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Found Polaroids is a Canadian creative project that collects images - mute and yet intensely personal, out-of-date and yet in-the-moment as only a Polaroid can really be - and invites us to write new stories for the nameless people in the photographs, to replace those that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.
This is a great challenge. 75 words (including the title) - it can be a piece of flash fiction, the opening of a novel or whatever you like, as long as it stands up as a story.
To my mind, with such a limited word count, I reckon the thing to aim for is to suggest that there's a bigger story going on beyond that one paragraph, without looking like you've tried to cram one in. But that's just my interpretation.
Check out Paragraph Planet. They've published my story Seventy-Six today.
Here's a bit of an oddity.
SCI-FI-LONDON, the international film festival which starts tomorrow, runs a 48-hour flash fiction challenge in association with New Scientist and Urbanfantasist.com. You can read last year's shortlisted entries and winning story here, but this is my experience of this year's challenge...
You register in advance (no fee) and just before midday on the Saturday you log in to find the elements that you must incorporate in your story. These include the title, a line of dialogue, and an optional scientific idea or theme. You then have until just after midday on the Monday to write and submit your story.
My given title was SIX WEEK SLEEP. The line of dialogue was "Did you hear something? There? Listen... it did it again." And the optional science idea? Looking back to the moment of the big bang, we see a message that says STOP NO FURTHER.
Now, I suppose some people might have been able to dedicate the entire 48-and-a-bit hours to the project (there was an infinitely harder and higher profile film-making challenge running concurrently and I'm sure they did) but I imagine I was typical of the writers: I could spare a few hours, here and there.
And that's when you realise just how difficult it is to start from scratch, rather than falling back on at least one half-idea you've had gnawing away at the back of your brain for weeks.
My first thought - 'well, ditch the optional science idea then' - was swiftly followed by 'and replace it with what, exactly, eh?' What did I have? Six-week sleep suggested suspended animation during interstellar space travel, but it suggested it so strongly it felt like a cliché. The dialogue had me thinking of that Doctor Who episode where they travel to the end of the universe and hear a knocking at the door, which I seem to remember was indeed called Listen... and then I couldn't get that out of my head either.
It was lunchtime. The family were calling. I had to seize on an idea, however corny, and - instead of packing it away to gestate/fester - just get started.
So I did, and had the first draft finished by mid-afternoon. And it was corny, and too much of a joke, and there just wasn't time to restart. Instead I sat down again on Sunday afternoon and wrote a much-revised (but not much improved) second draft. Then I left it.
Of the 2,068 people who were registered for the writing challenge on the Saturday, 418 submitted stories on the Monday, including me, with this: Six_Week_Sleep.
It probably won't be shortlisted. (In fact I've just gone and checked again and it wasn't. Bollocks.) It wasn't right and I knew it. But the exercise was definitely worth it.
Roll on next year!
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.