Spring cleaning

Spring means the return of communal bathing season. The birds didn’t do much bathing over winter, unsurprisingly. Now the sun forays forth occasionally and Floralia is upon us, they are back at it. It’s also baby-making time, so our garden is a flurry of frantic feathered fauna doing their best to put ALL THE FOOD into their beaky faces to take back to the nest.

BRO, STOP, UR DOIN ME AN AGGRO

While chatting with a colleague at work over a break, looking out the window at some seagulls, I voiced aloud my imaginings of what the birds might be thinking. She expressed surprise that anyone would do this — I have no idea whether this habit results from a childhood of indoctrination by Johnny Morris, or simply my constantly hyper-active imagination. I can only assume there’s something instinctive about it, though; since being exposed to the concept, my colleague tells me the habit has caught on.

At the meeting of Lemon Tree Writers a fortnight ago, we received an interesting workshop from the writer Sophie Cooke. A workshop presenter rarely covers short fiction, long fiction and poetry all in the space of one workshop, and this one was very well received by our eclectic mix of Scottish writers. While largely pitched for novice writers, I enjoy any prompt to produce some potentially useful word chunks, and found this no exception. Despite poetry requiring much more effort from me than prose, I managed to throw something together that didn’t sound terrible when I read it out, reminding me again of that well-known quote from cyclist Greg Lemond:

It never gets easier, you just get faster
Image courtesy of Quotesgram.com

If it had been suggested to me even five years ago I could produce an eighteen line poem in the space of ten minutes, which — critically — I would not be too embarrassed to read out to a dozen people I barely knew, I would have found it hard to believe. Exercises like this are good reminders of why all the writing and reading is important. Even writing one has no intention of ever seeing the light of day presents an opportunity to embed a reluctance for copulas, a mental red flag for flabby words such as “that” and “very”, and the habit of specificity.

I think, these days, even my imaginary conversations between starlings need less copy-editing than they used to.

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A 2013 retrospective

I know it’s traditional to look back on the year somewhat closer to Hogmanay, but I never seem to manage it. I’m either early or late, so this year I’m going to be early.

It has been an amazing and exciting year. I’ve had two stories published in anthologies that have put my work on the same ToC as some great authors (Looking Landwards and Fish), and my work has been reviewed positively. On top of that, I’ve gained experience of the business end of editing and publishing, with a stint as slush reader for the Whitecat Publications science fiction and horror imprints, and putting together the Lemon Tree Writers chapbook Point of Balance. I’ve been on local radio three times (here, here and, most recently, here). I’ve taken part in my first spoken word event, and attended a con for the first time as a writer (complete with book signing).

In my last interview, I was asked what the future holds and where I plan to go from here. In responding I dressed it up a bit, but really it’s very simple: MOAR PLEEZ. More of this would make me very happy.

I feel like a contestant on Masterchef and I’ve finally started to find out what my capabilities are. I’m still exploring where my strengths lie, and figuring out how to address my weaknesses. There is so much more to learn, and so many ways to improve. I have 3 star ambitions, and I’m almost — almost! — at the point of believing my palate can take me there, but there’s refinement needed.

There will be a lot of hard work in 2014, and I’m more than up for that. I’m hoping for a little luck with which to season it.

Looking Landwards at BristolCon

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A triathlete’s guide to dealing with rejection

I’ve been submitting a lot more this year, which inevitably means handling an increased number of rejections. Rejection is never fun, but it’s part and parcel of writing life. There was a time, back in the dim and distant neon glow of the past, when I believed my first story sale would be some kind of watershed. It would mean I’d learned how to write and everything flowing from my pen from that moment on would be finest prose, to be snapped up by eager publishers. I would dance around in an ecstatic haze surrounded by fluffy unicorns, and I’d fart fine fiction materialising in rainbow ink to be formatted by a team of highly trained aye-ayes.

Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work like that.

I started submitting in 2010, relatively late in life for someone who turns as many trees into words as I do. That year I submitted one piece as a favour to a friend. In 2011 I submitted a second on a whim. Both were accepted. I submitted three in 2012 (three personal rejections), and so far this year I have submitted eight pieces with one acceptance and two personal rejections. This is nothing like a high submissions rate. I am aiming for eight or more submissions in a month, but it’s going to take me a while to get there.

This year has been a learning curve in all sorts of ways. I’ve learned the value of good crit — and by that I mean intelligent, insightful and constructive crit. I’ve learned crit partners who will take time to analyse my work and subject it to scrutiny, and who are prepared to be hard but fair, are a precious commodity to be treasured. I’ve also learned the real prize in the process of preparing a story for submission to market is the creation of a good story. The story is the commodity, in the same way a cut diamond is the prize, rather than the eventual sum paid for that diamond (with the difference that you sell rights to your story, not the story itself).

A while ago I did an interview for the Literature Show. One of the questions we didn’t have time to cover was whether I felt doing triathlon had any influence on my writing. I’d have said it most definitely does. I race for one main reason: if I didn’t have the races as targets, I wouldn’t train. Competing is my way of injecting motivation to keep fit. If you race, you make time to train. You go out in the rain. You invest time and effort for a prize that is nothing to do with standing on the podium — the podium, particularly when elite athletes are involved, is the preserve of the genetically gifted and those whose job it is to compete in triathlons. Those of us who make up the ranks of the age groupers do it for the achievement, for the fun, and for the goal of being fit enough to compete.

Submitting to paying markets is similar. Without the goal of making it past the guardians of the slush pile and giving sufficient enjoyment to an editor that he or she is prepared to pay for the rights, I would not put the same effort into my work. I spent years writing without that goal in mind, and the difference between what I write now and what I wrote during that time is one of craft. It’s the precision of comma use, the lack of extraneous thats, the avoidance of unnecessary qualifiers and the focus on making each sentence carry the story forward. I’m not saying my work is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s miles better than it was.

Putting in the runs, the swim sessions and the bike training, turning up for a race, racking my bike, prepping my transition area, putting vaseline in my shoes, and remembering to put my helmet on before touching my bike will not guarantee me a win. It does mean I’m fit enough to compete. The drafting, re-drafting, editing, crits, re-editing and submission will not guarantee a story sale. They do mean a story I am happy to submit, and there are always other markets.

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