the end (of the year) is nigh

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I suppose it’s something of a writerly tradition to have a Year’s End blog post, which usually necessitates that you have actually done something (or things) worth blogging about. And in fact 2017 has been a reasonably eventful year, all things considered.

I began the year with forest-green hair and the publication of a short story imminent – “Sun Dogs”, which was published in Shadows & Tall Trees 7, alongside such excellent stories as V.H. Leslie’s “Shell Baby”, Manish Melwani’s “The Water Kings” and M. Rickert’s “Everything Beautiful is Terrifying”.

Speaking of Shadows & Tall Trees – I only got one tattoo this year (boo!) but it was a good one. Courtesy of the excellent Marcus Ottner, a tattoo to commemorate both Richard Adams and my first ever published short story, “Red Rabbit”:

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In March, I went to Prague (see top photograph), which was my only adventure this year, but a good one. Prague is beautiful – the kind of city you can walk around over and over and continually discover new things. Besides which, the food is excellent, and inexpensive, and what more can you ask for, honestly?

After many years of being a wrestling fan I finally got to see my first ever wrestling shows – WWE at the 02, and Ring of Honor/New Japan at York Hall in Bethnal Green. I’ve always been a little reticent in talking about my love for wrestling because a) I’m a grown adult and b) people tend to be dismissive of wrestling, as a rule (“you know it’s fake, don’t you?” they say smugly as they launch into another episode of Eastenders, or Game of Thrones, or whichever completely nonfictional form of entertainment they’re into.) And it was great fun. Two very different shows, not least because of the sheer difference in scale (York Hall is a little bit smaller than the 02). I definitely want to see more shows in 2018, budget allowing. (And unlike gigs, my sad arthritic knees get a rest because you’re seated for the show – I’m getting old.)

In July my debut novella ‘Naming the Bones’ was launched at Edge-Lit alongside fellow Dark Minds alumni Mark West’s collection. I blogged about it earlier in the year, but it still blows my mind a little to think that there’s a book, which I wrote, that is (theoretically) sitting on people’s shelves. I will forever be grateful to the people at Dark Minds Press for giving me this opportunity – and with any luck, it won’t be the last time I have an actual, honest-to-god book out there, in the wild (next stop: Waterstones. Reach for the stars, innit?)

There was also Fantasycon, this year in Peterborough, which I have also blogged previously about (and which remains the source of some of my absolute favourite memories of the year.) I’m very much looking forward to Fantasycon 2018, where I suspect I will have to up my hair game significantly.

I had two more short stories published this year (“In The Marrow”, in the anthology Impostor Syndrome, and “Looking for Laika” in Interzone) bringing the total to three short stories and one novella. I’m aiming to exceed this total next year, which means I need to get my arse into gear and get writing. Not the easiest thing in the world when you’re also studying for a Master’s – my first essay is due in two weeks and I’m about a fifth of the way done with it. It’s a bit of a culture shock, writing essays when you’re so used to making shite up for the bulk of your writing output. Suddenly you have to use ‘citations’ and ‘references’ and you have to justify what you’re saying and ‘a monster did it’ just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Other things from the year: I learned to knit (sort of – I’m still rubbish). I started sewing sock dolls (mostly of Overwatch characters and Jim McLeod):

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I started to learn how to garden, but need more practice and more motivation. Mr M and I booked a holiday to Japan for next year, which is in fact rapidly creeping up on me and I realise I have forgotten almost all of the Japanese I diligently learned for my first trip to Japan in 2013. So there’s yet another thing to add to my to-do list for 2018.

I read some wonderful stories this year. Chief among these would be three short stories: “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends” by Gwendolyn Kiste, which appeared in Black Static 58 and is surely a shoo-in for the BFA award for Best Short Story in 2018 (Last year I championed Georgina Bruce’s “White Rabbit” and I was right, so I have form here!) “Skyshine” by Carole Johnstone, also a Black Static story (#60) and, again, a dead cert for awards in 2018. And “Four Abstracts” by Nina Allan, which appeared in New Fears (and was the best of a truly excellent collection.)

There were many others, too. Aliya Whiteley amazed me with her strange and brilliant novella “The Beauty”. Tracy Fahey’s “The Girl In The Fort”, a wonderful coming-of-age story. “What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking“, by Mark West struck such a chord with me that I chose to read it aloud at our joint book launch in July. “The Weight Of The Mantle” by Laura J. Moody, which is not your typical superhero tale and carries with it a very real emotional depth. I’m only partway through Malcolm Devlin’s collection “You Will Grow Into Them” but it’s already a standout (Devlin also wrote one of my very favourite stories – “Five Conversations With My Daughter (Who Travels In Time)” which, if you haven’t read it, you absolutely should.) I haven’t been able to read nearly as much in the latter half of 2017 as I would like to, thanks largely to university (and James Joyce’s Bloody Ulysses) but I have earmarked Kit Power’s new collection, and I wait in giddy anticipation of Priya Sharma’s collection forthcoming from Undertow Books, which is going to be something very special.

So that was 2017. 2018 is imminent. No doubt there are some brilliant stories I have forgotten to mention, some life events I have neglected to mention (or perhaps deliberately omitted). But, onwards, because time waits for no man, and it sure as hell isn’t going to wait for me, no matter how nicely and politely I ask it to.

Wishing all of you good health, happiness, and good reading. Happy New Year!

 

How I came to write short stories

It occurred to me the other day that I have been a published writer of short stories for six years now. I’ve been writing for far longer than that – since I was very young, in fact (my first poem was written at 6 years old. My mum still has it.)

My ‘journey’ (god I hate that word) from casual word-wrangler to actual ‘writer’ (if not full-time writer) is probably very unremarkable. At some point in my early/mid 20’s, I joined a writer’s forum called Absolute Write. As is the total mundanity of this action, I can’t even remember why I joined that forum – I had no realistic aspirations of actually being published at this time. I suppose I just thought it’d be nice to be around other people who found making things up to be a fun and satisfying diversion.

Then I wrote a story. It was a post-apocalyptic short story set in south London. I titled it ‘The Only Living Girl In New Cross”, because I’m terrible at titles and Carter USM are much better at it. I posted it on my blog. The thought of submitting it for publication never crossed my mind. Until I got a message from a fellow AW user – a somewhat gruff but ultimately friendly message – enquiring as to why I was posting work on my blog instead of sending it to publishers?

This opened up new possibilities. It seems odd to think of it now, but although I’d always harboured dreams of being a writer, I’d never really thought about it in practical, realistic terms – the actual business of being published, of finding an audience. It all seemed like the kind of thing other people did; not me, with my weird ideas, and my weird little stories. Who’d want to read those? Still, I was intrigued. So I took the AW’ers advice. I sent “The Only Living Girl In New Cross” to Black Static. And I waited.

It was rejected. Oh well.

It was a blow, and I was discouraged. Of course I was. I put that story away and I resolved not to look at it again. In fact, I no longer have a copy of it anywhere. In retrospect, I think it’s better that way. We’re all entitled to misfire, especially on your first attempt. But – and this is important – it wasn’t a waste of words, or of time, or of effort. You learn from every story you write. (You learn from every story you read, too, but that’s another post entirely.) People talk about ‘honing your craft’, the way you might hone the blunt edge of a knife: every story you write sharpens the blade a little bit more.

The second story I wrote was called “Red Rabbit”. The title came before the story did: I had this indelible image in my head of a red rabbit’s face, in the style of The Black Rabbit of Inle from Watership Down (an image which has always stayed with me, the way things that scare you as a child tend to do.) It was set in America, in a part of the world I had never been to (and again, this is another post entirely, but – YouTube, Google Maps, Flickr – all invaluable resources in bringing alien locations to life.) This time, I asked a few fellow writers to cast their eye over it before sending the finished version out into the wild. (Not everybody feels the need for a second opinion, or a beta reader, and that’s perfectly fine. I always feel better about a story when someone else, who isn’t in my head, has had a look and weeded out some of the bollocks – especially given my prolific overuse of semicolons.)

I sent it off to Shadows & Tall Trees. And, to my delight, it was accepted. My first ever short story in print. Occasionally, I’ve been asked how I got published, and my honest answer is – I don’t know. Right story, right place, right time. I think, sometimes, that’s all there is to it. You can’t predict it, or make it happen. You just have to write the best you can, and hope someone is receptive to it. I’m lucky enough that somebody was.

Much like tattoos, short story publications are addictive. Short stories themselves are addictive. They’re less consuming than novels, but mean just as much, to the writer and hopefully to the reader too. A short story is a visit to another world, and sometimes that brief excursion can give you an experience that the prolonged inhabitation of a novel cannot. (Not to say I dislike novels – I love them. I just have a real fondness for the short story form, and the things that can be achieved with it.)

Since then I have dedicated a ludicrous number of hours to writing short stories. After “Red Rabbit” came “When Charlie Sleeps”, which was an exercise in going for broke in the weirdness stakes. After initial publication in Black Static, it was picked up for reprint in Best British Horror 2014. My second published short story. I’m yet to repeat that feat, but even if I’m never picked for a ‘Year’s Best’ again, I can still be proud of that achievement.

The raised profile of “When Charlie Sleeps” led to me getting to know many of my fellow writers and peers, which led to a few anthology invitations, which led to “Ptichka”, a story I am very proud of, and which was nominated for a British Fantasy Award. Again, if I never repeat this feat, at least nobody can take that away from me.

These things tend to be circular. The more you write, the more you improve, the more you (hopefully) publish. The more you publish, the more people come to know your name, what you’re capable of. That’s not to say it’s plain sailing: I’ve still got rejections coming out of my ears. That never stops. But knowing you can do it gives you the drive to keep doing it, even when it feels pointless, and you’ve amassed so many rejections you’re thinking of changing your middle name to ‘Failure’. And every acceptance could be the last one you’ll ever get. I think a lot of writers will understand that feeling. But you keep going, because the stories keep coming, and you can let them pile up like a snowdrift but sooner or later, someone – be it a gruff stranger on an internet forum, or your own internal monologue – will ask you why you don’t just give submitting a try.