Other Writing

Sick days suck.  Days when I’m sick, or days when my wife’s sick — they both blow mighty chunks that would make the many Gods proud.  And as far as writing goes, the stickiest, stinkiest chunk of all is that I feel pretty blah, low on energy, low on inspiration.  Given my ongoing commitment to try and work on my writing every single day, it presents a problem; if I pick up a project that I care about, something that I genuinely want to bring to a satisfying conclusion, then there’s a very real risk that my writing will plummet down hard into turdsville and deliver something that would best be deposited in the Bog of Eternal Stench.

See that?  That's your writing, that is.

See that? That’s your writing, that is.

Today is a sick day.  But today, I find that I have a perfect task for days like this — editing.  Editing is not much fun at the best of times, but what it doesn’t need (or at least, what it doesn’t need as much of) is inspiration and fresh ideas, namely the kinds of things that my sick-day brain seems loath to provide.

This doesn’t always hold true.  Sometimes, when I’m sick or miserable or in other states of emotional funk, I can channel it directly into my writing either in reflection or opposition of that emotional state.  The emotions can drive a different way of thinking, prompting my brain to ask different questions than it might otherwise, and in that process give me different answers that either take a story in a new direction, or reveal entirely new stories to be written.  But in a state of Blah, my brain doesn’t want to answer questions at all.  Not the interesting kind, anyway.

Fortunately, it does seem willing to be asked “does this sentence work”, “did you forget anything obvious”, “do his actions actually make sense” and the other kinds of questions that are useful during editing.  And editing seems to be able to warm my brain up a bit, so that by the time I’m done, I may even be ready to tackle something a little bit more interesting.  Today, should it strike me, I have a path lined up towards a small light horror tale I began writing; the idea is still fresh in my head, and I’d like to pursue it.

However, editing first.  And that’s probably not a bad thing; editing is a task I hate, as I enjoy creating more than correcting.  I can be perfectionistic, but I lack the patience to achieve perfection, which can make for a frustrating conflict.  Today, however, editing is on my table, and I’m already actually enjoying it.

I’ve discovered recently that I’m more accomplished if I write early in the day. If I write in the morning, I don’t just get more writing done, I get more of everything done. It sets my day up well, and everything moves on in great fashion. I used to have a habit of leaving my writing until later, to think I could only write after I’d done everything else. But learning to treat it as more of a responsibility is having an impact on everything else too.

I love writing — it makes me feel good, and it also makes me feel productive. So when I do it earlier in the day, it helps to set me up in the right frame of mind to get things done.

This guy maybe started a little TOO early.

This guy maybe started a little too early.

So this morning, I’ve been working on an old short story I half finished before, provisionally titled The Journeymen. This version is a completely fresh rewrite, inspired by the fact that I thought of a new first line for it in the shower yesterday. It’s a light-hearted, occasionally comic sci-fi tale now, but in its previous incarnation it was much more serious. This version is closer to what I think I’d originally envisaged. I like it more, and I’m enjoying working on it again.

But for later in the day, I also have lined up some editing; I have several stories just sitting and waiting to be finished and printed for submission, and I keep putting it off. I looked through my notes, and discovered to my surprise that I haven’t submitted anything since mid-2009; as with so many things, the habit isn’t there yet. I need to give myself a nudge to get back into the habit of actually submitting what I write, or it’ll just sit here on my computer, never read by anyone other than me (or, occasionally, my wife).

It always seems like that should be the easy part…but somehow, it never is.

I think I’m starting to get the hang of this. I may not be particularly good at it yet, but I’m managing to balance what I do for a living with writing regularly, and finally managing to balance my writing a little between working on short fiction and working on my novel.

(I have also spilled coffee all over my work, my notes, my ideas book and my writing log this morning. This is NOT a key part of the balancing act.)

The main thing is, I want to be able to enjoy my writing without just pouring all my efforts into an empty, worthless hole. That means working on my novel, even if that novel may eventually go nowhere; because the act of working on a novel will improve me as a novelist. But at the same time, I need to write short fiction to improve myself as a short story writer — and I believe that becoming stronger at short-form fiction, using tighter and more refined prose, will ultimately roll over and improve me as a novelist too. So both disciplines are required.  And balancing them is critical to getting what I want out of it.

I just discovered even elephants have better balance than I do.

I just discovered even elephants have better balance than I do.  That’s sort of depressing.

I may also consider an online creative-writing course at some point. That’s something I’ve resisted more out of wanting to work on my writing myself than out of anything else, but I think it could be something very useful to me. I strongly doubt I’d come away from it any worse as a writer, and I may discover something that would improve what I do. It seems likely, at least. Classes in person are also an option, but I think the time investment there may be too much for me to afford — it’s hard enough balancing everything I already have going on without adding in something like that.

However; yesterday, I worked on my novel some more, and today I’m putting it partly to one side. Later on, I will be re-reading parts of my first draft again, as well as some of the background stories, and I may well go back into the text to make a few small revisions and additions. But for now, this morning, the main focus is a simple, mainstream slightly-black humour short story — a piece called The Mighty Pie Man, though I’ll leave out all explanation of the premise for this one. As with much of my short fiction, I feel wonderfully liberated while writing it. I have no expectations of it being anything that I might get printed, so I’m simply enjoying writing it.

I do need to spend some time today editing some of my other pieces, though, as I have some lined up for submission. I have a plan of action, which includes submission to a number of markets. And I have a market sequence lined up for some stories, planning ahead for the rejections. Eventually, something won’t get rejected; but it seems sensible to plan ahead nonetheless.

The first piece I’m planning to submit I have low expectations of, even though I like it a great deal. It lacks a traditional story-arc, largely bereft of elevation, conflict and conclusion, but those facts were all deliberate, as I was attempting to give the story a hollow feel that befitted it. I think they’ll count against it for publication, but it’s a piece that I will keep in this form, and I won’t rewrite it to give it what it’s missing. What it’s missing is at least partly the point. So I’ll submit it, and when it comes back, I’ll submit it to somewhere else. I’ll give it a proper run at least. If it did get published, I’d be delighted, as I really love this story — but as I say, my expectations are low, as I’m not sure how easy it will be to find a market that thinks it would suit them.

That’s a lesson I’ve been learning lately. If you write a good story, and it comes back, it’s still good. It simply may not suit the market you submitted to. (Or, alternatively, it may be awful, and you may be wrong. But hey, you’ve got to be optimistic!)

Partly as a way to spike my interest, I’ve been looking at a couple of sites that run themed story competitions. I recently assembled a database for my writing, adding in my stories and also markets, with genres and length restrictions so that I can automatically match them together (though for short fiction only, novel-length being another game entirely), and while scanning over interesting markets — this one good for me, that one good for a friend of mine occasionally given to a Cthulhu tilt — I came across a couple that run contests.

If you’re interested in taking a swing at them yourself, you’ll find them here:


I’ve only entered large competitions in the past (see: Bridport Prize, a rather hefty British annual writing contest), meeting with outright failure in all cases, but these are smaller and different, and each is themed. The two I’ve chosen both kick off their next hop in March, one in the first half, one in the second.  (But if you’re reading this later than March 2013, then give them a look anyway.  They each run several competitions a year.)

Of these, the first is a sixty-day deal, where you write, revise, review, improve, and try to perfect the tale that you’re submitting. The second is more rapid, lasting 48 hours from start to finish.  It opens, you write, you submit and it closes, with little room for you to spend hammering away at the same tale. I like the second one particularly, because it forces a certain brevity in the approach, though I think I’ll like the one later in the year better.  The Spring one is Mystery themed, which is something I have precious little experience with writing.

(Toasted Cheese run four competitions a year; the Spring and Autumn contests are 48-hour ones, while the Summer and Winter contests are longer.)

Both are currently closed until the next window opens, but yesterday I toyed with an old theme from the former for a writing warm-up. The results were poor, not least because I forced myself to write into an idea when I hadn’t fully established the concept of exactly what it was I was trying to write, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I’m looking forward to the official opening of each.

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I took some time today to dig through my copies of both the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines, in search of a sub-250 word flash fiction tale.  Both magazines publish them, EQMM apparently as an open submission, and AHMM as (at least in my old copies) as the “tale that won” in response to some kind of challenge.

(In this case, stories are inspired by a “mysterious photograph”, an interesting and far more open take on the more usual given theme, title or subject matter.)

Anyway — in the back of the March 2007 copy of AHMM, I found a tale called “A Prickly Figure” by one Monica Clark.  I tried to find her online to see if I could request permission to repost it, but had no luck; all I can find is that she also won the contest in May 2007, with another tale called “Three Amigos?” that I don’t have.  However, I’m going to type out and post “A Prickly Figure” as a password-protected post.  The password is the short, one-word name of the school I went to when I was fourteen, give or take a couple of years either side, all in lower-case.  So to get at it, you’ll have to know me; I’m not planning to post it publicly without given permission!

The whole story will be in the post following this one.

Short shorts.  Normally, flash fiction is five hundred words.  Certainly, my shortest full story runs in at four hundred and ninety-three.

However, the Bridport Prize’s flash-fiction category is capped at two hundred and fifty; and the famed mystery magazine Ellery Queen also publishes what they call “minute mysteries”, also limited to two hundred and fifty words.

Writing a story that’s complete at five hundred words is tricky, so what can you do with two hundred and fifty?  It’s got me thinking, and I’m definitely going to give it a try to see what I can do.  Maybe I’ll even try it today…but not before the novel work is finished!

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