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B-Sides: Co(m)mute

Here is another B-Side — you can find the first two here and here.

This one was written in relative haste on public transport, and was entered in the Emerging Writers Festival Microfiction challenge last year.

 

Co(m)mute

The assessment is almost done, and you wait fidgeting through the vote but it’s just a formality, they’ve held it at 4:00pm for a reason, and the council is stacked with developers and no one advocates for the stunted ugly trees that most of us wince to look at, where birds camp and poor people camp and wouldn’t it be better if the whole thing was neater, smoother somehow? And it’s all leading questions and scripted answers, no one wants to hear new information, and you, the minute-taker, sit mute and record what is pre-known and pre-decided, when all you really want is to flinch with surprise, like that time you bit into a blood orange and the taste stained your chin.

And when it’s done and over you feel emptied out and you pack your satchel and sling it over your shoulder and walk out into the twilight heat and you circulate, pushed by the Friday crowd without ever being touched. They look at phones, the bodies of others, billboards, beggars (furtively, to assess threat), and mostly at the flashing red signals that halt.

And you come to the city square and it’s baked brick under your feet and a wind that hisses grit, and you remember another wind years ago when you hired a catamaran on a beach on the south coast and you took it out alone, wind so cold that you became a living thing, reified, and you don’t understand how such different sensations can be caused by moving air. There are many many people here but it would be wrong to say assembled, there is no organising principle at work, they mill in packs of two three four, or slump on benches, rumpled blouses and slacks damp with sweat.

Somewhere, a creek gossips, a magpie insists. But here, no thing makes a sound.

‘I’m here,’ you say, but there’s too much noise.

 

“commute” by Sang You is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

B-Sides: Penned In

Here is another in my series of writing ‘B-Sides’ — you can find the first entry here.

This one started out as a challenge to myself: try and write a story perpetuating all of the mistakes that new writers make. So, if you think it’s poorly written… well, exactly.

 

Penned In

“Can you imagine‽” Marjorie exclaimed to the group of amateur writers, her tone conveying the interrobang. “She collects ten thousand Euros cash from the local branch in Perth, and then mails the whole lot to her hotel in Rome—regular surface mail!—so that she’ll have money to spend when she gets there.”

“And when she arrives, is the money waiting for her?”

“I haven’t decided yet. What would be better for the story?”

“She gets the money back.”

“She doesn’t get the money back.”

“Hold on,” said Victoria. “She doesn’t get the money back, and then, when all hope seems lost, she does get the money back.”

Marjorie clapped her hands together. “Yes! Perfect. That has tension baked in. People love money, so it’s upsetting to lose.” Everyone nodded sagely.

The five of them were in a room. Rectangular, as rooms so often tend to be. It had four white walls and a ceiling, also white. Three halogen bulbs, suspended from the ceiling at equal intervals, shone neutrally, casting everything in an even, white light. A large window was set into the wall on Marjorie’s left-hand side. Later on, one of the characters will look out this same window and have a realisation.

A whiteboard had been positioned in a manner that blocked access to the only doorway in or out. Upon the whiteboard, someone had scrawled: Ideas! in large looping script. To Gabriella, the newest member of the group, the word felt like a threat.

The only other feature of the room worthy of note was the rifle. As the group was setting up for the meeting, someone had barged in, hung it on a rack against the wall, and then left. No one was sure why the rifle was there, so they all resolved to ignore it.

It was David’s turn to talk about his work. David’s unkempt beard literally smothered his face. “I’m working on a new story,” he said, his voice sounding muffled. “The protagonist is an author who discovers—”

“Spare us,” interrupted Victoria, in a very rude manner. “Putting writers into one’s story is tedious.”

“It’s meta,” David protested grumpily.

“No it’s not. Or if it is, it’s meta-lazy.”

“What about Ryan O’Neill?”

“Who?” barked Victoria. Marjorie and Gabriella shrugged their shoulders.

“Writing about writers is very inside baseball,” declared Sue. Sue was Victoria’s lackey.

Marjorie said, “I despise Americanisms.” This brought the discussion to a halt, because of course everyone despised Americanisms, and everyone tried hard to think of an Australian equivalent for the idiom inside baseball, but no one could.

David leaned forward as if to continue with his story idea, but quicker than a New York minute, Victoria beat him to the punch. “Sue, what have you been working on?”

Sue had a debilitating, secret addiction to poker machines. She said, “My story is about a woman who lives in a cottage on the top of a cliff overlooking a beach. She is rather lonely. Sometimes the weather is pleasant, and she goes for a walk along the beach, and she collects sea shells. Sometimes the weather is rainy and cold. Even when it’s rainy and cold, this woman will walk along the beach until her clothes are wet and she starts to shiver, which I think says a lot about her character and her inner struggles.”

“What happens?” asked Gabriella.

“Pardon?”

“What happens to the woman in the story?”

Sue sniffed. “I just told you what happens.”

Gabriella laughed and looked around the room for support, but everyone else was inspecting the beige-coloured carpet. “Remember,” warned Marjorie, “that this is meant to be a safe, supportive environment. No attacks on other people’s work.”

“I wasn’t,” replied Gabriella. “I was just—”

Victoria shook her head, appalled at Gabriella’s insensitivity. “And what have you been working on?” As if to remind everyone of the import of this question, Victoria turned to regard the whiteboard. The intensity of her glare cast foreshadows across the room.

Now Gabriella felt uncomfortable. She was an administration officer at a local hospital. Her job was desperately boring, and so she’d joined the writers’ group in the hope of exploring her creative side. She was secretly attracted to David. The relentless fussing and negativity from the three older women was driving her insane.

In answer to Victoria’s question, Gabriella replied, “Nothing in particular. I suppose I’ve been wondering. Just generally wondering.”

Marjorie tutted. “You won’t produce anything unless you start with an idea. Something concrete and specific. Write down some thoughts. They don’t have to be perfect. We’ll help you, give you feedback. That’s what we’re here for.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything ready to be written down.”

“Well, have you heard any ideas today that have inspired you?”

Gabriella shook her head, embarrassed. “Nothing, I’m afraid. It’s just— …Real people aren’t like that. These characters you’ve been describing: they’re trite. Too one-dimensional.” She paused, her gaze travelling around the white, featureless room, and the nondescript faces of her fellow group members.

“Do you suppose…?” But none of them did, so Gabriella stood up and walked to the window. Outside, it was an implausibly beautiful day.

“(#25 of 365) Emptiness” by j-fin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

B-Sides: A Beginner’s Guide to Haunting

 
For the next few weeks I will be posting microfic and writing experiments that in most cases never saw the light of day, usually for good reason. I’m calling these ‘B-Sides’, and they’re possibly of interest only to hardcore roffwrites fans (n == at least 2).

Looking through these snippets again with fresh eyes, I see imperfection. There is a reason most of these pieces did not become fully realised, polished stories. They don’t represent the best writing I’m capable of. For that reason I’ve hesitated sharing them — will a publisher read these and conclude I’m a hack? But fellow writers might be interested from a process perspective. Why didn’t these things quite work? And amid the imperfection, there are lines that still make me smile, that make me remember what I was trying for, even if I didn’t fully succeed.

So without further ado, here is the first B-Side, a microfic in which (IMO) a good concept is slightly let down by the narrative voice, the weak ending, and the ‘tell-ish’ exposition. Oh, and the best line in it is lifted from Keats…

A Beginner’s Guide to Haunting

When you die, you’re taken to a large dim room like an old community hall, and told to wait until the next induction. There’s heaps of other people lingering, and nobody has any idea what’s going on, except that some people remember the moment when their bodies failed. There is much bewilderment. Some low-level panic. But it’s clear that there’s a system, so most people just wait to see what’s what. Humaniform beings in blue polo shirts circulate with clipboards. They form everyone into three queues. All things considered it’s more tedious than scary, and that pretty much sums up what being dead is like.

After the induction, where they explain just enough to placate you without answering any of your really urgent metaphysical questions, you get your first job. I was assigned a quiet suburban street in Adelaide. I’m from Gosford and had never been to South Australia, but it’s a nice street with jacaranda trees.  Because I’m new, I’m only expected to do basic stuff like knocking over rubbish bins, setting dogs to barking, and flinging gates open and shut. You do ten hours of that and then you return to the spectral plane, to generally chill out until your next shift.

I’d have preferred to wander around. Try out a couple of other dimensions. Walk through some walls and see what celebrities get up to. As a geist you have the power to do just about whatever, but you’re not allowed to do anything fun. There’s a code of conduct, and if you break the rules, you’re demoted. My supervisor, a beige middle-monster with a perpetually harried expression, always says, “You don’t want to spend the rest of eternity haunting a Centrelink office, do you?”

What I want most of all is to visit Liliana. I don’t remember the exact moment of my death, but I recall stiff sheets and disinfectant smell, and those stupid curtains. And Lil smiling through tears, all health and quiet breathing.

They don’t let you haunt anyone you knew in life. It’s a conflict of interest. If someone you used to love needs a haunting, they’ll dress up a substitute, feed them a few lines. If Lil’s getting visits from a geist pretending to be me, I hope that at least they’re not too hammy.

Trying to catch a glimpse of her, or worse, trying to communicate, would be a serious code violation. That sort of thing could see me working a sewer in Victorian London, or an abattoir in Texas. Repeat offenders get stripped of their powers, even their faculties. After a while, all they can do is shift about and moan.

Still. To know she’s doing alright—the anxious part of me could rest. And if rule-breaking means working a shit job for a millennium or two, well, I’ve worked shit jobs before.

There’s no time like the present. When you’re dead, that’s still true, but in a different way. Tonight, I think I’ll swing by our old place on my way home from work.

“Ceremonial Ghost Mask” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Twenty Eighteen

Last year was busy, personally and professionally. Somehow, I managed to squeeze in lots of reading and writing, too.

What I wrote

produced in 2018

In 2018, I wrote eight new short stories, and six flash/microfictions (under 1,000 words). By coincidence, this is exactly the same as I managed in twenty seventeen.

My most productive period was in March, which coincided with a 2-week residency at Varuna House in the Blue Mountains, NSW. During my stay I wrote a new, ~10,000 word story, and did some deep editing, to start to form a cohesive short story collection for pitching to publishers.

Some days, particularly towards the end of the year, I felt burnt out. But even during those periods, my brain told me that I had to write. And generally, I try to listen to my brain.

Submissions

submissions by type 2018

Despite resolving at the end of 2017 to be more selective, I fired off 50 submissions in 2018, up from 39 in 2017. I don’t really recommend this. One submission a week doesn’t sound like much, but the amount of ‘writing admin’ I created for myself (drafting submissions, tracking and following them up) really did eat into my productive writing time. These figures also don’t include submissions to literary agents (more about that below).

Outcomes

outcomes 2018 hq

Of my 50 submissions, I received 9 acceptances, which (so far) have led to 5 publication outcomes. I’m happy with this strike rate! I had fiction published in Verandah and Going Down Swinging. My story, Pigface, was published by Margaret River Press in a collection of the same name. Overland online kindly published not one but two of my non-fiction pieces — the first about art and a universal basic income; the second about the time I played a computer game so much that I went a bit strange.

I also had four rejections that I consider to have been ‘nice’. These include two shortlistings (for the Wollongong short story comp and the Literary Nillumbik Alan Marshall short story comp) that did not lead to publication outcomes. (BTW any editors reading this: those stories are still unpublished…)

outcomes by month 2018

Above you can see that July and October were hectic months. In April and May, August and September, I was sobbing into my keyboard.

In calendar year 2018, I generated about $3,000 in revenue from my writing. This was made up of grants, prize money, workshop fees, and fees for publication. This is a 100x increase from the $30 I made in 2017. If this trend continues, next year I will make $300,000 and I will move to western Tasmania and become a recluse!

On a less optimistic note, my expenses associated with writing (mentorships, travel, festival attendance costs, writing courses and workshops, subscriptions, home office costs) continued to exceed my revenue. Don’t quit your day job to become a journeyman writer.

Reading

Of the novels I read in 2018, my absolute favourite favourites were Rubik, by Elizabeth Tan; and From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson. I love how fiction with speculative elements is So Hot Right Now. Let’s hope this is more than a passing phase.

I read a LOT of short stories this year. Too many highlights to list exhaustively, but stories that especially spring to mind are:

I read several short story collections this year, and it’s difficult to nominate a favourite, but I found myself thinking about The Worry Front by H.C. Gildfind long after reading.

I am biased because one of my stories is included, but Pigeonholed by the team at Going Down Swinging is just such an enjoyable and different read. It’s smart genre fiction, and in particular, the stories by Katherine Kruimink (‘Electric Yuzu’), Jack Nicholls (‘Cheek by Jowl’), and Wayne Marshall (‘Gibson’s Bat ‘n’ Ball’) are disgustingly well-written and executed.

As for long-form non-fiction? It’s not my jam; too unrealistic. I much prefer fiction, which hews closer to the real.

My ‘to be read’ pile grew alarmingly this year. Laura Elvery’s collection, A Trick of the Light, and Holly Throsby’s Cedar Creek (the follow-up to Goodwood) are right at the top of that teetering stack.

Lowlights

I spent a lot of time in early 2018 trying to pitch a short story collection to literary agents. In retrospect, I should have realised what an incredibly tough sell that would be. A (relatively) unknown debut writer pitching a book of short stories? It doesn’t scream ‘bestseller’. Responses included form rejections; lovely, kind rejections; and disheartening rejections (“Frankly, I don’t care for the short story form…”). My efforts were not completely wasted; the process allowed me to sharpen my pitch. But if I had my time again, I would probably approach publishers directly and save myself some time.

I also had a weird experience with an editor at an Australian journal (not one of the ones who published me). I pitched an idea, and received an enthusiastic response and a request for a full piece. So I wrote the piece, and was told that it was great, and they’d love to publish it with just a few tweaks, and that I’d get some edits back within a week.

A month went by, so I sent a polite follow-up. Another month went by: I fired off another email. Long story short, after 5 months of absolutely no response from the journal, I withdrew the piece. I still have not had any contact from them — not even to acknowledge the withdrawal. I don’t want to make too much of this: as a rule, editors are incredibly overworked, underpaid, generous, passionate people. And things slip through the cracks. But the deafening silence was bizarre and, frankly, discouraging and stressful.

Highlights

Attending the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival was such a joy. Hanging out with other writers at the festival made all the grindy bits of writing seem worthwhile. Speaking there, and also presenting a workshop at Writers SA, took me right out of my comfort zone, but I survived and I’d like to do more presenting in 2019.

I was very fortunate to receive an Arts SA project grant to work on my next project — a literary spec fic novel set in Australia in the year 2048.

Looking ahead

In 2019 I want to keep building relationships with other writers. Feeling like I’m part of a community has made drearier aspects of writing (the long waits, and solitary work that may lead nowhere) seem less grim. And it’s exciting when your friends find success.

Project-wise, it’s full steam ahead on the novel. That will mean fewer new short stories, which may also mean fewer submissions and (probably) fewer publications. I’m only half joking when I say that this will be challenging for my fragile ego. I may get to June and feel like I’ve achieved ‘nothing’ — at least, nothing tangible. I will need to remind myself that I’ve written half a first draft of a manuscript that may or may not, one day, go on to be read by tens of people — or maybe even more!