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.

3 thoughts on “How I came to write short stories

  1. Fascinating post. I enjoyed reading it. I’ve just finished your short story “Looking for Laika” from issue 237 of Interzone. It’s beautifully written. And it led me here:)

    The Black Rabbit from Watership Down has stayed with me, too. If you watch the animated film at the right age, it’s pretty frightening in parts, right?

    1. Thank you! I’m really glad you enjoyed “Looking for Laika”, and I really appreciate you telling me 🙂

      I had no concept of the Black Rabbit as being ‘death’ or anything at that age – it was just the look of it that terrified me. So sharp and sinister. I love that film, but it was a traumatic experience as a kid!

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