Or, rather, what do I do when I'm hopeless at targeting a market? Because, despite the day job, I am. That intelligent thriller becomes historical, then literary, then pulp. That space opera morphs into experimental fiction and slips quietly into the bottom drawer. That note to the milkman... Thou fond-recall'd and long-retirèd help...
Well, what I have done this time is to write for an ideal reader. And this time that's not me in an unconvincing wig, it's my nine year old son, Freddie. Not my eleven year old? This latest poorly-targeted thing is about eleven year olds, isn't it? Well, yes and no, but definitely no, not my eleven year old; he's going through a non-reading phase.
But Freddie still has his advanced reading age, at least for now. He has read all the Harry Potters, several times, and The Lord of the Rings, and His Dark Materials. And so I have enlisted him, just to complicate matters, not only as my ideal reader but as my actual reader as well, and editor, and writing partner.
And if that sounds like an aberration, yes it is, but so is he and so is this thing I'm writing. So what?
And so what if the received wisdom is that the Young Adult audience starts at 12? So what if, we're told, they want to read about kids older than themselves, not younger? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you all the press about how more than half of YA fiction is read by actual As anyway. Oh, and Stranger Things, like I said before.
Because yes, I am still trying to combine a faint whiff of that Netflix nostalgia fest with a big dollop of not-exactly-Proustian autobiographical time-travel. In fact just last week, before the day job took over again, I finished the first draft. Without, I might add, reading The Body or IT or even wanting to. And Freddie, bless him, was very diplomatic, right up to the moment when he pointed out that in my studious attempts not to unknowingly plagiarise Stephen King I had unknowingly plagiarised J. K. Rowling.
Oh yeah, and then he told me that it didn't work, that it had moved too far away from what we had agreed its intentions would be, and of course he's right.
Roll on Draft Two.
I've been working on the aforementioned novella, the one I jokingly referred to as Stranger Things meets Proust (or vice versa).
Which means I've been thinking about Stephen King again, and specifically The Body. I don't even remember reading it (although it's possible I did), but I saw Stand By Me all those years ago and I've read other Stephen Kings, and things inspired by - or inspiring - Stephen King and I can kind of hear it in my head. Even if I'm mishearing it, it's there.
So the nagging question is: do I make a point of reading/re-reading it now? It would help me know what to avoid, in case of accidental plagiarism. It might even inspire me too.
Or would it strangle and suffocate everything I'm trying to do? Would I start tip-toeing so carefully around his story that I'd never get anywhere in my own? Or worse, might it even prompt me, unconsciously, to write some kind of pastiche?
OK. I'm gasping already - a fish on the riverbank. I'll throw myself back in. No King until the first draft's done. Then...
A fledgling American online literary journal has selected one of my short stories to feature in its latest issue.
The issue's theme is Time and the story, Ten, is an exploration of how the act of remembering can become not just a kind of time travel but a dystopian kind at that. (There it is again, that word, dystopian. I wonder why!)
It got me thinking about a follow-up, a longer form short story, maybe even a novella. Something with room for multiple characters and at least two plot lines.
Why at least two plot lines? Partly, I guess, because of the points of view and how those might be articulated. I'm the father of an eleven-year-old boy. I was also eleven, once.
But mostly because of this...
What if, in trying to recapture a particular moment from your childhood, you actually succeeded? What if you tried so hard to put yourself back there, you almost made it? What kind of ghost, what kind of monster, would the eleven-year-old you perceive? Pennywise? Or Boo Radley?
OK, maybe 'Proust meets Stranger Things' is a pitch that needs some fine-tuning, but thanks to The Remnant Leaf for the inspiration.
Some people use random pictures as writing prompts, but this is something more than that.
Found Polaroids is a Canadian creative project that collects images - mute and yet intensely personal, out-of-date and yet in-the-moment as only a Polaroid can really be - and invites us to write new stories for the nameless people in the photographs, to replace those that have been lost.
It's a fascinating exercise that seems to combine everything from 'dirty realism' and historical fiction to speculative fiction and an element of ghost story. It's biography, except it's not. Detective work, kind of. Archaeology/grave robbing or Frankenstein resurrection. It's about them, but also all about us.
What it is, I think, is an exercise in duality, which is why I've called these quantum state stories: stories in which, like Schrödinger's cat, the characters are both dead and alive, and the observer is an active participant. The project as a whole has a duality, I gather, having evolved from the impulse to track down the real stories behind the Polaroids to embrace the truth of our reaction to them as they are.
Anyway, check out the website and make up your own mind. And if you're interested, the Polaroid I chose, #129, has a particular quantum quality to it. Not just because other writers have supplied alternative possibilities but because the girl's own Polaroid camera appears in the picture. Who was/is she? Why two Polaroids? Who took the picture?
No, indeed, it's not Rocket Science... That was a story I wrote for STORGY's 'Exit Earth' project (which you can still help fund here). But I don't think that the short story competition hosted by the National Space Centre is about dystopian visions of the future (or even dystopian visions of our dystopian present).
The intriguing question is: what should it be about?
Because the clock is ticking. Ten, nine, eight, seven...
Up to 1,500 words. Featuring some real space science, plus something more speculative. And incorporating a historic space artefact. And a proper plot. And did I mention only 1,500 words?
That's Sci-Fi Shorts, a FREE competition hosted by the National Space Centre, in conjunction with the Literary Leicester Festival. The deadline is 1st September.
I went along to get some food for thought...
There are loads of not-very-helpful quotes out there about the act of writing. You know what I mean - the truisms. You write to find out what you're really thinking... You write to exorcise demons... Trouble is, it can end up sounding like you do it because it's good for you in some way.
Well - personally - I don't do it to help me confront and grapple with something that's screwing me up. Quite the contrary. I take the (possibly dangerous, possibly self-destructive) decision to use and abuse something raw and personal in order to help the writing. If I gain anything from closer scrutiny of that event from my past, or my loved ones, or my lost ones, that's an accidental by-product and it's more likely that it won't do me any good at all. It's the writing that benefits, not me.
I can't speak for anyone else but for me it's not about trying to be true to myself, it's about trying to say something interesting. It's taking something from inside me - something that was personal - and hopefully making it a little bit more universal, even if it means losing touch with the original or at the very least pushing it further away. That can't be therapeutic.
There's one quote, one truism, I do think is worth remembering. The one about a non-writing writer being a monster courting insanity. Kafka said it. And in those terms, anything that gets you writing, whatever you write, however it plunders your private parts... is therapy.
Anyway, I did some plundering for the always-interesting Paragraph Planet website. It's up today.
I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here, but I suspect the closest might be gamey (or, yes, gamy) - as Star-Lord would say, a bit of both.
We need to know what the detective sees and smells at the crime scene. We may be interested in the textures of that sex scene, or even the tastes (although the smells, I suspect, not so much). And if your character is cracking up in the city street, those sounds - or missing sounds - are going to be pivotal. But if it's not the point of the scene, do we really need to share the full-on, piquant, throbbing, sensory experience? Primary school teachers says yes. Creative writing tutors, no.
To the rescue, once again, comes a writing challenge from Chris Fielden's website, this one called Allen's Sensory Overload Challenge. As the name makes plain, it's an opportunity to overdo the sensations and, in the process, to highlight where you might need to exercise more restraint in your 'proper' writing. Or not. Give it a go - it's free and in a good cause. My contribution is Story 065.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.