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.

What I Read In October (which wasn’t for uni)

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Okay. So I actually only managed to finish one non-university related book in October. But – what a book.

There are nineteen stories in total, all of them good, some of them incredibly good. The book opens with a strong offering from Alison Littlewood, whose story ‘The Boggle Hole’ is unexpectedly melancholy – to great effect. ‘The Fold In The Heart’ by Chaz Brenchley (who I had not previously heard of, and whose work I will be actively seeking out) is an eerie and beautiful story about abuse, and about love. ‘Departures’ by A.K. Benedict is clever and imaginative, and totally believable even in its surrealness. Kathryn Ptacek’s ‘Dollies’ is skin-crawlingly weird, while Christopher Golden’s ‘The Abduction Door’ masterfully evokes the breathless panic of a parent in search of their lost child, though the story takes a bizarre turn you might not expect – so much the better, in my opinion. Stephen Laws (who I still credit as giving the most incredible reading I’ve ever heard – his story, ‘The Slista’, read aloud at the Best British Horror 2015 launch, was utterly captivating) once again proves his formidable ability with ‘The Swan Dive’.

But, to my three favourites: Carole Johnstone, who is fast becoming one of my favourite writers, knocks it out of the park with her tense, suffocating tale ‘The Eyes Are White And Quiet’, which leads you sightless and bewildered on a strange, dark journey. ‘The House Of The Head’ by Josh Malerman is weird in all the right ways – a haunted doll-house sounds almost trite but I couldn’t stop reading until the very end. And ‘Four Abstracts’ by Nina Allan, who I believe is a true master of the genre, and whose ability to evoke authentic, tangible emotion even as she weaves uncanny strands into her narrative is unparalleled.

Looking for Laika Artwork (& new issue of Interzone out now!)

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One of my favourite things about being published by TTA Press is the artwork which accompanies the story. There’s something really special about seeing the way someone else has interpreted your story, in a vastly different art form, and I feel like Richard Wagner has captured the essence of ‘Looking for Laika’ quite beautifully here. (And as it’s my first foray into Interzone, it’s also my first full colour illustration – which is FAR more exciting to me than it probably should be.)

Interzone #273 is at press now and can be purchased via the TTA Press shop. Also, if you take out a new subscription you’ll get this issue free, which is a bargain if you ask me. (There’s a similar deal available for Black Static if horror is more your bag.) More information is available on the TTA Press website)

Mental Health & Naming the Bones

I probably should have posted about this a long time ago, but Andrew Knighton has written an incredible blog post about the portrayal of mental health in Naming the Bones (which you can find here)

And there are minor spoilers for Naming the Bones, if you haven’t yet read it.

My intention in writing Naming the Bones was always to shine a light on the monsters inside of us. The things we do in service of them, or to escape them: in Alessa’s case, learning to cope, taking circuitous mental routes around the trauma embedded inside of her like scar tissue. The ritual of ‘naming the bones’ as a distraction technique, but also a way of grounding oneself, because panic is a rising tide but there are ways to float. And simply finding the wherewithal and motivation to keep going, keep pushing, when you’re too tired to tread water and hiding from the world seems the only option. Both are normal. I wanted that to be clear. Alessa wants to rebuild her life, but she has to heal a little first.

And then Casey. I loved writing Casey. She’s based (partially) on a real person towards whom I have very complex feelings, negative and positive. I suppose in many ways she is a personification of not coping. She can do it on her own, except she’s not doing anything: she’s not rebuilding, not coping. She doesn’t tell anyone about the Shades. And then Alessa comes along, and suddenly, for the first time, Casey is not alone. That’s a key thing about Casey, and something I hope people pick up on as they read. I don’t believe she’s villain, or a bad person, despite the terrible things she does: she’s someone who was hurt, and who had nobody to help her cope, or rebuild.

As Andrew says, in his blog post:

In Alessa’s case, the trauma monsters make the process of rebuilding very real. Alessa has the chance to literally face her demons, but she has to decide whether that’s the right path for her, as well as how to deal with the darkness when she faces it. And she has to decide who she can trust, whose advice will help and whose will lead to disaster. Because facing monsters, like digging into your own emotional baggage, can be self-destructive if it goes wrong.

in which things finally start to click

University, Week 3. I’d be lying if I said it was getting any easier, or that I no longer have to read texts two, three, four times before I begin to understand them (get stuffed, James Joyce). But…and I say this tentatively, not least because the OCD gremlins might hear it and put the mockers* on the whole thing…I think I’m starting to believe I made the right decision in entering into this MA.

The focus of this week’s study was modernist poet Mina Loy, who dabbled in surrealism and dadaism and various other -isms, most notably futurism – influenced as she was by the Italian poet Marinetti. Her work is strange and challenging but – in my opinion at least – quite wonderful. ‘Human Cylinders’ evokes imagery of an almost cyberpunk-esque, posthumanist world full of man-as-machine. ‘Parturition’ is an ode to childbirth, in a time when few other poets would dare to approach the subject, let alone as boldly and explicitly as Loy. Later, when the gloss of Marinetti’s Futurism (laced heavily with fascist and misogynist ideals) began to wear off, Loy wrote the fiery Feminist Manifesto (which can be seen here, inclusive of its unique typesetting and presentation). Light years ahead of her time, Loy advocates positions both progressive and extreme – from destroying the myth of virtue and virginity and a freer attitude towards sex to a view on reproduction which borders uncomfortable on eugenics. I can’t say I agree with all of her positions (not least as someone for whom motherhood is the very opposite of appealing) but she is undeniably years ahead of her time.

Her work put me in mind of Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ – another incredibly dense, difficult piece of work which nonetheless, to me, is immensely rewarding once you’re able to break through the wall of language and access the ideas and concepts within. And already I’m wondering as to the possibilities of comparing the Cyborg Manifesto and Loy’s feminist/futurist work in a future essay.

It felt good to finally read something and click with it, though the struggle to understand it was still very present. And during the seminar I went from ‘quiet and awkward in group scenarios’ mode to my other binary mode, ‘fucking know-it-all who doesn’t shut up’. That said, I’m not sure this is really an improvement from the point of view of the rest of the class!

 

 

*fun fact: one of several potential origins for this phrase is from the Angloromani word ‘Mokardi’, meaning something ritually unclean and/or tainted.

I know one thing: that I know nothing

My MA classes started two weeks ago and while some of the initial trepidation (read: screaming anxiety) has mercifully dissipated, I still feel rather daunted by the whole thing. This week, while reading a Karl Marx essay, followed by a Dorothy Richardson short story, I felt very much as though I had forgotten how to read English – or perhaps that the texts on offer were in Klingon. (I’m still not convinced that Ulysses isn’t in Klingon.)

Adding to that sense of intimidation is the fact that everyone in my seminar group has had some kind of educational exposure to modernist literature, whereas I, the intrepid Creative Writing graduate (why, 18-year-old-me, why) am approaching this brand new, treacle-dense subject on awkward, clumsy feet. So it was a relief to sit down this week next to an English teacher embarking on the same MA, and to hear her express how difficult she’d found the assigned reading. (And then for the seminar tutor to admit it had taken her multiple reads to penetrate the meaning of it.)

Perhaps….whispering, so that the imposter syndrome won’t hear…perhaps I’m not thick after all. Perhaps it really is just difficult.

That’s a small comfort – I still have essays to write and plenty of texts ahead to wrap my already-tired brain around (though having been diagnosed & started on thyroxine this very week I’m hoping the tiredness will abate enough to allow more study!) But it is a comfort nonetheless. As I have been reminded, I am here to learn. The point of an MA isn’t to go in knowing everything already. And although it can be a knock to the confidence when everyone else in class knows X writer, or has read Y text, and I am sitting there clueless, I have to remember that everyone has to start somewhere.

(It’s not all crushingly overwhelming. I’ve already found my love for Virginia Woolf reinforced and have discovered things about William Morris – designer, sci-fi writer, ecosocialist and all-round top bloke – that I didn’t previously know, and which I find fascinating.)

Fantasycon 2017

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a politer bunch of reprobates you’ll never meet

Fantasycon 2017 has been and gone, and in its wake that peculiar sense of almost-bereavement. You forget, over the course of the year, how liberating events like Fantasycon can be. It really is a rare pleasure to find yourself surrounded by people who ‘get it’: the largely solitary pursuits of writing and reading, the near-obsessive tendencies of those of us who choose to pour our mental and emotional energy into creating weird little worlds and waving them at other people: here, experience this! If it sounds a bit mad, that’s because it is. And as for Fantasycon – as the Cheshire Cat famously said: we’re all mad here.

This year’s Fantasycon was held at the Bull Hotel in Peterborough and for the first time, I brought my husband along for the three days. He’d met several of the crew at Edge-Lit earlier in the year and was persuaded that the weirdos I hang out with one weekend a year are actually really pleasant weirdos. (I blame/credit Mark West for this in particular).

Speaking of Mark West – after two consecutive Fantasycons in his esteemed company I barely saw him this time around. That’s another thing about this event in particular: there are so many familiar, friendly faces around at any given time that you can easily miss people you’d normally spend ages nattering with. The flipside of this is that you end up nattering with people you missed last time around, and sometimes, people you’ve never met before.

This year I also experienced the joys of Staying Up Late. I’m a consummate ‘morning person’, which means I’m also usually crashed out in bed by 10pm. I was up and about til 2am on Saturday night and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in one night – between the Sinister Room (which I’ve shamelessly co-opted to finally give this blog a proper name) and Mr Mauro’s unfortunate experience in McDonald’s (it’s still Too Soon to talk about it) as well as a captive audience to very kindly allow me to wax lyrical about the adventures of my grandad, my jaw muscles were literally aching from laughing. We talk about ‘our tribe’ at Fantasycon, and connecting with others who understand what being a writer is like, but there’s also the fact that we are all incredibly daft, and usually a bit tipsy, and unashamed to be laughing at the most ridiculous, stupid things.

Then there was Little Jim McLeod:

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Since the man himself was sadly unable to make it, I made a tiny sock-and-felt effigy of him to ensure that he would have a presence of some kind. It turns out that people quite liked Little Jim – almost as much as they like Jim himself – and there are a great many pictures of him hobnobbing with the greats of the British horror scene.

I also did a reading – my first proper Fcon reading! – and people actually turned up to listen to Tim Major, Tracey Fahey and I reading our stories, which was nervewracking and lovely. I did a panel, which was also surprisingly well attended given that the mighty Adam Nevill was launching his book at the same time. And to top off a great weekend, the truly brilliant Georgina Bruce won a British Fantasy Award for her sublime short story “White Rabbit”, which I have waxed lyrical about in this very blog more than once.

I won’t name names, because I’m liable to forget people, but to everyone I spent time with, shared meals with, laughed & chatted with, or even just greeted in passing – thank you. You make Fantasycon special.