Twenty$%&#ingTwenty

Yes, yes: it’s August, and I’m only just now getting around to my ‘year in review’ post for last year. I don’t know about you, but by the time 2020 finished, I was in no hurry to remenisce…

It won’t surprise you to learn that my writing and reading last year was affected by some external challenges. These included, obviously, the pandemic, but also a messy and drawn-out house moving process, which required us to stay with relatives for several months. Other writers reported that even when they had time, the state of the world made it hard for them to concentrate, or to produce new work, and I know what they mean.

So much for the bad stuff. Here’s some good news:

  • I won the Peter Carey Award with a story about chicken called ‘Bock Bock‘! This was especially meaningful to me, because the competition is run by some excellent humans including Wayne Marshall and Jem Tyley-Miller, and in 2020 was judged by gun short story writer Elizabeth Tan.
  • I signed with a literary agent: the indefatigable Martin Shaw of Shaw Literary. Martin immediately went to work on my behalf, and as a result of his efforts, publisher Wakefield Press has picked up my short story collection, due for publication in early 2022!

What I wrote

Most of my energies were devoted to finalising my collection, so that Martin and I could submit to publishers. To that end, I wrote 4 new connected short stories. It was my intention that these would provide a kind of superstructure for my collection, so that all the stories would occur in the same universe and be linked. But it turned out that publishers did not share my vision, and they won’t be included in the collection that comes out next year, so most of my new writing in 2020 came to nothing. For some reason, I don’t really care! It may have something to do with the fact that a short story collection, by me, is coming out early next year (have I mentioned this? That the excellent folks at Wakefield Press will be publishing my short story collection next year? I have? Sorry, I’m still pretty excited).

I also wrote an unrelated short story that, I think, is possibly the strongest piece I’ve written to date. Yes, it will appear in the collection, and in the meantime you will be able to read it in Griffith Review 74, scheduled for November 2021.

Stats

Anyway, I know why you’re really here. You’re here for some charts!

In 2020 I made, for me, what is a tiny number of submissions. Happily, my acceptance rate continues to improve, so I managed to have 5 new pieces published for the third year running.

Above is what this looked like over the course of the year. It was a grim Apr-July, let me tell you.

…aaaand this is the last four years. Submissions have continued to dwindle, as has writing time. My attention turns now to completing a polished draft of my next big project (a novel), so submissions will continue to drop in 2021.

Maybe that’s okay? Maybe I no longer need regular external validation that I am a legit writer, and that I haven’t lost the knack? Maybe. I guess I’m going to find out.

Money

I made about $2,000 from my writing in 2020. Most of that was prize money from story competitions, with a couple of other publications providing the balance. I didn’t do any presenting work last year. I applied for a COVID-related arts grant, but was not successful.

Reading

As for reading, in 2020 I was eagerly anticipating new books by Elizabeth Tan (Smart Ovens for Lonely People) and Patrick Allington (Rise & Shine). I loved their previous work. I couldn’t wait. And… both of these books lived up to my ridiculously lofty expectations. Shirl by Wayne Marshall: also fantastic.

A stand-alone short story that I read in 2020 and that I still think about: ‘Ounya Passed‘ by Daniel Hutley at Overland.

And a longer essay on marathon running, which will pull you in even if you are not a runner: Nicholas Turner’s ‘Run to Feel‘.

Looking ahead

Because I’m writing this in August, I can tell you that I’ve had a couple more successes already this year in terms of story competitions. The new writing, though, has been coming slowly. Turns out caring for two children is even more demanding than caring for one (I’d assumed that they would largely administer and entertain each other).

I am enjoying writing — slowly. I am enjoying reading — slowly. I feel like a writer, even when I am not writing. And the hunger to create remains, but the angst has receded somewhat. Metrics and stats aside, I feel like I am in a good place.

Twenty Nineteen

A lot of writers spent 2019 trying to figure out what it makes sense to say  – what needs to be said, and what’s just noise. I thought about that stuff fair bit last year. At the same time, I found myself appointed co-manager of a wonderful, intensive project: the parenting of a 6 month old child. And then there was the matter of earning a living. For parts of the year, writing didn’t get much of a look-in.

What I wrote

Produced in 2019

Output in 2019 was low by my standards. That 1 manuscript is a bit of a fudge – what I really did was to pull together a substantially revised short story collection, and write half of a first draft of a novel. I’m rounding that effort up to 1 full-length work, & I will not be taking questions at this time.

More often than not, I felt anxious about how little I was writing. And, of course, that was counter-productive, because it made me feel stressed when I did find time to sit down at the keyboard.

On the other hand, 3 of the short stories that I wrote came sizzling out of my brain. They were a joy to transcribe, and after subsequent rounds of edits, I’m really satisfied with how they’ve turned out. So I take some comfort in the idea that the capacity is still there, even if quantity has declined.

Outcomes

Outcomes by month 2019

Up until the end of June (leaving aside a semi-bitter rant I penned for the Meanjin blog), I didn’t have a single acceptance to my name. It was beginning to look like 2019 would be an annus horribilus (which I believe is Latin for horrible anus) of a year. It was only from July that I got some momentum.

2019 Outcomes

Of 30 submissions last year, I received 7 acceptances. I am happy with that strike rate! I also got published by some journals I admire and love to read, like Griffith Review, Overland and Southerly (hash tag CareerGoals). Because of the speed with which publishing moves, most of the things I had published last year were based on acceptances received in 2018. Similarly, a few pieces that were accepted last year will likely see the light of day in the first half of 2020. You can bet I’ll be self-promoting the sh-it out of those when the time comes! 🙂

A shout-out to Westerly, who followed up a rejection that with some insightful feedback that I’ve used to improve one of my stories. Providing that kind of guidance is way above and beyond the call of duty for a resource-constrained, volunteer-dependent Australian lit journal. But when it occurs, it’s hugely appreciated.

In 2019, I earned about $1,200 from writing, made up of publication fees and workshop fees. This is down by about 2/3 from 2018, because it did not include any sweet, sweet grant money.

Year by year

This is the third time I’ve done a year-in-review post, which means I have 3 years of data points, and can make this:

3 Years

Speaks for itself, really – submissions and rejections (and hence writing admin workload) reduced in 2019, but acceptances have held up OK!

Reading

Last year I decided to keep a longer work and a short story collection on the go at all times. Highly, highly recommended as a way of reading. Highlights were Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius, Nic Low’s Arms Race, and Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August.

Individual stories that have stayed with me: Alex Cothren’s ‘Let’s Talk Trojan Bee‘ in the Spring 2019 issue of Meanjin; and Ben Walter’s ‘Atlantis Minor‘, also from Meanjin (Winter 2019).

Looking ahead

Someone on twitter – it might have been Justine Hyde? – wrote that this year they’d be concentrating on reading books by IRL friends and online/twitter buddies. And I think that’s a great idea! For me, that will include works by Patrick Allington (Rise and Shine), Wayne Marshall (Shirl), Elizabeth Tan (Smart Ovens for Lonely People), Rose Hartley (Maggie’s Going Nowhere) – I’m sure I am forgetting some people here.

In 2019 I felt my share of frustrated, ugly, self-centred, graspy-type thoughts about writing, and success or the lack of it. But for right now, I’m feeling less pressure to get publication results, land a book deal, etc etc. I want to write things that I enjoy, that are right at the edge of what I’m capable of making. The other stuff will either come to pass, or not.

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