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Anne Youngson is from Burford in Oxfordshire. She joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in January 2015 and her thesis title is ‘Once Upon a Time: A study into how stories begin’.
I had worked with the Oxford Brookes Business School and was impressed by the flexible and creative approach of the University.
I had completed an MA at Oxford Brookes and knew the staff in the faculty, particularly those associated with my particular subject (Creative Writing). This was the most important factor in deciding to undertake my PhD at Brookes.
Before commencing my PhD studies, I was working as a consultant in the field of business and skills development.
I have found the support and resources excellent, and any problems in settling in were taken care of promptly. I have particularly valued the many opportunities to meet with other students from my own and other disciplines, and to hear about the inspiring work being done. There is a very inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, in the faculty, but also in the University as a whole.
My research project is designed to explore how stories start, through both theory and practice. The first few lines or paragraphs of a story define the relationship between the reader, the writer and the story being told; they provide clues to the world the reader will find herself inhabiting; they condition the reader to expect a certain type of story, or to expect that certain aspects of that story will be important, and the writer can choose whether to fulfil or play with those expectations. From a writer’s point of view, the way the story unfolds can be a significant factor in how it develops, where it goes to in its trajectory. There has been relatively little written on this topic, from the point of view of the writer. Approaches to the critical reading of literature can be applied to the first lines and sentences, and it is part of my study to review how this has been done, and how relevant to the work of a writer this criticism can be in helping to shape the beginning. However, since Aristotle advised in favour of starting ‘in media res’, that is, in the middle of things, there has been little attention paid to advice to the writer, unless it is in Creative Writing Handbooks which tend to concentrate on the simplest of aims: catching the reader’s attention, overcoming the hurdles of putting pen to paper.
In my study, I am concentrating on short stories, both because the beginning has more resonance than for a longer piece of work, for the reader, and because it is more important for the writer, who has to convey the content and themes of the story in a much shorter space and therefore has to make every part of the narrative work. As well as analysing critical writing on the subject, I am studying the work of selected 20th and 21st century short story writers, writing in English. From these two strands I am devising a model of the types of opening in short stories, and the ways in which these can be deployed. As a major part of the final submission, I will have a collection of short stories I have written, inspired by and developing the different forms of opening. Some of these will be experimental, or written in particular genres.
This approach, of applying the theories I am developing to a creative body of work, has the potential to be both useful in demonstrating the range of options open to a writer in beginning a narrative, but also in enhancing my own creative practice.
I enjoy the flexibility of being a research student, having the time and space to follow up on ideas that might not, initially, seem to be relevant but which can turn out to be fruitful lines of inquiry. The challenge, as a part-time student, is to make sure the time for study is fitted in with other activities. The faculty staff, and the training department, encourage regular interaction, and I have found that taking advantage of the opportunities for discussion on the University campus are helpful in keeping a focus on the work in hand.
The training I have undertaken has been extremely interesting and very professionally delivered. These sessions are also inspiring because they encourage interaction with other students.
One of the short stories I set out to write for the project developed into a novel-length piece, which has now been accepted for publication by a major UK publisher, and will be coming out in 2018. I am therefore planning to develop both the short story collection and other ideas for longer fiction for submission to publishers.