Today being Yule, it seems like a good time to see if I’ve learned anything about writing during 2010.
In 2009, Of Mice and Journeymen, Mind Games and Professor Wincheart’s Radioactive Roadshow all found homes. That was from a total of eight submissions, according to my spreadsheet.
In 2010, Angeline of the Woods, Buckets of Light and Symphonie Magnifique have found homes, with Commodore Horitio Paul Neslon and the Clockwork Ghost making it onto the shortlist, which will be looked at in January. That’s out of at least 24 submissions (I say ‘at least’, because I lost the datastick with my spreadsheet on for a couple of months, so some subs aren’t on there). And, not to forget of course, Of Mice and Journeymen was translated into Hebrew.
Percentage-wise, 2009 would seem to be a better year. But. Buckets of Light and Symphonie Magnifique have (or will) both earned me money, as will Nelson and the Clockwork Ghost if it gets selected. And Angeline is going to be in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, which isn’t exactly a new and untested venue.
And also, of course, the stats mean that I’ve produced more work that I’ve considered submission quality, which is very definitely a good thing. I think I’m a better writer now than I was at the beginning of the year.
Speaking of being a better writer, here’s what I’ve learned over the past year:
1) If you’re cutting to get a story into a particular word count, the story isn’t going to work.
Narratives and prose need a bit of space to stretch and breath. If every single sentence is as taut as a drum skin, then the prose is going to feel bitty and under-developed. Like a good roasting joint, stories need a bit of fat on them to make them juicy and succulent.
2) It’s okay to let your main characters grandstand.
A short story isn’t a democracy and every character doesn’t need to get equal billing. If you’ve got a character who wants to steal the show, then let them. Give them the best lines, indulge their fancies and let them control the flow of the prose. If the character is compelling, then the reader will want to see them in the spotlight. But remember to kick the character up the backside at least once–no one likes a smart arse.
3) If it ain’t got that swing….
Plotting and writing a story should make you excited. It should make you smirk and grin and wonder if you’re being too self-indulgent in writing it. The whole narrative should have a spark, a life of its own. If you can’t find that spark–no matter how deeply buried it might be some times–then the story isn’t going to work. You need to be able to dance with your narrative, so if it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing.
4) Writing is part inspiration, part meticulous planning and part stumbling around in the dark and hoping you can fix it in the edit.
Creating a narrative is far more like gardening than engineering. Just like you need to know when to plant your seeds, when and how much to water them, what kind of soil they need to grow, how to keep the slugs off and everything else, your narrative needs the definitions, boundaries and structure which research and planning provides. But the ideas, the characters and the world are going to want to grow in a particular way and although you can guide them and prune them, if you try and constrict and force them you’re going to kill them. So having your character explain how they make their coffee in the morning because that’s what they want to talk about is fine. Spending a page talking about the migratory patterns of imaginary birds is fine. These things may not be part of The Plot, but they’re part of the story. If they’re not part of the story you’re trying to tell, then snip them off in the edit. But they may be part of the story you’re writing, even though you didn’t plan on them being there.
5) If you reach for the first character you find, you’ll find yourself.
This is one of the upshots of all my learning about power and privilege for the last year. Inside your head there’s this vast wall of expectations, built up by your personal experiences, prejudices, social conditioning and desire to see things which are familiar. It tricks us by being translucent, invisibly changing what we see in the world. If you try and create a story or a character or a world without pushing through the wall, you’ll have something which is little more than a replica of yourself. Unless you’re someone supremely spectacular, that’s not going to be particularly interesting for other people to read. People want to see themselves, not you, in fiction.
So, what can I hope for in 2011? Realistically, to keep on learning. Less realistically, a major book deal, to build my own house and start pre-production on my first feature film.. or maybe TV series, I’m kind of easy. Hey, sensible expectations are boring.
Happy Winterval all! As my dad says, ‘Tis the season for over-indulgence. Whatever you’re doing, enjoy it and share it!