Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Thomas Hardy vs the Walking Dead

Hot on the heels of my unexpected reprint request and Fiction Desk prize comes some more good news: I won the 2013 New Writer microfiction competition! Hooray!

I'm very pleased about this as it's a competition I've entered several times over the last few years (usually just in the short story category) and was beginning to think I'd never even land a spot on the longlist. The best part is that as well as a cash prize, I'll have my story printed in the magazine. Print credits are something I'm determined to get more of this year, so this is a very welcome addition to the growing publication pile (if three things can legitimately constitute a pile?).

My winning story, So the Dead Rose from the Grave, is an odd little piece, a zombie story entirely lacking in gore or horror, and I thought I'd use this post to talk a little about the inspiration behind it. The story evolved out of an exercise a few friends and I do on an occasional basis in a group over on the writing forum Chapter 79. It's an informal arrangement, but generally the idea is that we each post a short piece of writing to the forum, and then are randomly allocated one of the pieces to work with. There's no set rules to how we respond to the trigger piece - we could write about what happened next, or retell the story from another character's perspective, or just take an image or line of text that stands out and go off on a complete tangent, whatever feels right at the time. Usually we submit pieces of our own work, but occasionally we'll use a poem or the first paragraph or two of a book pulled at random from our shelves.

Late last year, I found myself allocated Thomas Hardy's poem, The Walk. I didn't find the words themselves provided much in the way of a trigger for a new piece, but the slightly detached, melancholic tone of the poem seemed a more promising angle. Particularly the second verse, which seemed to me to suggest that whoever the first verse was addressed to had died. My thought process basically went along the lines of Death... The Walk... The Walking Dead! I'd been watching a fair bit of the zombie-filled TV series back then. But, with the mood of the poem still in mind, I decided my zombies would bring with them, not blood-lust and terror, but a kind of sadness. Their resurrection would be a warning, not a danger, to the living. But would anybody listen?

And so the tale took shape. At the end of the exercise, I had a short story I was pleased with. It got a good response from the other members of the group, and I decided it was worth taking further. So, a few edits, a trim here, a bit more meat on the bones (so to speak) there, and I had something ready to send somewhere. I picked The New Writer competition - and if you want to know what happened next, go back to the beginning of this post and try to pay more attention this time.

So the answer to the question, "What do you get if you cross Thomas Hardy with The Walking Dead?" appears to be, A prize-winning short story. Who'd have thought it? I hadn't really given the process of combining two such disparate ideas much thought, until a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across Adam Marek's utterly brilliant "sketchnote" of The Evolution of an Idea. His argument (and it's a convincing one) is that ideas combine in a similar way to atoms undergoing nuclear fusion - two unrelated concepts, if you can mash them together with sufficient force, will combine. The energy of the collision pulls in other ideas, images, and triggers a sort of creative flow, that the writer then has to work into a semblance of order in order for it to be accessible to everyone else. It's a fantastic way of looking at the creative process, and describes exactly what happened with So the Dead Rose from the Grave. Do go and check it out.

If nothing else, it explains the enduring appeal of those "It's X meets Y" potted descriptions of film/book plots. The prospect of a combination of two unlikely, even opposite, concepts catches our imaginations and draws us in. I'll certainly be looking out for more interesting collisions in the future.