Spotty raptors: not a moment’s peace

It’s fledgling time for the spotty raptors.

Siblings

“Oh hey wow. One of four, eh? Must be tough.”

“Dude, you have no idea. It’s impossible to get any peace. It’s all ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME. I can’t even have a bath without one of the others wanting to get in too. Just five minutes, you know? That’s all. That’s all I want. Just five minutes. Or two. I’d settle for two. Or even one. Hell. Yeah. Let’s say one. One damn minute of peace. To chill, have a drink. Get some water up under the feathers. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to eat in peace, I’m not going to torture myself imagining being able. To eat. By myself. Without one of THEM trying to get in on the act. But a bath? You’d think I could manage one godsdamned freaking minute by myself to get the dust out. Just one. One. That’s all. Not twenty, not ten. Just one.”

“Harsh, man. Really harsh.”

Communal bathing

*sigh*

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Turning the page – 2016 writing goals

Towards the end of January last year, I posted a note of my writing goals for the year. I declined to review the year that had just been because it had been a particularly difficult one.

I’m not going to dwell on 2015, either, because I want to keep my focus firmly forwards. Still, there’s no point setting targets unless you review how close you came to meeting them.

How did I do?

I didn’t manage having something out to market at all times. Not quite. The process of moving from draft to fully polished piece is still taking longer than I’d like, but that’s fine. I was super close.

I didn’t manage to complete to first draft one short story for every month of the year, but I came closer than I have any previous year, with 6 completed shorts, one novella and one novelette. In terms of non-hypergraphia, stuff I might be able to use word count, I’m calling that target met.

I didn’t get much further with either of my novel projects in terms of words on the page, so I’m out for a duck. It doesn’t mean I didn’t do any work on them, though, and that work will stand me in good stead this year.

I didn’t update my blogs as often as I intended. Although I did up the frequency considerably here, my other blog languished in the doldrums.

That said, we did buy and move into a new house in April, a house that needs considerable renovation, and the dayjob has been inconsiderately demanding (joke — in the current climate, I’m damn lucky to have it). With those two factors running interference, I don’t feel too bad about not fully meeting these targets. The work I have produced this year has been variable, but it includes some material of which I am extremely proud and hope will find a good home someday.

Let’s not forget I made two thrilling sales, to Apex Magazine and Clockwork Phoenix 5. Both of these are dream markets, and I still can’t quite believe it. My story at Apex, She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow, was podcasted, produced by Lisa Shininger. This was the first time I’ve ever heard one of my stories read aloud by someone else, and it’s a strange but exciting experience.

What’s on the cards for 2016?

More of the same, with a few tweaks.

  1. Have something out to market at all times.
    I’ll repeat this goal this year, but I hope this becomes such a fact of life it will no longer be a goal but a state of being.
  2. Complete to first draft at least one short-form story for every month of the year.
  3. Get to grips with flash.
    I’m lumping these together because I’m hoping number 3 will help me achieve number 2. Last year my target was derailed by the hypergraphia’s tendency to go into this weird state of WORDSSSSS, OH YES WORDSES MOAR OM NOM NOM WOOOOORRRRDSSSSESSSSS AWWW YISS MOAR MOAR WORDSES.
  4. Write every day.
    I shot myself in the foot on this one last year by trying too hard to domesticate the hypergraphia. I tried this thing where, if I wasn’t writing something useful, I wouldn’t write at all, thinking that might channel the urge more usefully. PRO-TIP: this does not work. All it does is make the whole process more difficult. If writing means scribbling stuff I can’t use, or sticking pictures into a commonplace and adding labels, that’s fine. It’s all part of the process. To use a triathlon metaphor, I won’t necessarily be squatting or doing deadlifts in a race, but these exercises help build strength, and stronger means more speed and endurance. Just because it’s not something immediately and directly useful doesn’t mean it is worthless.
  5. Finish a novel project.
    I have two on my target list at the moment, of the three in progress, but by the end of the month I shall have settled on one of them and will be making a hard push to complete this year. I already have a strong idea of which one it will be.
  6. Take more classes.
    I don’t think it’s coincidence that I made my first two pro sales on the back of taking almost every class Cat Rambo has to offer. I’m already signed up for Lit Techniques 2, so this will get me off to a good start.
  7. Have another go at poetry.
    I’d like to be a lot better at poetry than I am. Avoiding it won’t change that.

Most of all, I think 2015 gave me a better grip on what I’m good at, on the themes that make the difference between a story that will work eventually, and a story that’s more likely to end up either trunked or ripped into tiny pieces for total reconstruction, and that means a fresh eye for older stories still looking for a home. That’s my main goal for the coming year: put that insight to work.

The Old Man of the Woods
The Old Man of the Woods says, “Your job is to create a space in which it is possible for others to see things differently.”

How about you? Any goals you’d like to share?

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Hypergraphia — bleeding inky thought onto paper

I have no fixed process for writing. Stories come the way they come. Sometimes that means a single scene from which I have to uncover the rest of the story like an archaeologist digging up a pot or an ancient skeleton; other times it means sitting down with a pen and paper as soon as I’ve dragged myself out of bed, scribbling furiously while someone tries to ask me what I want for breakfast and whether I’ll be making coffee any time soon.

I keep what is probably some kind of commonplace. In fact, I keep several, and carry all of them around with me along with half the contents of a decent stationery shop, because I become quite anxious if I lack a way of draining the contents of my head at any given moment. I have a cherished, if battered, Timbuk2 El Ocho, which is well overdue for replacement, and it is full of the various things I need to keep the fiction imps at bay while carrying on with the rest of my life.

Most of my work germinates as pen and ink and paper. It used to be the case that every first draft found form on narrow-ruled, feint and margin, before I could begin to type. I still have a lot of material, things that have either not sold yet or never will, stashed around the place. For the sake of speed and saving time, I moved on from writing out the whole thing by hand, but I cannot entirely tear myself away from the pen and paper stage.

Commonplace book

A couple of pages showing the birth of a work in progress

I don’t just keep notes, write down references, quotes, ideas, fragments of sentences that have a shape I want to explore. Sometimes the names of songs, places, even food finds their way in there. I find going about it this way, rather than doing everything by tapping away on a keyboard, helps encourage the creative process and entrains more of whatever engine it is that drags these things from the aether.

The book itself is a large plain moleskine (I also have two ruled, and a plain folio). I use a variety of fountain pens, coloured pens and pencils, Washi tape and Coccoina paste. The intention isn’t to keep a journal, although there are some truly beautiful ones out there (take a look on Pinterest — you’ll find a few on my Pen & Ink board, like this one). Still, the result of all my notekeeping being fun to review means I can happily spend time going back through my stack of notebooks looking at story fragments and ideas.

This practise has proved invaluable to me in greasing the wheels and adding a bit of low-end torque to jolt things out of a rut and free up narrative space. There are times when I need freedom to think, to mull, to plan, to let my subconscious chew on things for a while, or even to have a conversation, make like a sociable human being, but whatever it is inside my head that makes words has the bit between its teeth and won’t let go, even though it’s heading on entirely the wrong track. Cutting things out and sticking them into a notebook might not look like writing, but I can assure you, it is.

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More word fuel: Bread. Nommy, nommy, home-made bread.

What better accompaniment to freshly brewed coffee than soft, delicious, home-baked bread?

Fresh from the oven

Here’s one I made earlier.

We make all our own bread. It started as an experiment, because I was having trouble with wheat. Marko read somewhere that the commercial method of bread production, the Chorleywood Bread Process, can produce bread that some people find problematic, because it is so fast the yeasts don’t have time to break down the gluten properly. This might or might not be true in my case, but my experience of home made bread has been a positive one, and I don’t enjoy commercial bread any more.

It might seem like a lot of effort, but it really isn’t, and while the resulting loaf works out more expensive than a standard sliced white from Aldi, my preference is to substitute quality for quantity where it makes sense to do so. Each 1kg loaf we make does us for anything from 4 days to a week, and while the process takes a few hours, the amount of actual work involved is about 15 minutes, and it’s well worth it.

So if you’re having a day at home writing, and fancy breaking up your writing with an activity that doesn’t take your mind away from the story, try making some bread.

For reference, all my flour comes from Marriage’s Millers these days. I’ve tried lots, and their flour consistently produces great results. I most often use a 50:50 blend of Strong Wholemeal and Very Strong Canadian White flours, but you can make up the full weight with whatever flour you like, as long as it’s bread flour. I also have a baking dome by La Cloche, which Marko bought me for Christmas last year and is the most frequently used piece of specialised kitchen kit I own apart from the kettle and the Chemex. It makes superb bread in a standard domestic oven. For proving, I use a 1kg lined wicker proving basket.

You don’t need to use either a dome or a basket — the following recipe can be baked in a 1kg (2lb) loaf tin. If you want to do that, the dough should go into the tin for its second proving. Alternatively, you can use the dough to make a plaited loaf or some other shape that will hold itself together on a tray for the second prove.

Our last trick is the use of a sourdough flour improver. Our sourdough is around three years old, and I’ve tagged a method for making one at the bottom. It’s not necessary to include this, and you can either leave it out or put in quarter of a cup (about 4 tablespoons, or 60ml) or plain, live yoghurt instead.

This recipe makes an 800g loaf. Or thereabouts.

Ingredients

  • 600g flour (strong white, strong wholemeal, or a blend of flours, as long as they are strong bread flours) plus a little more for dusting the proving basket, if using
  • 100ml boiling water
  • 260ml cold water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp dried yeast (unlike Paul Hollywood, I do NOT use the fast acting kind, which contains flour improvers, but the kind that needs to be activated in water)
  • 1.5 tsp fine sea salt
  • Half a cup (about 120 ml, or a ladle full) of sourdough starter OR quarter of a cup (about 60ml) of plain live yoghurt (optional)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil plus a little more for oiling the proving bowl, the kneading surface and the tin/tray/dome

Method

1.Dissolve the sugar in the boiling water. Add the cold water, then sprinkle the yeast in and mix thoroughly. Measure out the flour into a large mixing bowl.
2. Go away and do something else for fifteen minutes. Perhaps a timed writing exercise. Adam Maxwell has a fun prompt generator if you’re stuck for ideas. Or how about a picture prompt from Flickr? I keep a Pinterest board just for story prompts — feel free to use one of those.
3. Now your yeast mix should be nice and frothy. (It could take longer if your house is cold. If this is an issue, you can use 150 ml boiling water and 210ml cold water to give it a boost.) Add it to the flour along with about half a cup of sourdough mix or the yoghurt, if using. Mix it together thoroughly with a butter knife, so all the flour is incorporated. It might be quite sticky: this is fine.
4. Go away and do something else for twenty minutes. Perhaps another timed writing exercise. You could use the results of your last one as a starting point or try something different. Maybe a random Wikipedia entry. Or pick a scene from one of your favourite stories and write about what one of the bystander characters was doing before the scene started.
5. Now that the flour has had a chance to absorb all the water, and the yeast has started work, add 1 tbsp of olive oil and the salt to the dough. Squidge it all together and turn out onto an oiled surface. Knead. Try not to add any more flour, even if the dough feels sticky, unless it’s more like wrestling with an amorous squid than kneading.
HOW TO KNEAD: Pin one edge of the dough ball with the fingers of one hand (usually your non-dominant), as if it had teeth at the other end and poisonous spines, and the only way you could keep it from escaping or turning round to bite you was by pressing the fluffy top of its tail to the ground. With the heel of the other hand, push the dough away from you, stretching it to about as half as far as you can reach. Take the distant end, fold it in half back over itself towards you, then turn the dough through 90° (a quarter turn) and repeat. Once you get the hang of it, you can try the double fold (stretch as far as you can reach, fold, press down, fold again, turn, repeat).
6. Knead until the squid wants you to stop — the dough will tighten and feel like it wants to stay a ball rather than be your BFF and cling to you for dear life. At this point the surface will be smooth and soft, but the dough may still be a bit sticky. That’s fine, as long as it’s happy being a ball. This takes about ten minutes, which is just enough time to think about what you’re going to write next, or for your subconscious to get to work on that tricky plot point that’s been bothering you.
7. Round the dough.
HOW TO ROUND THE DOUGH: On an oiled surface, and with freshly oiled hands, flatten the dough into a round then pinch a bit of an edge, pull it out and fold it back in to the centre. Repeat slightly further along, as if you were creating petals and folding them into a bud. Once you’ve done this all the way round, turn the dough over and use the edges of both hands to smooth down and spin the dough, tucking it under itself. Gill Meller of River Cottage has a video showing the process — start at 4:45 to avoid listening to his sales pitch for the oven he’s using.
8. Place the rounded dough in an oiled bowl (I use a 3 litre Pyrex mixing bowl), top down to get it oiled, then flip it so the top is uppermost. Cover in cling film. Now go away and do something else while it rises, which can be anything from 1 hour to 4 hours depending on room temperature. I often bring my dough with me into my office/writing space so I can keep an occasional eye on it.
9. Once it has doubled in size, knock it back by prodding it firmly with a fist, and repeat the ROUNDING step. If you’re using a round proving basket, dust the basket with flour and put the dough in with what will be the base of the loaf uppermost. If you’re proving it in a tin, shape the rounded dough into a fat sausage with your hands, tuck the ends under, then put it into the oiled tin and press down so it reaches the corners. If you’re shaping your loaf some other way, do that instead. Cover your dough with either a damp, lint-free dish towel, or stick it inside a plastic bag.
10. Go away and leave it to rise again for around half an hour to an hour. It’s easy to tell when it’s ready if it’s in a basket or a tin: once it has grown just higher than the top of the tin or the basket you’re good to go.
11. FOR A TIN:
Slash the loaf with a very sharp knife or smoothly serrated bread knife, once in the middle and again about halfway to either end. Spray the surface of the loaf with water and place into a preheated oven as hot as you can get it. If you like, you can throw a few ice cubes into the bottom of the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then spray again and turn down to 200°C (180 fan) for a further 30 – 40 depending on your oven.
FOR A BASKET AND DOME:
Turn the dough into the oiled base of the dome, slash once right across the middle of the loaf (you might need to make repeat cuts to get the slash deep enough — it should be about half the depth of the loaf), cover, then put into a cold oven. Switch the oven on to 200 °C, bake for 35 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for a further 15-20 minutes.
12. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack. If it’s done, it should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
13. Leave to cool for at least an hour — the sooner you cut into it, the sooner it will start to go stale.

A fresh loaf of bread

The finished loaf, next to a standard mug for scale (see previous post for how to get 5 of these from one Chemex coffee maker).

NOTE: you can make a slightly smaller loaf using 500g flour and 300ml water. The 5:3 ratio is the starting point for all basic bread recipes. You can always use the Bakerybits dough calculator for other quantities.

To make your own sourdough starter, take 150g of strong white flour and mix it with 150ml of tepid water in a bowl. Whisk thoroughly, wandering around, harvesting yeast from the air like a perambulatory sky anemone. When I first did ours, I kicked our wood pile a few times and ambled around outside for ages, singing to the yeasts in the hope of luring them from their aerial manoeuvres into my bowl. Cover and leave for 48 hours. Add another 150g of flour and 150 ml of tepid water. By now it should have started bubbling a bit and smell a bit sour. Don’t worry if not, it can take a few days as this method uses only aerial wild yeasts, and they take a while to adapt to their new home. Leave for a further 48 hours, then discard half the mix and replace with 150g flour and 150 ml water. After another 48 hours you should definitely be seeing bubbles, but it might smell acidic rather than pleasantly sour. Keep feeding every couple of days until the colony has settled down and it smells nicely sour and a bit yeasty, almost like beer froth. It is now ready to use. We keep ours in a tupperware tub on top of the breadbin, and it is fed 1 – 2 times a week with strong white flour (i.e. whenever we make bread). It behaves best when the mix is quite thick, like drop scone batter, and it is beaten vigorously at feeding time. Every couple of months we transfer it to another tub and wash the one it’s in.

Chemex brewing for the caffeinated caterpillar

It’s a common generalisation that writers are fuelled by coffee. (I know of one or two who reserve the coffee for the editing part, but it remains part of their process.) I consider myself one of the unfortunates who was born with a less than optimal quantity of caffeine naturally present in the bloodstream, thus being obliged to consume more merely in order to obtain some semblance of normal function. I drink a lot of it, and therefore am particular about it. My beans are fresh ground at home in a burr mill grinder approaching its fourteenth birthday, and every three weeks I buy freshly roasted beans, storing opened packets in an Airscape vacuum canister.

I believe I’ve tried just about every form of coffee making known to man with the exception of, thus far, cold brewed and the vacuum system used by Hannibal (the latter firmly out of my price range). I have a single cup drip filter, an Aeropress and a French press at work, choice dependent on how much time I have to make the coffee. At home I have a drip machine, stove top espresso maker (Moka pot), turkish coffee pot (Ibrik) and a Chemex.

Chemex with two rather pretty mugs

Chemex with two rather pretty mugs but NOT ENOUGH COFFEE.

The Chemex is a thing of beauty, and appeals to me because SCIENCE. I have used my fair share of conical flasks in my time. It also makes the best long coffee, in my opinion. If you like your coffee short, dark, bitter, thick and with crema, this isn’t for you; I generally prefer long to short, however.

It also has literary history: it’s the coffee maker used by James Bond, as specified in From Russia With Love:

It consisted of very strong coffee, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups, black and without sugar.

If that were not enough, it’s the only coffee maker to find a place in the Museum of Modern Art.

If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m a bit of a fan.

HOWEVER. It’s not a fast method (hence the machine drip filter for weekday mornings), and nor is it straightforward. Especially if, like me, you are a caffeine monster for whom the standard instructions for a brew to the button (the glass bubble near the bottom) are risibly inadequate.

This, fellow coffee lovers, is a method for brewing a LOT* of coffee in a 10 cup Chemex and keeping it hot while you undertake the business of the day without having it cooking on the stove.

Here’s what you need:

Coffee, kettle, vacuum flask, chemex

Left to right that’s an electric kettle (American readers, I have no idea what you use for boiling water, but use that instead), my trusty Dualit grinder containing 60g of freshly roasted Brazilian Yellow Bourbon, the Airscape from whence came the beans, a l litre vacuum flask and my 10 cup Chemex (CM-10A) containing a pre-folded unbleached filter. (I also use the bleached round unfolded filters, because, again, SCIENCE, but I think the unbleached gives a marginally faster flow so it’s possible to use a slightly finer grind of coffee and thus a slightly more complex flavour profile.) If you are making coffee just for yourself, you may want a larger flask, say 1.5l.Wash the filter

1. Boil about 500ml of water in your kettle. When it boils, put it in the empty flask. Now refill the kettle (ours has a capacity of 1.7l) but don’t switch it on, yet.

2. Grind your beans. It should be a moderately coarse grind, so the coffee ends up the texture of beach sand. While it’s grinding, using about half the water in the flask, rinse down the filter paper. It’s tempting to skip this step, but don’t. It gets rid of any residue from the packing and warms the Chemex. Discard the rinsing water.

3. Put the ground coffee into the Chemex. Switch on the kettle. Using just enough of the hot water still in the flask, soak the coffee until it’s saturated but not floating, then stir. Empty any remaining water from the flask but put the lid back on to retain heat.Stir the coffee

4. Once the kettle has boiled, fill the flask. Use the water from the flask to pour over the coffee in the Chemex, using a spiral motion to ensure even coverage. Fill to within about 5mm of the glass rim. Stir again.Add more water

5. Top up the water in the flask using the water in the kettle. Transfer the Chemex to the stove top. If you have gas or ceramic you’re fine — if you have a coil element you will need a special heat diffuser to ensure you don’t damage the Chemex. Turn on the stove to its lowest setting.

6. Once the water has filtered through, top up the Chemex using the remaining water in the kettle (it will now have cooled to the ideal 90 – 92ºC) by pouring gently down the sides of the filter paper, washing the coffee grounds back down into the mix.

Keep filling7. Continue topping up the Chemex in this fashion using water from the flask, being careful not to overfill, until you have achieved the desired amount of coffee. In my case, this is to the neck.Full!

8. Remove the filter paper, holding it above the Chemex for a few moments to allow any remaining coffee to drain. You don’t want to lose any.

9. Empty any remaining water from the flask (there won’t be much) and fill the flask with coffee. You can now pour yourself a mug using what’s left in the Chemex, safe in the knowledge the rest will stay hot for however long your flask is supposed to keep things hot.

10. Enjoy with your current reading material, or use to fuel words.

Enjoy!

* By “a LOT” I mean about 5 full British mugs, or roughly 1.6 litres of coffee.
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When the time comes, move with the seasons

It’s a new year already!

I can hardly believe how long it has been since I last updated. Last time I posted anything here the weather was still relatively warm and we’d just had a glorious weekend sea-kayaking off the Banffshire coast. Today the snow is falling, there’s a thick layer of ice outside and we’ve just finished taking another wood delivery.

Keil's Den in Winter
Keil’s Den at Christmas

I’ve been submerged in a number of projects (and life), deep down past where blue turns to black, and it has been impossible to come up for air.

At the end of a year I’m usually given to reflection — to thinking about what went well, what didn’t, what I learned, what I will be able to do better. I’ve not done that, partially because I really don’t want to dwell on the events of 2014 any more than I do already.

Instead I’m going to set out some goals for the following year. After almost two decades in dayjobs that have semi-annual appraisals, the concept of SMART targets is pretty much ingrained. I know I can’t control certain goals in my writing career, no matter how much I want them — for instance, making my first professional sale — because they are dependent on the decisions of others, and I cannot control the decisions of others. I can, however, maximise opportunity for those things to happen, and I can control the various aspects that are solely down to me. With that in mind, here are my targets for this year:

  1. Have something out to market at all times.
    I could specify numbers of pieces, but I don’t want to this year. This was one of my targets for last year, and I didn’t achieve it for various reasons that will be obvious if you’ve been playing along at home. I’d like to achieve a solid 12 months of constant submission before I start giving myself numeric targets.

  2. Complete to first draft at least one short-form story for every month of the year.
    I’m not saying one story per month because that’s too restrictive. If I write three in one month but spend the next two editing, that’s fine.

  3. Complete to first draft one long-form work.
    I have three novel-length projects underway at the moment (two of them have been added to the wordcountometer over on the right there). My target is completion of just one.

  4. Update at least one of my two blogs every other week. (Certainly more frequently than each wood delivery!)

These might seem under-ambitious, but it’s very easy to set targets that are over-ambitious and then become demoralised at failure to achieve them.

SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic, Time-related. Allowing for the day job (which is going to be very demanding for the forseeable future), other writing/editing-related work, and the other things life throws into the mix (eating, sleeping, health, fitness, etc), as well as allowing for the fact last year was very difficult, I’m pinning my ambitions on a handful of targets I hope are balanced more towards the achievable than aspirational end of the scale.

At the end of the day, aspirations, ambitions, goals, targets and achievements are inter-related, and should be inter-dependent, but should also be viewed as a progression. To use a fitness metaphor, one may aspire to be a strongman, for which one has the ambition of competing in a national competition, the goal of qualifying at a particular local contest, and the target of lifting a specific weight at that particular training session. Targets should be SMART, and they should feed into that progression, otherwise they are distracting or misleading.

Do you have any targets for 2015? Let me know in the comments so I can cheer you on!

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When short stories aren’t

Although I’ve been putting words on paper since I could hold a pen (I shall dig out some of my earliest journals sometime), I have written purely for myself, not with a view to submitting to market. I started doing that only recently, and I’m still finding out where my strengths and weaknesses lie when writing for others.

Some of them are obvious, such as the struggle I face balancing too much exposition with confusing prose, when part of what I want to do is conjure ambiguous worlds where nothing is definite. My crit groups are invaluable for dealing with these kinds of problems.

Other problems are harder to pin down. My short stories often grow metaphorical arms and legs and tentacles, before ignoring the limitations of limbs and sprouting hyphae all over the place. I end up trapped in something like a web built by a swarm of caffeine-fuelled spiders in a memory palace the size of Hannibal Lecter’s.

If I were writing long form, this would be more useful. Is it, therefore, a good thing or a bad thing? I’m still undecided, but am going to treat it as a good thing for the time being. At the moment, I would rather be in the position of having to cut than to add, except where my crit buddies suggest I can have clarification without straying into wordiness.

A short story I started with a nominal project target of 5,000 words has reached almost 10,000 words with no sign of stopping. It has pages of research and its own Scapple folder. I came back to this piece after several months away from writing, and opened it with a notional inclination towards abandonment. I read what I’d done, and I liked it too much to give up. There’s a story here I want to tell, and whether it ends up as 15k words I cut back to 7k, or 20k I work up to a full length novel, finishing the story at whatever length it turns out to be is something I have to do.

I’ve heard it said that a story ends up the length it needs to be. We’ll call this an experiment.

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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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