2084, crowdfunding and interviews

Anyone who has been even slightly near Unsung Stories on social media in the last two weeks will have noticed that we’ve launched an anthology of dystopian fiction called 2084. The idea for this is pretty much – get writers to ‘do an Orwell’ and look into our future.

A few people have been asking how we managed to pull together our contributor list – which includes Christopher Priest, David Hutchinson, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe and a bunch more excellent writers – so I’ll happily spill the secret for you here. Are you ready? Secret publishing voodoo coming: I asked them. Pretty much just sent an email to them, or their agent, saying who we were, what the project was and why we wanted them involved.

So what’s the moral of the story? Your favourite authors are really groovy people, and a good idea gets anyone’s attention.

We also decided to try something new and crowdfund this one using Kickstarter. We figured we have a good list of writers and we’ve spent some time building our reputation, so it might just fly. And boy did it fly!

We set our goal at a number we thought would be achievable for the month – a nice, solid £2,500. Eleven hours later, that was in the bag. A couple of days later we had £4500 in pledges. Now, at the two-week mark we are 366% funded at over £9000, adding more authors to the collection and looking where to stretch next. Simply, its been a staggering and humbling couple of weeks.

To help promote the project I’ve done a couple of interviews. The first was with the Papertrail Podcast and you can read that on their website. The second was with the Skiffy and Fanty podcast, as the very first guest(!) on their new Signal Boost show: Signal Boost #1: George Sandison (2084) and Alexandra Pierce (Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler). So thanks very much to Alex at Papertrail, and Jen and all at Skiffy and Fanty for having me.

Also, keep an eye on the Kickstarter tomorrow evening, we have some limited edition rewards going up…

 

 

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. 

Confessions of a fiction editor

We started accepting short story submissions on Unsung Stories a couple of months back. It’s already been a great experience and we have already found things that have screamed out to be published. But we’ve also learned that we have to make hard decisions and stick to them. We’ve had to define criteria of what we want and don’t want. We’ve even had to start *shudder* scoring things.

You know what? Picking good stories is hard. I don’t mean that in a ‘Oh lord, how shall I ever recognise genius from dross?’ Genius makes that one easy for you. What I’m talking about is the mundane process, the inevitable reality of reading hundreds of stories in search of the few that have that alchemical something.

I’ve spent a lifetime reading, years learning critical skills and more years learning to write. You think it would be second nature to me by now. But it really isn’t. Worse, I am already aware at early stages how quickly your brain can start playing tricks on you. No 8-hour reading marathon will ever help.

So. Here are a couple of confessions from a guilty editor, cunningly disguised as tips for writers. Sure, they might look like pointers to you, but to me these are penitent words slapped onto a tear-soaked keyboard, offered in the hope you’ll all forgive me my hubris:

  1. Hooks – You’ve all been told a good hook is essential, admit it. We all know it. Except, when you’re writing an idea takes you by the hand, leads you off and says, ‘Just one frilly para at the start. What’s the harm in that…?’ Everything, is the answer. The first line is essential, be it short and dramatic or longer and miasmic. We always read past the first sentence, but the best stories we’ve read drag us into their world immediately.
  2. Creating characters – You have so few words to use that characterisation can be hard, but it’s critical. A story about Hero Unit #23 on an adventure isn’t much. Pepper that unit with caprice, quirks, foibles and little details and they will come to life. Don’t tell me what colour their hair is, tell me what they see just before they go to sleep.
  3. Only tell the interesting bits – Honestly, when you’re working to a strict word count why waste clauses establishing redundant details? We watch so many films it’s now normal to think visually, and for writers this means we picture the scene in our head. This is absolutely fine, just don’t write up the stage directions. If it’s not clear who is looking at/turning to/walking to/whatever, it doesn’t matter.

Also, typos aren’t a good look. You know who you are.

Drabblecast, Norm Sherman and tickling the lexical bone

My Christmas discovery for 2012 is something that has bought me great joy. Like endless shiny packages of great joy, each individually wrapped by a different talented person and containing those sour, bitter-sweet lumps of raw meat which ooze word-juice, flambéed in 100% proof narrative before being coated in the crumbs of your expectations and deep-fried in the realisation that yes, there are actually over 260 more of them to come. I am, naturally, talking about Drabblecast, but you already knew that didn’t you. Clever little monkey.

Having been sent there by a (modestly done) nod towards her own work I found myself listening to Go Beep by Aliya Whiteley. I was expecting an interesting story, based on precedent, but imagine my joy at hearing the rest of it. Norm Sherman is one of a very rare breed, an America who is deadpan, erudite, frequently surreal and excellently cutting. He’s definitely not racist either (see ep. 262).

For example: “Another Halloween special. Another night sitting around eating candy straight from the bag and ignoring the goddamn doorbell. Just another tradition I like to call ‘Fuck you, I paid for it’.” Which is followed by a great debunking of costumes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and skanks and a Lovecraftian take on the 12 Days of Christmas (My True Lovecraft Gave to Me by Eric Lis)

I could list more but that would take the fun out of discovering them yourself. For those who are a little ashamed of giggling on public transport, maybe listen to it at home. I’ll leave you with the strongest recommendation in my arsenal (yup, the blue one with the ribbon on) to check it out though. A couple of good starters though: