Tuesday 26 June 2012

New story up at The View From Here

I’m very pleased to announce a story of mine went online yesterday at The View From Here. I’m thrilled to have a story accepted for the site, as it’s one with a strong reputation and it’s clear there’s a lot of care taken over how the stories they pick for publication are presented. I think the picture they chose to accompany the story is perfect.

Hayley Jackson Will Not Be Drinking This Evening came about because I was experimenting with using future tense to tell a story. It’s not something I’ve seen done before (although I’m sure there are plenty of examples out there somewhere), and I kept it quite short in an attempt to avoid letting it get too gimmicky. I’m pleased with how it turned out, and very happy it’s found a home at such a lovingly curated site. Please do check them out.

The fiction editor, Claire King (who has an impressive writing CV herself), asked whether I would consider removing a couple of lines from the end of the story, leaving the outcome more ambiguous. This is the second time an editor has wanted to remove some of the certainty from one of my stories (the previous occasion was Counterfeit Confetti at Fiction At Work - a site which sadly no longer seems to exist). I recognise that I do have a tendency to attempt to wrap up each and every loose end, and I try not to be precious about my work, so I was happy to make the cut.

It’s made me curious, though, about how people perceive the story now. In the original, I left no doubt as to what would happen to Hayley, my protagonist. Without the “definitive” ending, there’s room for speculation. Are the sections in future tense true? Does Hayley manage to break the cycle? Or, are they just her good intentions, which will ultimately pave the way to another night of disappointment and regret? I’m interested to know what people think, and whether ambiguity is something you appreciate in a story, or whether you get annoyed at the thought the writer couldn’t make up his or her mind about what actually happened.

I suppose when I read a story I’m looking for something in between. The ending where they all lived happily ever after (or not) is too childish, too convenient, but if everything just stops without any resolution I’m left with the impression that the writer got bored or chickened out of finishing the story properly. The best endings are those where I feel that, although how things turn out isn’t explicitly stated, the author – through the twinkle of a metaphorical eye – has let me in on the secret of what really happens. I like to feel I’ve worked out the hidden puzzle, that I’ve picked up the clues the writer has carefully sprinkled between the lines.

In the published version of the story, both options for what happens to Hayley are equally plausible. But only one of them is the truth. Which do you think it is?

Friday 15 June 2012

Keeping It Up

The ‘it’ of the title is, of course, your enthusiasm for writing. If you’re a professional writer, I guess there’s not a lot of choice – you either keep your output up or find another way to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. For those of us fitting writing in around a “proper” job, family commitments, going to sleep occasionally, and all the other aspects of life that suck up your time, it can be more of a challenge convincing yourself it’s worth making the sacrifices required to give you that hour-or-two at the keyboard every so often.

I’m lucky in a way, in that there aren’t too many drains on my time. I’m self-employed, although for more than a year now I’ve been working full time at two different offices, which means I spend a lot more time than I’d like on the M1. There’s also all the tedious admin that comes with being your own accountant. With that and a few other things going on in the background I’ve certainly struggled to produce many new stories, and just about everything I’ve managed to send out into the world has come limping home again, unloved and dejected. It’s a worrying thought that we’re nearly halfway through the year and I have only just had my second publication (although that’s in the rather awesome 100 RPM). The only other success was back in January.

It’s hard to stay focused when getting time with the pen and paper or laptop is always at the expense of something more urgent. It’s hard to keep your confidence up when the successes seem so thinly spread. Recently I’ve strayed dangerously close to that mental minefield of looking at what I’m writing and thinking, “What’s the point?”

I’ve come out the other side of that, more or less. I’ve sent off a couple of submissions this week and have another couple lined up. I still need to bite the bullet and start writing something entirely new, but I’m looking at that blank page with a lot less trepidation. I thought I’d share a few of the things that have helped me dispel the gloom, in case anybody in a similar situation needs a bit of a lift.

Widen Your Focus

I’ve been looking through my archives, looking for quick-fixes that will help boost my ‘live’ submissions. It feels like a cheat, but I’ve found that abandoned stories can be transformed with a dispassionate swipe or two of the red editing pen. They’re still not stunning works of literature, but they’re better than they were. I feel good about that.

Don’t just judge success on getting a story published. If you get a new draft finished, or hit your weekly word count target, or fix a scene that’s just not been working, or even just find the perfect verb to describe the way your protagonist opens a bag of crisps, chalk that up as a victory. Enjoy the slow, frustrating, and wonderful process of becoming a better writer.

Try Something Different

First I made a new graphical version of an old microstory to put on my Facebook author’s page. Then I had a go at writing a short travel article for the Telegraph’s “Just Back” feature. It doesn’t look as though I’ve been selected for publication, but it was interesting working out how to structure a non-fiction piece, and good practice editing my way down to the restrictive word count. I was pleased with the result, and it’s something I might have another go at before too long.

Force yourself to take on something you normally wouldn’t. If you always write short stories, try penning a factual article, a poem, a short script. Rewrite the best scene from one of your short stories as flash fiction. Take a leap into an unfamiliar genre. If it works, great. If you spend the whole time wishing you were doing what you always do, then that’s great too: you’ve just reaffirmed your enthusiasm for it – so use it!

Don’t Overlook Small Victories

When compiling my list of publications, I forgot about the Mark Billingham book I won. I’m taking it with me on holiday next week, and I’m looking forward to reading it so much I’d forgotten I’d won it by writing a tiny crime story on Twitter. Not many words, true, but I had to think up an idea, work out how much of it would fit into 140 characters, work my way through several drafts. So that counts as a writing success, right? Cool – that’s a 50% increase in my tally for the year to date, right there.

It’s easy to get obsessed on one particular aspect of writing that you miss worthwhile achievements. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a shortlisting for a competition is a failure, or that getting a rejection note from an editor saying, “I loved it, but it doesn’t fit the magazine,” means they secretly hated it. Any feedback is valuable, any recognition is encouragement. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder to see it.

Revisit Former Glories

While I was looking for stories to send to places, I did something I haven’t done in a long time – I set the filter on my tracking spread sheet to show only published stories. I colour-code the records according to status, so I was rewarded with a screen of green. Okay, my laptop hasn’t got the largest screen, but it was reassuring to know that, little by little, I’m getting closer to that point where I can start my bio off with “Dan Purdue has had over XX stories published…” without XX making it sound like I just start doing this last week.

One to use with caution, this. You don’t want to rest on your laurels, or overdo the wallowing in nostalgia to the point where you convince yourself that you’ve lost your writing mojo and that all your best stories are behind you. But it can be worth reminding yourself that you have achieved good results, and it can help smooth the dents out of your confidence to revisit the times you got it right. You did it before; you can do it again.

Keep Something In Reserve

When I won my prize at Chapter One, one of the (few) benefits of the way the money came through in dribs and drabs was that I had a long cooling off period. I couldn’t rush out any buy anything crazy, and the protracted payment schedule gave me a lot of time to think about what to do with it. Although I liked the idea of just buying one big extravagance, I decided to be more sensible and break it up. One chunk went off to pay a little of the mortgage off, another went into a long-term savings account. Another is earmarked for a new chair to write in. And one was always destined to be spent on something special to hang on the wall of my (still hypothetical, sadly) writing room. And, last week, I found what that something is going to be. I haven’t actually got it yet because it’s in an exhibition at a little gallery near where I used to live, so you’ll have to make do with a picture of it:

If you’re lucky enough to win a prize, hang on to at least some of it, if at all possible. The euphoria of winning will fade disappointingly quickly, and while blowing your winner’s cheque on a slap-up meal or your own bodyweight in booze can make good memories, it really is worth having something tangible you can pick up or look at and think, “Yeah. I wrote that into my life.”

Anyway, enough about me. How do you keep up your enthusiasm for writing?