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

 

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!

Twenty Seventeen

I’ve been inspired by some excellent reflective posts by other writers recently, and I thought I’d look back at what I achieved last year from a writing perspective.

What I wrote

Produced in 2017

At the start of 2017 I had a couple of short stories ready for submission (as well as a novel manuscript). Over the course of the year I developed 8 more short stories to the point where I was comfortable submitting them. I wrote drafts of another 6 or 7 stories that are languishing in various unpolished states.

As the year went on, I found that the stories I was writing got shorter and shorter. Towards the end of the year, I was writing mostly flash fiction (under 1,000 words) inspired by competitions like the Digital Writers Festival Microfiction Challenge. This might have also coincided with a fairly busy period at my day job, leaving less brainspace for long fiction.

The fellowship/grant applications took ages, but one of them paid off, so that effort was worth it.

Submissions

Submissions by Type

In total I fired off 39 submissions last year, or not quite one per week. About half of those were submissions of short stories to Australian lit journals or short story competitions. The “other” category in the chart above represents international journals and reading events.

There is differing advice out there about whether it’s a good idea to enter writing competitions. Some say that the odds of winning a competition are much more remote than getting published in a journal, but I’m not sure I agree. The average quarterly Australian journal might only publish 16 stories in a whole year (4 stories per issue, 4 issues per year) so that still seems insanely competitive. My experience was that most journals and competitions tended to prohibit simultaneous submissions (ie submitting the same piece concurrently to two outlets), and took about as long to consider my work before notifying of rejection/acceptance (usually 2-3 months). This year, I don’t plan to change significantly the mix between journal submissions and competition entries. I might get more selective about which journals and comps I submit to.

Outcomes

Outcomes 2017

I received about 30 rejections. Not quite the 100 per year one is supposed to aim for, but it’s a start!

Of the rejections, most were form rejections with no specific feedback. Four were personal rejections that either contained really useful feedback, or confirmed that I’d just missed out on an acceptance and encouraged me to submit again. These ‘nice’ rejections really did feel almost as good as an acceptance.

Outcomes by month

You can see that the first half of the year was a hard slog. And then in July, I made 4 submissions, of which 2 were ultimately successful (representing a residency and a lit journal publication).

Last year I earned a grand total of $30 from my writing. My effective hourly rate… is not worth thinking about.

As of today I still have a couple of pending submissions. I’m happy to say that at least one of these should lead to a publication outcome during 2018.

Reading

I tried to read mostly Australian fiction last year. Books I read and loved included Goodwood by Holly Throsby, A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe, The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill and The Dead Aviatrix by Carmel Bird.

Looking back, looking ahead

At the time, the successes seemed few and far between. But I’m happy with what I achieved in 2017. I also had fun engaging with fellow writers, and got some really useful feedback from practitioners who I admire. I hope that I ended the year as a better writer.

While it would be nice if I could get a bit more traction in 2018, maybe a few more publication outcomes, I feel like I laid some groundwork that will stand me in good stead.

I’d love to hear how your year was, for reading or writing. Let me know in the comments!

Writer-in-residence applications: tips from a non-expert

I’ve secured a residential fellowship at a writers’ retreat. Sweet times! Next March, I will enjoy two glorious weeks of tranquil settings, quiet contemplation, and uninterrupted writing time. The experience certainly will not involve procrastination or crippling anxiety about not wasting this great opportunity I’ve been handed.

A writing friend suggested that I share some tips on applying for these sorts of things (thanks, May-Kuan!). But just because I was successful with this one application, that hardly makes me an expert. I applied for two other residencies this year with no joy. So, if you read on, your results may vary, I take no responsibility for the quality of the advice, etc etc.

In my non-writing career, I read a lot of job applications. That’s been instructive, and I have a couple of theories about what might have helped my residency application get over the line.

First of all, I chose a project and a pitch that would help me stand out. That really comes back to closely reading the application guidelines. These usually contain clues about what the assessors are looking for. The things I noticed in the guidelines for this opportunity were:

–An expressed willingness to consider writers with different levels of experience and background. This is not a given; and it’s music to the ears of any early-stage writer not yet “on the brink of actual emergement”;

–Welcoming writers from different parts of Australia, even though the residency is in NSW;

–Looking for different types of work (novels, memoir, short stories etc).

So, I pitched myself as:

–An early career writer (I stated this clearly, and didn’t try and talk up my experience or publication history);

–From South Australia;

–Working on a themed short story collection.

It’s serendipitous that I happen to be working on a themed short story collection right now. But I could also have chosen to pitch a political/lit fic novel – a future project that I have some clarity around. But look at the assessors’ report: of the 250 applications received, over 150 were for lit fic novels, and only a dozen or so were for short story collections. All other things being equal, my base in South Australia and the nature of my project helped me to stand out.

Of course, other programs will have other criteria. So, look for the clues in the project you’re applying for. Even better, look for the right opportunity: the one that seems tailor-made to support the project you’re working on right now.

When it came to describing my project, I really had to wrestle hard to define what my collection was about. I realised that it’s not enough to say: I’m writing a bunch of stories and they’re all really great and they’re about different things. That’s not a hook. So I took time to re-read the work I’ve completed, to see what themes ran through all of the pieces. I realised that they all deal, in some way, with issues of control (of oneself and others) and what happens when control is lost. That realisation is going to help me write a better collection, aside from helping me with this residency application.

I also thought hard about how I could explain why the residency would matter to me, and to my project specifically. Two weeks of writing and editing time is useful for any writer. Saying so in a residency application won’t get you too far. So I thought about what specifically I would do in that two week period. In my application, I noted that:

–I’ve been working on this project since late 2016 (true!)

–I have outlines for most stories and I’m about 60% of the way through first drafts.

–By early 2018—the time of the residency—I should have completed drafts of almost all stories and so I would use the residency to edit, re-work, and form the pieces into a cohesive collection.

It’s still only aspirational, but it’s a bit more directed than, “Gee, I’d really like 2 weeks of writing time…”

Hey: it’s a numbers game, and there’s a good deal of luck involved, and of course the quality of one’s writing is important in securing one of these things. We’ll all have more rejections than acceptances. But why not try and give yourself the best chance?