Right Now

This week, I acted on instinct for the first time in a while.

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There are a PHENOMENAL number of online portals, websites and magazines that take submissions. A magazine such as Mslexia will give a vital insight into such places, but it is only the tip of a considerable iceberg. Countless places exist to send work to, but perilously few will pay you for the effort. It is, in certain lights, a poisoned chalice of effort versus reward.

Occasionally however I’m not here for the cash. There are moments when you just want to write summat for the sake of writing: this week, the day after my first successful counselling session, I needed to believe that writing remains enjoyable for the hell of it. So, I sat down and wrote three poems. Just like that. BOOM. Then, I stared at them for a bit and was really very happy with what had resulted.

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One of them, it must be said, had been written in a rough form whilst waiting in the counselling office. I feel this is a theme going forward, that it might be nice to do one a week for the next three months because if all else fails, that’s a collection right there. Then, they sat around for a day, as is the idea, before coming back for polish. After that, they were printed out, put in an envelope with a stamped-addressed return one for acknowledgement, and then posted.

That was an odd feeling: walking to the letterbox, sending my work away, not knowing when I’d hear a reply. Having to watch for my own letter’s return, I have to say, is considerably more exciting than anticipating failure via an e-mail. I’m far less likely to get upset too, amazingly, because this just feels like a better way to fail. If my poem from the waiting room makes it, of course, I’m one short for the collection…

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Should that actually come to pass, I reckon I’d cope.

Run for Home

It was all going so well. No really, it was: Confidence was high, stories were set. Tuesday afternoon I’d got exercise out of the way and was ready to roll… then, I got a phone call. After eight weeks, a spot is now open for me to be assessed for mental health counselling. I’m happy, comfortable and very ready to get started on that new journey, and so afterwards a couple more ideas fell out of me. One’s a sequel to my Bondfic that, on reflection, I didn’t know I needed to acknowledge, but have.

Going to bed Tuesday night, it really was like I’d managed to turn a massive corner: ideas are no longer the problem. As it stands, there’s enough content with what’s been written down thus far to keep me going until the end of the year. Except, none of it had depth, they are just ideas. The hardest part of this process, undoubtedly, comes when the ideas need to become stories. I sat down on Wednesday to begin and it wouldn’t happen.

In fact, as I sat down to work, I just wanted to cry.

It is inevitable, on reflection, that there will be struggle when a new thing gets learnt. Looking back on my issues with poetry, which presented over a far longer period, understanding shortcomings is nearly as important as admitting your problem to begin with. For me, the story side of things is incredibly simple, but it is the descriptive depth that separates a story from a great one where I truly lack the ability to be genuinely descriptive.

This is not necessarily an issue when working in the long form of fiction, but when you’re distilling down ideas into the limited word-count format, that ability becomes absolutely essential to pull narratives together. It is, at least in my mind, the ability to grasp the poetic and weave it seamlessly into your fictional tapestry: so well done that no-one ever notices it until they’re done. Then, on looking back, those are the portions of the story which really shine.

Except, looking at my work, everything is dull and lifeless. There is no depth, no massive bursts of brilliant. I am, undoubtedly, caught in the grasp of a pretty nasty attack of Impostor Syndrome, and when that happens by far the most useful thing I will ever do for myself is walk away. So, on Wednesday evening, I did. All my other work slowed, and instead, we went to the Gym for two days and pushed myself into a new zone of effort.

The work is not going to be looked at again until Monday, and when it happens it will be with a lot less critical eye, but with sympathy and understanding that perhaps, being too hard on myself and pushing too much for perfection might well be one of the reasons why mental health needs to be addressed with the same care as everything else right now. My physio summed it up brilliantly: my hip and ankle were damaged, so I go to a specialist who can fix them.

My head is damaged too: the same thing should apply, but so many people are too afraid to do just that.

There is only a finite scope of issues I am able to successfully manage. Maybe, just maybe, short stories are not a priority right now. When I’m able to understand better what exactly is going on in my head, then it is entirely possible my issues will become trivial, because that is how everything else has sorted itself out previously. If that isn’t the case, we’ll deal with the consequences when they get here.

If I can’t escape the clutches of Impostor Syndrome right now, it’s better not to let it win.

Begin Again

To give me a bit of a break from thinking too much about new things, this month’s become a period of recycling. The short story currently running on Twitter, for instance, has sat on my hard drive since forever. The poetry that will appear over the weekend was originally written this time last year (or thereabouts) and has undoubtedly benefited from a second look-over.

It makes me realise just how much has changed in a relatively short space of time.

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I knew the last week was going to be tough going, with a notable couple of rejections highlighting that however good poetry might seem to be, other people need to agree. Winning stuff is horribly hit and miss at the best of times, which is why this month is also about trying to pick up some feedback about how to best package my work going forward. However, there’s still a lot of potential on the board, and I really haven’t been at this very long.

Probably the most important skill that’s been grasped since this time last year is the need to listen to my ‘voice’ within poetry: reading aloud, things sound considerably different than when written ‘cold.’ It’s been a process that, I’ll grant you, has taken some getting used to. Training my brain to work in a fashion which is often largely counter-intuitive was the hardest ask of all, however. This where mental shortcomings really became apparent.

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Going back to old work therefore highlights my shortcomings (I thought it was enough a year ago for it to just fit syllable counts) and pushes brain to find better ways of doing the same stuff again. It also reminds me that, scattered across notebooks and in other places there’s a ton of half-finished poetry that I should frag together to construct a new collection. None of this is bad, it all just requires thought.

That’s the killer, of course: finding the right kind of thought to fit each day, situations that I find myself within. The story work I’m doing has stalled because, of all things, a poem that is included as part of the narrative. New work is hard, but going back to old work has a ring of familiarity and comfort to it which is, I hope, allowing me to expand brain’s capacity and capability.

By the end of the month, we’ll see if this change of approach has made a difference to my ability .

Another One Bites the Dust

It was coming. There shouldn’t be any surprise at all, on reflection, and (quite usefully) this latest piece of news was learnt after I’d done the incredibly mentally draining ‘thing’ for the day and therefore, it couldn’t make anything worse. Nobody wants to be told they’re not good enough, especially in the current climate. Rejection’s an inevitable part of the writing process, and people deal with that differently. For me, it is normally quite funny, especially if (as was the case this time) it is accompanied by a staggeringly generic ‘we’re sorry you didn’t win and we can’t tell you why but WELL DONE ANYWAY’ email.

Today however it made me quite angry.

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Most contests are lotteries for one reason alone: the people you’re trying to impress. It’s not like you’re judged to a standard either: if we all had to write twelve haiku, three acrostics and only in dactyls, before doing it again in evening wear whilst solving world hunger, it might be different. Everybody’s got their own idea of what is ‘good’ with half an eye on the marketplace: knowing what will sell, what they can promote, who are the current on trend writers driving tastes.

It might be unpalatable to some, but this is business just like games and films and art, and if you get lucky and mesh with someone, it is no guarantee of instant or long term success. You could well spend your entire time entering contests or funding your own work and not one person will know who you are until you die and someone discovers your legacy. That happens, and knowing this is probably a huge influence on why any negative emotion is always short lived, then transformed into something far more useful.

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I don’t get the satisfaction of fame after my demise. I’m here now, loving every moment whilst simultaneously railing at sanctimony that undoubtedly accompanies a lot of writers who feel they are somehow owed something for their struggle. Nobody owes you anything. This should not be about the commercial success you obtain from your effort. If you aren’t here to do this for enjoyment and satisfaction in the first instance, I have to say, you’re on a hiding to nothing, unless you are spectacularly lucky, and trust me when I say I know how unlikely that is ever going to be.

Sure you can make a living as a writer, and lots of people do, but not without a phenomenal amount of hard work, savings, second jobs, support from family, understanding friends and that’s even before luck gets introduced into the equation. For me, coming up for nearly two years of doing this properly, there’s the knowledge that success is not at all tied to someone else liking your work. You have to be learning, adapting and refining, constantly exercising brain and words together. It is like exercise, only without the lumpy bits and sweaty gym kit.

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There will be WTF moments too: some are brilliant, others will test your diplomacy skills. However, there is but one thing to remember when in such situations: be kind. Nobody likes a smartarse, or someone overly full of their own importance. Just be polite, honest and think before you speak. This bit is like being on the Internet right now, and knowing that sometimes the best thing you can do for everybody is just let the stupid pass you by. With #MeToo very much on the radar, the lines that shouldn’t be crossed are even more defined.

Seriously, just be a decent human being about all of this. You fail, you lick your wounds, then up you get and start again. If writing matters enough, you move past the rejection and use it as fuel, propelling you forward.

When you do fail, remember you’re not alone.

December Short Story: Solstice

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during December via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Solstice

In indistinct, freezing first light, Eric cannot forget why he is here. All that matters is to guard the perimeter fence, wood and wire, stretching along this natural escarpment. Scrub and frozen ground below suddenly transforms into the most dense and foreboding of pine forests. Standing tall in tower to his left is Hilda, daughter of Franz. Looking right, Melody, daughter of Rachel’s rifle is trained towards the tree line, perennial vigilance with outstanding attention. Both are barely older than him: at 16, youngest of nearly a dozen morning sentries.

Somewhere in the forest are his parents, one of the few  lucky enough to still have both alive. They are due home today, with or without enough food to last the camp for the next few weeks. The worst of winter has yet to hit Station 12, and when it does, everyone will be going hungry. Yet in the last week change has been inescapable: December’s normally brutal cold and bitter wind not yet arriving from the north. Eric is briefly distracted by movement upwards: birds wheel and shift as a group from the trees, hundreds moving in perfect, beautiful synchronicity.

A sound is coming from the forest, deep guttural rumble that is strangely familiar. The last time Eric heard this he was very young, whilst Station was in the depths of despair. This is an armoured transport heading up what remains of dirt road towards entrance to their compound. He’s scrabbling for ancient monocular, locating beast amongst fir, looking for the Saltire to confirm approaching vehicle is friendly. It is spread along the bonnet, battered blue and white flag undoubtedly his father’s. They have returned with a far greater prize than just food.

Behind the solar powered vehicle are two other, considerably smaller transports. One is obviously some kind of medical vehicle, the other a large, grey box on many wheels. Elsa, Eric’s mother is waving from the roof, second Saltire as confirmation the entire convoy is friendly. He’s not due to leave this post for another hour but there’s relief on the way: Saul’s smile tells all that is needed. Eric requires no further encouragement to sprint across concrete battlements, down battered metal ladder, jumping to ground level. He can meet parents in person.

Their convoy’s swamped as he approaches, support staff and medical team already looking beyond excited at these discoveries from the forest. The large, multi-wheeled box appears to be full of supplies: unused weapons, fresh construction materials vital for repair and maintenance. The hug from Mum is nothing compared to that of his father, more emotional than he has ever seen them both. The reason becomes apparent: the entire cache of equipment and supplies had been found hidden, area previously inaccessible northwards due to snow and large amounts of ice.

This is nothing compared with news camp leader is now reacting to: the only way out of the valley, previously completely inaccessible due to accumulated ice, has now opened. That provides unrestricted access all the way down the mountain, opening a direct path to the coastline. For close to a century, camp has been cut off from rest of the World. In the last decade their numbers have begun to dwindle: lack of food, an airborne virus and the cruellest of winters have slowly eroded away these survivors. Dense forest’s protection offers little nutrition.

Eric helps unload myriad contents of what he now knows is a refrigerated container in great condition as is everything else that parents liberated. The significance of that alone is enough to make months of harsh living and empty stomachs a memory: supplies can now be kept fresh. In the back of the container is a box full of items however that make no sense: strings of brightly-coloured, shiny material, electric cable with glass dots attached, and several smaller cardboard boxes fill of delicate glass ornaments which have not been handled for a long time.

Both parents are uncertain as to what these items are used for, but hold hazy joint memories as children of a tree being cut from this forest. It was bought into the compound before being placed and decorated with hand-made ornaments and garlands made of recycled cloth and paper. It was a tradition that the eldest member of Station’s staff had held, part of faith-based beliefs that had been forgotten over countless cruel winters, barely lived through since the base was built.

Items were instruments of long lost celebration, before World froze over.

With power, the cable easily activates: dots light up, emitting an ethereal, pulsing glow. Eric is then sent to outskirts of the forest with his father as backup, where a suitable fir is chosen and dug from ground that seems far less hard and frozen than was previously the case. Large, deep storage bin is located to act as pot, allowing tree to be prominently placed in the main compound. Suddenly, nothing else matters but process of decoration, sparking memories from the last three remaining base staff over sixty of what this process entailed: Christmas.

Eric assists with the container’s contents being sorted, listening intently to the story of how his parents had discovered, then buried remains of the Army convoy they’d come across. Six people transporting supplies to this base, literally frozen solid in a horrendous snowstorm. It was during that winter he had been born, last time snow fell continuously for almost a month. Ever since, temperatures had begun to rise, giving hope that upper atmospheric levels had finally begun to clear of dust from the 101955 Bennu meteorite’s impact in southern Algeria.

Eric still finds it hard to believe everyone knows about somewhere half a world away, but was able to forget about a holiday as important as Christmas at the same time. He might not be essential in this hierarchy, but celebrating anything well seems an idea worth working towards. It is now new task to inject a new, exciting set of events into the normal and often boring beyond belief drills and maintenance routines. The younger children are charged with a far more enjoyable task than painting and cleaning: they make cards, for exchange around the station.

Mother takes Eric to one side after evening meal that night, entire camp more energised and happy than anyone can remember for many, many years. She hands her son a small box, tied with what he knows is a ribbon, taken from one of the few non-military items of clothing she owns. From pocket comes a letter: not recently written, looking incredibly old yet is still sealed. On the front however is his name and date of birth. Asking who it is from, his mother tells him to go find a quiet spot alone, before reading what’s been given and then returning to her.

Sitting in his favourite spot, warmth from Guard Tower’s perpetually burning fire, Eric knows deep down what is held in his hands. This is confirmation that current parents aren’t his birth family: that mother died after giving birth, father was Station 12’s last adult casualty. He had perished when Eric was nearly five: remembering that day when he’d volunteered to hunt for food after weeks of punishing, crippling frozen rain. His ID bracelet, worn around left wrist, pushed into the boy’s palm: memory of kiss to forehead, tears falling onto his face.

Except, it appears, it wasn’t a hunting mission. His father had willingly taken a one way trip into the forest, in order to reconnect Station with their only supply of fresh, untainted water: that journey meant descent into cave from which there was no possible means of return. There is a second, older note too, written after mother passed away. Many apologies have been contained within, most significant at those who kept majority of planet in the dark prior to the meteor impact. In the end, father concluded, politicians allowed evolution to decide who survived.

He knew Eric grasped mother’s boundless optimism, warmth, practicality to improve the World and others. Watching boy grow, that was apparent; providing man no qualms over leaving. The right future was with his best friend and her husband, incapable of producing children of their own. With shaking hands, it is time to open box given to him by station commander who never said out loud she was his mother, yet did the job with fierceness and pride that was without equal. Inside is a badge, ancient crest of Army regiment who built this base a century previously.

Eric understands the gesture: he’s in charge of the Station, free to begin a new era of development and exploration. His first task is simple: once the solar powered explorer has fully charged there’ll be an expedition arranged: high time to leave valley and head towards the sea.

 

The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret

Earlier this month, the third Twitter account I run was ‘rebranded.’

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That centre graphic need re-positioning…

When it was apparent that this blog would end up being my business front, there was a brief but important moment of concern. As an artist, in the broadest sense of the world, there needs to be a third place. I have Home (personal blog and Twitter) and now Work (IoW ‘branding’) where the vast majority of output that is fiddled with lives quite happily. However, as is becoming increasingly apparent, there needs to be something else which allows bizarre and unexpected stuff space to exist.

In community building, the third place is the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home (“first place”) and the workplace (“second place”). Examples of third places would be environments such as churches, cafes, clubs, public libraries, or parks. In his influential book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.

Wikipedia states the significance of third places, citing spaces that are communal as being vital to the means by which individuals develop a sense of self. Spending a great deal of time in virtual third spaces myself, it made sense to give the more esoteric parts of my existence the ability to breathe outside of the conventional, and not just leave them on hard drives or a ‘To Do’ list. Ultimately, I’d like to make real copies of some and maybe sell them for cash. I hear that’s how business works.

Already Grown

This is the place where the suppressed artist within me will retreat next year, when it’s too scary to either do it to an audience or while people are watching. I’ll also use it for experimental faffing, wibbling, and an inordinate amount of other gubbins. These are parts of the subconscious that don’t receive nearly enough airtime. All that will change in 2019, for to ensure the soul of myself is suitably assuaged, that’s what needs to happen.

Everybody needs a place they can truly be themselves, after all.

Nobody Does it Better

We are living in a Procedural World
and I am a Procedural Girl…

I absolutely ADORE a good TV Detective show. Ironically, I’ve not seen a Sherlock episode (but with Christmas coming that will hopefully be amended) but have managed a fair number of CSI‘s in my time [all flavours.] Right now I’m using Amazon to trawl my way through the NCIS back catalogue. Really, honestly, I’ll take anything if it a) makes me think and b) has decent ensemble chemistry. That’s the most important factor in my TV watching. All these people have to look like they would really get on.

As a kid I can remember Hill Street Blues and Ironside, Quincy and Columbo with fondness. Satellite TV also allows me the luxury of trawling back through historical gems such as Poirot and the various incarnations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, though nothing really beats Margaret Rutherford’s superlative filmic incarnation of the character… part of a Saturday afternoon tradition that became a significant part of my early years.

This is part of the reason why good stories matter to me far more than just special effects and surface imagery when translated to film or TV: there is a phenomenal amount of my past built from such narratives, and the desire to place human interest above the ridiculous or overly distracting. I have written a couple of murder mysteries in my time, but amazingly this genre isn’t one I feel could ever have decent justice done to it (pun very much intended.)

This is very much in the ‘enjoyment, not a job’ part of existence, and long may that continue…