat and move forward. Your novel will be the stronger for it.

I understand this approach won’t be for everyone, but it has worked for me. And thinking back, maybe the actual lesson (if there is one) to take away from all this is to question your story. Interrogate it. If something is on the page – a chapter, a scene, a sentence, a word – what is it doing to tell your story? Would something else work better? And if it’s doing nothing, adding nothing, then cut it. Be brutal, be honest.

I’ve been told that writing is nothing more than choosing the right words in the right order. It sounds maddeningly simple when put like that. Still, I’ve found that when it comes to constructing a narrative, luck is a poor substitute for hard work and careful thought.


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The quality of our teaching

The recent Sunday Times league tables for universities ranked the quality of teaching in Creative Writing at The University of Bolton as the best in the country. The programme here also boasts the highest ranking in terms of student experience.

Why? If you’re already studying here, or you’ve left in the last few years, you’ll already know. If you’re thinking of studying here in the future, or are just interested to find out more, take a look at this: https://theconversation.com/why-the-teaching-of-creative-writing-matters-67659


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Live Literature, Tues. 8th November

The Creative Writing and English programmes at The University of Bolton and Bolton Central Library are pleased to present the second in their autumn series of poetry and fiction performances as part of the ‘Live Literature’ series.

Vona Groarke and Jenn Ashworth


Vona Groarke has published seven collections of poetry with Gallery Press, the latest being ‘Selected Poems’, (2016). Her book-length essay on art frames, ‘Four Sides Full’, is due this month. Vona is the current Editor of ‘Poetry Ireland Review’ and selector for the Poetry Book Society. She also teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.


ashworthJenn Ashworth’s first novel, ‘A Kind of Intimacy’, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, ‘Cold Light’ (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Jenn’s other novels include ‘The Friday Gospels’ and ‘Fell’. She currently teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.


Tuesday, 8th November 2016, 6.30pm-8.00pm

Bolton Central Library, Le Mans Cres, Bolton BL1 1SE

Admission is free, and light refreshments will be served.


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The 2016 Bolton Poetry Competition: deadline NEXT FRIDAY 4 November



Calling all committed creative writers and budding bards! Don’t forget to enter this exciting poetry competition with two winning categories: one an open entry for the public; the other for University of Bolton students and staff. In each category there will be a £50 voucher for the winner, with a runner-up prize of £25.

The broad theme of the competition (interpret as loosely as you wish!) is a celebration of this year’s National Poetry Day: ‘Messages’. You may submit two poems, of up to 25 lines each, to boltonpoetry[at sign]gmail.com.

Entry is FREE. Poems should be included in the body of the email text, or as Word document or PDF attachments only. The poem should be in a standard font, and you should indicate whether you are entering the staff/student or public competition. Staff/student entries need to be submitted from an @bolton.ac.uk email address. The deadline for entries is 11.59pm on Friday 4 November 2016.

The competition is administered by the English and Creative Writing department, part of the School of the Arts at the University of Bolton, and the Bolton Library and Museum Services. It will be judged by two published poets based in the dept., Evan Jones and Ben Wilkinson.

The prize-giving will take place on Tuesday 6 December 2016 at the Live Literature event in Lecture Theatre 1, Bolton Library and Museum, Le Mans Crescent, Bolton, BL1 1SE, at 7pm. The winners will receive their prizes and have an opportunity to read their winning poems.


Evan and myself look forward to reading your work.

Please forward this message to anyone you think might like to enter.

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It’s Official! Creative Writing at Bolton: FIRST in the UK for Teaching Excellence



The people at The Times newspaper have crunched the numbers, and it’s official: out of some 49 institutions offering Creative Writing degrees, from St Andrews to Goldsmiths to MMU to Sheffield Hallam, it is Creative Writing at The University of Bolton that is rated Number #1 for Teaching Excellence.

We knew we were doing something right in our department, always striving to deliver the very best to our fantastic students. But it’s always nice to get official recognition!

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Live Literatue, Tuesday 11th October

The Creative Writing and English programmes at The University of Bolton and Bolton Central Library are pleased to present the first in their series of poetry and fiction performances as part of the ‘Live Literature’ series.

Beverley Bie Brahic & Conor O’Callaghan


Beverley Bie Brahic is a prize-winning translator of Apollinaire, Yves Bonnefoy and Francis Ponge. Her poetry collection, ‘White Sheets’, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Her most recent collection, ‘Hunting the Boar’, is a 2016 Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Conor O’Callaghan was born in Northern Ireland and grew up ten miles away in the Republic of Ireland. He has published four books of prize-winning poetry, most recently ‘The Sun King’ in 2013. His first novel, ‘Nothing on Earth’, has just been published by Transworld/Doubleday.

We will also be launching the University of Bolton and Bolton Library and Museum Services Poetry Competition.

Tuesday, 11th October 2016, 6.30pm-8.00pm, Bolton Central Library Le Mans Cres, Bolton BL1 1SE

Admission is free, and light refreshments will be served.