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!

MRP Guest Blog – Class Differences

Margaret River Press has kindly offered to host me as a guest blogger during May. You can read my first post, about class differences in Australia, here.

In other exciting news, my short story ‘Pigface’ is now available as part of the (excellently named) ‘Pigface and Other Stories’ anthology, published by Margaret River Press. You can learn more and buy a copy here. The collection is edited by Ryan O’Neill, and features the finalists of the 2018 MRP Short Story Competition. I’m thrilled that my story has found such good company!