The Digger’s Tale

My story, The Digger’s Tale, has been published at Unofficial Britain.

Unofficial Britain is a great site dedicated to ‘unusual perspectives on the landscape of the British Isles, exploring the urban, the rural and those spaces in between.’ You can read stories and articles there, and I’d also recommend spending some time with the soundscapes.

The story was something that started scratching at me after I read Gary Budden’s Baleen – it was something about the way we treat dead bodies, and how they disrupt space. It was meant to be weirder, and first person, but it seems that death, as Gary says, has its own energy.

The garages are real (but not the ones in the picture), and I did use to play in the rec (though, thanks to vertigo, I wasn’t so carefree on the climbing frame) and walk those fields as a child. As far as I know they’re still standing, and haven’t been stained in the way I describe. But the diggers will come for it all at some point.

Advertisements

Hackney Gothic

New ideas brewing here; this time the world outside my window, askance. Something about Hackney sits strange on me. It’s not just the weird moments, which abound for those inclined to look. It’s more than gentrification, the way affluence rubs against absence. Change is on the horizon, but in a predictable form.

It’s the things that have always been here. That bounty of the world’s cuisines and mythologies living like ships in the night. When opening doors in my block reveals church on Sunday, jum’ah on Friday, voodoo practitioners any day and the timeless disinterest of us, the godless. Architecture functioning as the archaeology of taste. A city where no-one agrees what it means to be romantic.

One man’s melting pot is another’s syncretic haze.

More thoughts from the slush pile

The last few months have involved a lot more reading at Unsung Stories. It’s still proving to be a fascinating process full of surprises. But it’s also starting to reveal trends and common problems with submissions.

So rather than making you guess what they are, here are some notes I’ve taken in the last five months. These ones are going to be a bit more specific but, same as before, these are things I see too often. The presence of things like the below makes the delicate bit of my brain you are appealing to shut down.

First of all, to remind you: Short stories are disproportionately hard. Making 2000 words into a complete artefact is difficult. Really difficult. They are not easier because they’re shorter.

Two strands this time: Specific tips and broader principles.

The second section is an attempt to construct a process to help with writing short stories. Like stories, I assume this early version is imperfect. I suspect it will go through many drafts and in time to come look completely different. As with stories, feedback is essential. So all comments are welcome. Encouraged, in fact.

Whether these points make me seem like a belligerent upstart with no respect for literature and the endeavours of authors, or a font of wisdom is up to you to judge. Pornokitsch got it right:

Ellory Sedgewick said: “My selection is made according to the whim of one individual.” Which is empowering, terrifying, and a very good reason that no  one should take it to heart.

It’s alchemy, both as an editor and writer. If we’re lucky we’ll make some gold together.

 

Specific tips

First of all, an idea someone suggested to me which I have tested successfully a number of times: Delete the first two paragraphs of your story. Does it still make sense? Have you removed action essential for understanding the plot? No? Repeat.

It’s galling the first time you do it, but the truth is some of us need to gain momentum when we write. I know writers who plan and start from a perfect first line, but I’m not one of them. I ease in and find my pace maybe 50 words in. Both techniques are valid, of course, but it doesn’t mean I should share those first 50 words.

Some things you should only use four times a year:

  • Exclamation marks
  • The word ‘suddenly’
  • Ellipses
  • The phrase ‘In that/this moment’

Some things you should use once a year:

  • Writers as characters (and that one time had better be damned good *glares at Paul Auster*)
  • Angels as characters. It’s worth clarifying on this one, I acknowledge they come with a vast wealth of source material. They are also dripping with classic themes and imagery. Both of these things, however, demonstrate a countless number of precedents. You ain’t first, tread carefully.

Some things you should never use:

  • Your first draft (Editing is essential. If you genuinely believe it came out perfect the first time you are wrong)
  • Surprise, it was all a dream! AKA, The Dallas Fallacy
  • Death as a character. It sounds a cool idea but remember you’re going toe-to-toe with Bergman, Pratchett and Gaiman and other heavyweights. The bar has been set.
  • Stories where someone tries to work out if they’re in Heaven or Hell. You know that line you’re thinking of, ‘You look like this because your soul remembers it.’? I’ve seen it.

Concept, Characters, Plot, Message

Perhaps the most common problem I see has its roots in whether the stories are concept driven or not. One of the easy misconceptions when writing short stories is that things like cool ideas or well-executed twists are enough.

The truth is the concept is just one element of what you need. Writing a slick twist is a good skill to learn but with no characters or purpose to the story it remains a technical exercise. Don’t be fooled by the ‘short’ bit, they still need to be complete stories.

So say you have a great idea. Good start. Now build on that and work out the characters who will help you explore it. What is their place in this world you’re creating and how do they relate to each other? Why them and not some one else? Now what drives the story: do the characters act or react, and why is that important? That narrative tension you want to create depends on all of these things, not just one.

Perhaps most importantly of all, what are you trying to communicate? This is the chicken and egg question because you need to answer it first of all, but you can’t answer it until you have a good idea of the above.

Take Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which hinges on a concept. The idea is strong, but the wider themes come from the combination characters and their relationships, the plot and, critically, how we as readers come to understand these things. The commentary on culpability and justice, contexts of violence in society, dehumanisation as a coping mechanism et al comes from a combination of techniques.

Applying the principles

To use a set of themes I see reasonably often in submissions: Stories where a character (who’s often anonymous) is trapped in a mysterious void- or weight-analogue as a metaphor for depression.

Message (Egg): How hard, lonely and scary depression can be to deal with.

Concept: Now the void-analogue might be pertinent but it’s not illuminating, or enough to sustain a story. Cathartic as a writer, perhaps, but for the story you need to look beyond solely expressing symptoms. You want people to understand what it feels like, and it feels complicated, right? Like it’s tied to every part of your life. The symptoms are just the front line. So there needs to be a narrative, a point of dialogue between writer and reader.

Character: Step one is giving your character an identity. It’s perhaps hardest with this story because it feels so intimate, but that’s precisely the point to embrace fiction. Make it your creation, not you. It is empowering. Now who are you writing about and in what ways are they similar or different from you? How can you take advantage of that?

Plot: A story needs change, progression. It can come full circle if you want, but it has to go somewhere. So is this about onset or the resolution? Is someone slipping into another world or breaking free, throwing that weight off? Did your character do it? Was it done to them? In the same way we deal with the state, when we look beyond the all-consuming moment we can see how it fits together. The potential lies in the context of the moment, not the moment itself.

Message (Chicken): Well that depends on you, now. Maybe it’s about how hard it can be to help introverted people. Maybe it’s an uplifting tale of unexpected charity. Maybe the other place has something to say about our world. Maybe your character has something to tell us. Whatever it is, it will speak of how hard depression can be to deal with, and more.

TL;DR

Got a cool idea with a neat twist/reveal at the end? Great. That’s only part of a story though. Message, concept, characters, plot, message again. 

Cover reveal: Of Falls and Angela

Cover artwork is pretty exciting. I’ve always got a buzz out of seeing the announcement then finding that the new designs are in fact completely frickin’ ace. Like when I saw the clothbound edition of I, Robot from Harper Voyager, all those gorgeous original covers for Iain Banks’ books or Ad Astra by Wayne Haag.

Well, I wanted a go.

I have recruited the talents of artist Jordan Grimmer and designer Martin Cox to get me some tasty cover artwork for Of Falls and Angela which is being prepared for publication on 13th Jun (yes, that is a Friday and no, I’m not superstitious).

Jordan has made me a pretty staggeringly good bit of artwork and – aww shucks, I’m gonna say it – was great to work with as well. He’s your man for helping you develop the concept and delivering the goods. Just have a look below.

Martin is similarly talented but I’ve worked with him for years at the day job so I’m taking him for granted now. Seriously though, he’s another guru. For one thing, he’s our designer at Unsung Stories (including the branding).

But that’s enough ado. So, with no more of the aforementioned, here’s the cover for Of Falls and Angela. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Of Falls and Angela

 

Reasons to be Peaceful, 1-2-3

It’s time for a short apology regarding why it’s been so quiet here recently. Here it comes: I’ve been really busy, sorry! To give a bit more detail, here’s some news about the exciting things which have been keeping me busy. So in a very particular order:

1) Unsung Stories

What’s been eating my time most voraciously is the new science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint I have been setting up. Yes, you read that right. The day job now involves getting a fiction imprint off the ground. This is tremendously exciting.

We have two books due out soon, Deja Vu by Ian Hocking and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley. These are both absolute crackers and I’m currently working with illustrators and editors to make sure they are flawless and beautiful to boot.

For those of you so inclined you might like to know that we’re also open for submissions.

Unsung Stories

2) Of Falls and Angela

The time has come for me to create a money-mouth situation which means that I will be self-publishing Of Falls and Angela in the coming months as well. I’m currently working with talented chap, Jordan Grimmer on some cover artwork which promises to be salivatingly good.

I’ll keep this blog updated as that progresses but expect publication soon

3) Book 2

Yup, I’m starting again. In my head it’s called The Many Little Deaths of Arthur Malory and it’s a near-future melodrama. I’ve drafted 15 out of 32 sections and it’s feeling much tighter structurally than Angela did at this stage. This one will be much closer to home as well as it’s about how we deal with increasingly porous social environments in the modern world, and the roots of anxiety.

Don’t worry, there’s a love story in there too.

Writing betterer

More style tips today. The first one comes from Rayne Hall via Venture Galleries in the form of sentences that mark you out as a beginner. I’ve added some thoughts after in italics:

  1. S/he turned to look/and looked at him/her – I was definitely guilty of this one. When starting out there is a compunction to establish the setting of everything, to describe the scene as you picture it. It’s only once you’ve spent time writing, exploring your own bad habits, that you begin to realise just how much is either already implied or is simply unnecessary. Turning as a verb should be reserved for journeys and, occasionally, cases where you character facing has significance as to what/who they can see. Really though, it’s like suddenly (see below) – you almost certainly don’t need it.
  2. S/he nodded slowly – This one is a stock dramatic image and a cliché  It may well crop up when you’re considering how best to phrase that deeply considered reaction your character is about to give, the literary equivalent of the loading progress bar.
  3. S/he took a deep breath to steady her/himself – This is another stock cliché. If you really must have something like this stick with ‘prepared’ or a genuine description of what they are doing. If you find yourself writing this (or 2, indeed) the stop, take a deep breath and think again. Resist the urge to nod slowly once you find something pithier to replace it. 

The other tips come from the late Elmore Leonard and his article, Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle. There’s more room to disagree with Leonard’s points here because following them strictly removes certain plot devices and other techniques from your pencil case. However, they are very good rules and even if you occasionally ignore them they should make you think why you’re ignoring them and the effect you are creating in compensation.

A good example of one to sometimes ignore is 3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue. On a purely functional level I like ‘replied’, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’ and others which convey extra information. However, I agree with the point he makes – if you get as far as ‘asseverated’ maybe check the rear-view mirror to make sure the convey is still with you.

There are a couple which, to my mind, are non-negotiable though. Again, my thoughts in italics. The rules are:

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” – . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.” The Stephen King Rule.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control – You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful. Another variation on this rule is 4 per year! So I’d have three left. Sparingly, guys.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.” – This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points. I’ve already touched on this (Keep it Concise) but it can’t be stressed enough. Immediacy, urgency, tension and the like are all connoted. If you don’t know what I mean watch Alien again and tell me which bits are the most tense. How many was the alien in?

Publication

This is officially the start of ‘something’. I have joined to illustrious and impoverished ranks of ‘People who have had a story published’. I am now a published author. I can prove it, just ask Norm.

In fact, don’t ask Norm, he’s very busy. But do listen to Norm read it out here – Drabblecast 292: Hollow as the World

So there we have it. My name has been spoken, associated with the act of creation, and just like that I have taken a bold step into being much more marketable as a product creator (see How to Get a Literary Agent). No more will submissions be accompanied by the distasteful conclusion, ‘I do not have any publication credits to my name as yet, but have various pieces out for consideration across a range of markets.’ Ohhhhh no, Nelly, not any more.

Now they will be joyously closed with ‘My work has been published in the Drabblecast (episodes 292 and 288). Whilst the honour of being my first has passed I can assure you I am much more experienced now. A fact I am sure you will appreciate in a few minutes time. Now put the cava down and come here, you hunk of love, you.’ Or words to that effect.

For those of you who can’t listen to the podcast, here’s the flash in all it’s humble glory:

Continue reading