TL;DR?

Can people read more than 280 characters?

I was reading an article on the internet this morning:

https://sunilsuri.substack.com/p/gamingforgood

which I had been referred to by a gaming acquaintance. It is a fascinating article (to me at any rate) about using games for purposes other than straightforward entertainment. The obvious additional purposes include education – both in getting children to practice maths, engage with the concept of probability, social interaction and action/outcome ideas.

But there are bigger aims in some games, for example emergency response, planning, disease control, social planning etc. Whilst this is all good stuff, it may not be related even remotely to writing (although writing the scenarios, putting the results of gaming actions into stylised reporting/ narratives surely require authorial skills?). Something did leap out at me however which triggered a little thought regarding current writing practices and received wisdom about length of articles, stories, novels etc.

This is the quote which swapped tracks for me from a games to writing.

‘Consider news consumption. The Reuters Institute found that younger generations “do not want to work hard for their news.” In practice, news is often consumed on smartphones in small amounts to fit around other activities. Such consumption habits do not necessarily lend themselves to deeper engagement with the issues of the day.’

Well yeah. Difficult to get the nuances of anything in 140 characters (now 280, but 140 has a certain ring to it as the limit of human attention span in a digital world). Now most social media content is longer than that, but not by much.

Ah the horror of the modern world! Kids can’t concentrate. Millennials are so needy and have no depth! We’re all doomed.

Well I remember the heady days of proper print journalism and news that contained news on Television and radio.

And hardly anybody bought broadsheets, watched extended news programmes or listened to current affairs on the BBC Home Service.

There are more opportunities to read, hear and see extended, in depth, insightful news reports on thousands of items which would never have made it into the old ‘quality newspapers’ never mind red top tabloids or scandal sheets.

Attention span may have shortened but I remember many people consuming their news from ‘newspapers’ which had pages of hardly any content and masses of filler and still believing made up lies about European legislation which would ban bendy bananas and the British Banger.

The internet and social media may have made such gibberish slightly more available and a few more people than before may not have realised that reality checks need to be applied to anything, wherever you read, hear or see it. That doesn’t mean that any fewer people than before deeply engage with the issues of the day. I suspect there may be slightly more engagement in fact. Young people weren’t that bothered when I was a child/young adult. All those pictures and film clips of protestors on marches and rallies show the active minority, not the majority who were sat at home, or playing sport or working for their exams.

We shouldn’t get suckered in by fuzzy memories of halcyon days when everything was better. Goodness knows I have my doubts about the uses and abuses of digital technology but let’s not overstate them or use the idea as yet another stick to beat younger generations.

As for writing and reading, there seems to be a lot of appetite for reading about. Just because traditional media publishers haven’t always been up to speed on response doesn’t seem a good reason to bemoan the state of modern readers, or writers. Nor is it necessarily a reason to insist on brevity to point of meaninglessness. Yes, micro-fiction is a demanding and entertaining art form when done well, but its brevity is no more likely to get readers on the strength of its size alone than any other length of work. The good thing about reading is you can stop and start at will. Not many of us sit down and read a great slab of a book in one sitting no matter how good or engaging it is. I am however quite capable of remembering where I left off and resuming. I am sure ‘young’ people today are quite as capable of that feat if they wish as anyone else.

BIN IT?

Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.co/a4/d54738″>Harry R</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re6/e79a6dbd”>Visualhunt.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”&gt; CC BY-NC</a>

 

 

What do you do with something no-one wants?

Don’t worry – not the cat.

But seriously, what do you do with a story nobody will buy?

I know the obvious answer is: bin it.

After all if no-one wants to read it what is the point of it?

I confess I find that to be impeccable logic, and yet there remains a part of me that is reluctant to just put a story I really like, and think is worth reading, on the rubbish heap.

The subject of this particular dilemma is a Science Fiction story I wrote five and a bit years ago. I’m sure I have rattled on about it before on this blog, in general terms if not by name.

It started out life c12,000 words. Too short for publication as a standalone novella, and too long apparently for the adjudged attention span of most of the SF readership as a short story. I sent it out to the few SF magazines that still take stories of this length, though nearly all make it obvious they prefer shorter stories. There were a couple of very quick rejections, a couple of days, which at least removed the agony of hope and allowed me to move on to other submissions. Some took well over a year to get round to declining but a couple of these gave encouragement to try elsewhere and at least one sent a very helpful set of readers feedback comments. These buoyed me up quite a lot although it made me wonder why, if the majority of the readers liked it so much, it hadn’t got the nod. I was never clear precisely why the story wasn’t ‘quite right’ or ‘not what we are looking for at the moment’ beyond that niggling suspicion that what they were really saying was; ‘This is b******s’.

I cut it down to below 10,000 words, which probably didn’t hurt it. It remained the same story and was I suppose tighter for the effort, and I sent it off to the next batch of mags that had the 10K word limit. Similar experience, if somewhat faster rejections. Quicker to read I guess.

Trawling through the magazines I read or know about, and looking at online market compilations has made it clear that the market, perceived or real, for SF stories is geared to stories below 6K with a preference for 2-3K. There is no way I can cut a 12,000 word tale by three quarters and retain anything I thought was worthwhile. I don’t think. I might try just to see but I think there are so many of the interesting ideas that would have to go that it isn’t worthwhile. I might try and cut it down by half and see what happens.

If, as I suspect, it loses too much of what I wanted the story to say, what then?

It would work in an anthology of different authors, but access to one of those is going to be no easier.

I have a reluctance to consider the self publishing route – the money is flowing the wrong way for me.

I think a 12k or even a 10k piece is too long for blogging – unless I go the serial route again but I still think this is good enough for a single shot paid outlet which would be better suited than the blog format regardless of the money.

The time angle concerns me as well. I have of course been a good boy and submitted this in accordance with the requirements of the magazines – mostly no simultaneous submissions. I don’t mind this too much, especially with quick turnarounds but many take months to reply. I know the old publishing adage: ‘if you want a quick answer, the answer is “no”’, but this speaks to a different age when publishers controlled everything and could be like that. Can they still? I suppose they can do what they like but the world is moving on.  Some are very good and encourage simultaneous submissions as long as you let them know if you get accepted elsewhere. I am reluctant to do this or go behind anyone’s back however inadvertently because I have been caught out before. I sent a piece, not fiction but an article to a magazine and the editor sat on it for a couple of years. I wrote and said if he didn’t want to use it I would send it elsewhere. No response, so I did. I got it accepted by another magazine and sure enough the next month the first guy published it – no communication about it before hand. I had a lot of explaining and backpedalling to do with that one but fortunately the second editor was very understanding and I sold him several articles subsequently. So no matter how slow or awkward people are I generally stick to the rules as stated these days.

This does mean five years have gone by and I have nothing to show except greyer hair, a fixed unnatural smile and a horror of publishers’ emails.

So for the moment I guess I will hunt down the one or two c10K word limit mags which haven’t had a chance to say “no” and send it off again. I will continue to work hard on other SF stories (several running at the moment) to see if I can put an anthology of my own work together and perhaps concentrate on other genres.

In the meantime I could perhaps learn to write shorter stories, or longer stories.

Or maybe just better stories!

DES MANNAY ‘SOD ‘EM AND TOMORROW’

sode'em and tomorrow

I went to the Newport Writers Group Open Mic night at Hortons in Newport again last night (thanks again Andy).

Poet Des Mannay was there, as he was last month and I should have mentioned this in my write up of that visit. He is a very exuberant and outgoing performance poet originally from Adamstown in Cardiff, now based in Newport and it is a pleasure hearing his work.

It is particularly good to be seeing and hearing him at the moment as he is about to have his first collection of poetry published this week.

The book is called ‘Sod ‘em and tomorrow’, published by LIT-UP, an Arts Council England-funded mentoring and publishing scheme for emerging poets of colour.

The launch will be in London on Saturday 29 February at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, in Tottenham Green, London.1430-1730hrs  entry £3-00 redeemable against purchase of the book.

If you’re in London why not go along, meet and hear Des and buy the book. If you can’t make it on the day, you can still enjoy his work and buy the book at good bookshops or direct from Waterloo Press for £12.

Good luck Des, have a great day.

BETTER GET ON WITH IT (ORIGINAL DRAFT)

I have as I think I said recently,  been trawling through some old electronic files. These normally turn up a combination of ideas that were abandoned, and quite rightly in many instances, first x number of drafts of things I eventually liked and were used or are still being peddled, and occasionally weird finds like this.

This is my original version of an idea written for an exercise someone suggested. As I said when I posted the finished version here I don’t normally like that type of thing, as for me it feels artificial, but I can do it if needed.

What surprised me here was that the version I found and offer here is hardly recognisable – certainly not in tone – as the same basic story.

I put it here as a sort of amusement and possibly as an encouragement or a warning. Which, and about what you’ll have to decide.

If you want to compare with the original go to Flash Fiction and read the Better Get On With It in that section

 

 

Under the cover of fading twilight Piers Lomond narrowed his eyes against the drizzle coming up river from the west. North and south banks sprouted orange lights that twinkled in the rain. Piers knew that in the darkness of night they would blossom into glowing displays marking the warmth of humanity behind them. They were trying to tell him something. He didn’t want to listen.

The lights were like dames, clamouring for attention, sparkling in the darkness, leading you on and then snapping off when you needed them, when they found someone else to impress.

Out west was another world, a glitzier ball of light, the biggest, the brightest in the heavens, but now it was sinking into the waves that marked the horizon. Even that was lost in the darkness of the coming storm.

Lomond shook his head flicking water like a dog shaking its fur. It wasn’t going to bother him. He wasn’t planning on being around for no storm.

If he had any regrets it was the rain he guessed. He’d imagined beams of sunlight through fluffy clouds when it finally happened. Even the end was going to be grey and downbeat like a slow Sunday in Pontypool.  Out west was the land of eternal youth. He guessed that boat had sailed. He laughed. He didn’t need no boat where he was going. Below the bridge the second biggest tidal reach in the world turned and began dumping millions of gallons of water into the Irish sea. The biggest was in the Bay of Fundy almost two thousand miles due west of where he stood. Everything bigger and better was out west. He snorted , well he was coming to join them. Onwards and upwards he guessed. He stared down at the black troughed waves, not yet blown into white caps. Well onwards at any rate.

He turned and leaned back on the safety rail, wishing he had a cigarette. He wasn’t sure why. He didn’t smoke but it seemed like something you should do at a time like this. He stared north and west up river. All he could see was the carriageways crossing the bridge. He shook his head. He couldn’t even get to stand on the right side of a bridge for a dramatic gesture. He wondered who was writing the scene. Some schmo out of writing school he guessed, too lazy to go back and change the beginning so this scene would work better. He shrugged into the belted raincoat and turned up the collar against the rain that was dripping from the brim of his fedora down his neck. He hadn’t noticed he was wearing a raincoat and hat before now. It seemed a strange thing to be dressed in under the circumstances but he was feeling less comfortable about the whole deal by the sentence.

Somewhere up there, he nodded across the four lanes of motorway He needed a better agent. And quick.

BAD PERSON? PAYING TO PUBLISH

Interesting concept, paying to have your book published.

I know I have said before on this blog that that seems to me like the money flowing in the wrong direction.

This bumped up against my consciousness again recently because I read an article which suggested that paying for publication didn’t make the writer a bad person. I didn’t know anyone had ever suggested such a thing. I certainly wouldn’t. It might suggest they are a bit needy, and in this case, short of perceived time. Age can focus your mind quite strongly on the mills of the publishing world.

But a bad person? No.

The frustration element I can understand and I suppose one of the reasons the article sprang off the page at me was empathy.

I have a collection of short stories that have not seen the light of day and probably won’t by the look of things. Getting short story anthologies into print, hard copy or eBook for hard cash seems to be one of those Sisyphean labours of the modern age. My short stories tend to be of a length suited to an older interpretation of short, at least for the online platforms and even many of the remaining traditional hard format magazines. One particular SF story I wrote came out at just over 12 thousand words. I edited it down in successive submission formats to below 12 and then below 10 and then below 8 thousand words. I confess I thought the below 10 one was better than the initial version, but the last one was a cut too far for me (and still didn’t land a publication slot). I have lots at c3-4 thousand, a few around 5 thousand and a couple over that. Below 2k seems the standard requirement for online stuff now. Assuming the platforms are still running. A quick run through online lists of openings for short story writers, both online and hard copy mags is a sad journey to dead links, optimistic holding pages stating ‘will be accepting new submissions again soon’ –  dated five year ago and the whistling blackness of the internet ether.

So what do I do? I could put them up here, and that still seems like the most likely end result. However, if I do, that immediately disqualifies them for most other purposes. It counts as publication for competition entries (not too much of a problem – not a fan of paying for the lottery of publication), and for submission to magazines. And publishers of anthologies may take them if I were A L Kennedy or the ilk who have taken blog posts and published them in more traditional form, but I am not one of them.

So pay to publish?

I don’t think so for me.

I have been published in magazines before and have e-published things myself and been in traditional hard copy anthologies, and at no stage did money flow from me. I never made a fortune but I have never been out of pocket at the end of the deal. I hope that doesn’t come over as arrogant because we are definitely talking small potatoes here. But if I just want people to read my work I am more than happy to put it on here and people can read it for free. Or publish it online and take a small remuneration. Readership will be small, but that is true of most traditionally published books as well. Independent E-pub in spades.

I was talking to a publisher some months ago and he suggested to me some figures for sales for new authors that scared the living daylights out of me. Now the worst figures were for poetry and self published at that, but c20 copies seems unbelievably low. Traditional route hard copy was better but not by much for new authors without the heft of a big publishing effort and a hook into an established publicity base. Perhaps a few dozen books in the first quarter sales, with a few hundred copies over the lifetime of the book!

Sure, some big authors, who were first time authors once, sell tens of thousands of copies, but not many writers fit that bill these days despite the hype you see in publicity material.

The main initial push for an unknown, or little known author used to come from publishers. That seems to have largely gone. I’ve seen publishers blurb seeking new authors that basically leaves you under no illusion that they want the author to have an almost cast iron interest group following them already and a solid commitment to tours and appearances and festivals that make you wonder what the ****! they are doing for their money. I mean if you just want to print the book and do the publicity yourself – you might as well and keep the percentage the publisher would take.

Back to the article that sparked this moan down memory lane for a moment. It ended suggesting that paying for your book to be published made your book available to read and enjoy, which was what every author wants. I suppose the last bit is true, but given the evidence suggests that hardly anybody will buy it if I do pay for it to be published in traditional format I’d rather put the work out there for less or no cost on here or online and reach a bigger audience.

Of course I still rather like the idea of the labourer being worthy of his hire.

AMERICAN DIRT Who is allowed to write what?

The concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories, are valid ones in relation to literature and we welcome the conversation,”

The above quote came from Flatiron Books, the publishers of ‘American Dirt’. The book is a novel that tells the story of a Mexican mother who crosses into the USA with her son. It involves a murderous attack on her family and supposedly encompasses something of the undocumented immigrant’s travails in the US.

It has been hyped of course, by those with an interest in seeing it succeed, into something which it apparently isn’t – i.e. possibly the new Great American Novel, the inheritor of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath mantle, the definitive work on populist anti-immigration feeling.

It has, as a result, received a lot of criticism. Not because it is badly written, but because it is supposedly inauthentic and trivialises the immigrant experience. The author, Jeannine Cummins is not a Latina and cannot therefore, the argument goes, represent the experience of one.

There is so much verbiage flying around about ‘pity porn’, ‘cultural appropriation’, ‘damaging stereotypes’ that I have no intention of trying to dissect them all piece by piece. Suffice to say that I am certainly prepared to accept it is not the great new Great American Novel, but…

Look again at that statement by the publisher in response to the virulent attacks on the book:

the question of who gets to tell which stories. This could be read as accepting a need to open the way for those who do not have ready access to publishing contracts to get a slice of the cake – and I have some sympathy with that. But it smacks more of a cowardly response to purity spirals – that concern of self selecting groups to be more extreme than nuanced about any ‘ideal’ in their cultural norms. It isn’t the same as being ‘woke’ or ‘virtue signalling, but it is close, and not a million miles away from online mobs.

And right at the bottom line what it means, if we take everyone at their logical word, is that only someone who is from a group, or has experienced a situation, can write about it. That is: write a novel about it, a piece of fiction. A piece of writing that is inherently MADE UP.

Read the label on the tin. This isn’t reportage, not non-fiction.

If that were the criterion of eligibility to write a work of fiction then no-one who had not been a murderer or a detective could write a detective thriller – bye bye Miss Marple. Nobody would ever be allowed to write SF or Fantasy and Horror would be a very restricted genre.

I’m not trying to diminish the experience of Latino immigrants to the US, or anybody trying to make their way against the cultural elites who rule our world, more power to their elbow. We need more of that voice. But the way to get more of the stories of this resistance out there is not to fight amongst ourselves because somebody who isn’t ‘qualified’ writes a story.

Sure there may be authenticity problems, the author may not be a Latina, she may not have faced the trials of the people she is trying to depict, but she is trying and from what I understand this is not a novel that is punching down against immigrants. It may be flawed but it at least tries to bring the idea into a wider white culture, even if it is through the vehicle of an entertaining crime novel.

Would critics feel happier if we were discussing the great success and sales of a novel by a white supremacist about how they helped ‘Build That Wall’ and took down a busload of refugees from Nicaragua? I sincerely hope not. But I am not sure that wouldn’t fit their agenda better.

I wish the minority US groups all the best in getting their message across in all its authenticity, but the best way to further the cause is not by attacking those who are on your side.

This isn’t white knightism either.

Sure, it’s someone making a buck, but that is writing. If it doesn’t sell no-one gets to read it.

Embrace the opportunity, don’t ban books.

Write more, better, books to explain the plight and of course, publishers…publish them.

SF STORY REDUX

The editing of my SF short story (HACKING – cut from from 11.8k to <10k) last week was to no immediate result. Whether it lost vibrancy, character development, story thread or was just a load of rubbish in the first place remains moot.

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t for them.

That’s the bad news.

The good news?

Possibly none, but there is an opportunity to place it with someone else, so the time and effort wasn’t entirely wasted.

As well as paring it down ( I suspect a ‘good thing’ in itself) it made me re-read it, first with an eye to where it could be trimmed. Second I read it again with a general eye to deciding whether it was an interesting, entertaining story with something to say about the human condition and incidentally the nature of truth and perception. In these days of ‘fake news’ and deep fake activity it was surprisingly apposite given I initially wrote it about four and a half years ago.

The upshot of all this revising, re-reading, hacking and re-jigging was that I still enjoyed reading it. Not something I can say about all the things I write.

I will be sending it off later today, confirmed in my belief (and whilst I confess to being biased I can generally see why some things don’t sell on reflection) that it is definitely worth publishing and reading. That’s incredibly modest isn’t it?

But if there weren’t a tiny bit of ego involved would anyone ever send anything off to a publisher or agent?

I suspect I need more ego and a thicker skin but I’ll try and carry on with what I have.

 

HACKING AWAY

I’ve just spent ages editing down a short story from 11,800 words to under 10,000 to fit a magazine’s submission requirement. No offence to the magazine but I hate that. Not their requirement for a top limit to a word count. After all they have to make things fit and they (presumably) know their readers’ preferences and attention span. As so often, it’s not them, it’s me.

What I hate is having to do the cutting, not the reason for having to do it. I mean, I wrote a story which I think fits the length I wrote it at, if that isn’t too weird a concept. I didn’t stick lots of filler in there to pad it out like an essay for school. I wrote it in a style with the balance of dialogue and narrative that I thought it required with the sub plots and characterisation and descriptions I thought necessary to make the tale work. For me and the reader. But I know other opinions are valid and editors have constraints.

I tend to edit and amend as I write anyway. I know I have whined about multiple edits and rewrites before – the 10th rewrite might be getting somewhere is one recommendation I remember reading in one of those ‘how to…write/get published’ self improvement things. If there is any enthusiasm or joy or original thought or descriptive talent or conversational brightness left in something after that many or more revisions I’d be amazed. So not a great fan of revisions and recurrent editing. I know it improves work up to a point and needs to be done, but in this case the 11k+ version had been pretty heavily revised to start with so going through and chopping felt like a real grind. I worried it altered the balance of foreshadowing of the central trouble and I worried the ending might be too obscure, although I didn’t want to be too obvious for the reader. Then things that had been cut had to have references later on removed and the cracks papered over. Scenes didn’t make much sense if the balance had been changed when a sentence hinting at something to come had been cut because it felt superfluous.

However at the end of it I felt a sense of achievement. And when I sat and read it as a story again, without the need to look for words and sentences and paragraphs and concepts that weren’t vital to the movement of the story so I could expunge them: I still preferred the original! But as the original wouldn’t have got a look in as it didn’t fit the requirement, I suppose I have to say the new one was better. It kept the same story, probably tightened up some dialogue and kept the pace sharper. And it hit the word limit target. And when I have read books where the author has become so famous as to add excised material back in, or where directors have extended films by half an hour, I can see the virtue of sticking to a time limit or word count.

So hacking careful editing done, it is sent and we’ll see.

SHORT STORY RENAISSANCE?

I keep reading about the Renaissance of the short story. As noted in a recent (ish) Guardian article https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/12/short-story-cat-person-tom-hanks-jojo-moyes this is a recurring theme in popular newspaper and trade writing.

Chris Power, its author, seemed quite upbeat about the situation and his criticism of the perennial comeback kid status, came from the apparent belief that there is no problem and we should just learn to love the short story for itself.

There was a hint that things in the truncated narrative form garden may not be all roses however. The figures that prompt headlines about a resurgence are frequently based on celebrity forays into the genre or attempts to boost its popularity via national prize competitions. Within the last few days, the winner of the 2018 BBC Short Story Prize was announced, and congratulations to Ingrid Persaud for her win. While these things are fine at a consciousness raising level, do they tell us much about the general state of the short story and its place in the general reading public’s heart? Regrettably I doubt it.

Power notes the genre is always going to be second place to the novel. I wonder if this is true. There felt like a time when the short story was king, or queen. Maybe it was me and my short attention span as a teenager, but for every novel I read I read bucket loads of short stories by De Maupassant, Conan Doyle, Saki, Ray Bradbury and a host of others. I look at the massive volume of short, very short, flash and micro fiction on the net and in social media platforms, and can’t believe that the genre is less popular than the novel in our truncated attention span, time poor culture. But, ah yes the but!

Monetisation (what a horrible word!) is a very different thing. Modern media, eg Youtubers have a bit of a chance with patreon, advertising clicks etc, but written word producers are struggling. Fiction writing has a massive infrastructure set up to produce cash and to act as quality assurance gatekeepers. Some parts of this equation may work better than others. But the model is under attack and nowhere more vigorously from the producers of short fiction in all its forms. Traditional publishing models for short fiction work best on book anthologies (which don’t sell well) or monthly/quarterly magazines. The free to access assault is killing or largely has killed paid outlets for short story writers.

Magazines, women’s or dedicated short story, used to provide a ready market for aspiring short story authors in which to hone their skills. For a whole variety of reasons – only some of which are internet related – these avenues are almost dead. The women’s magazine market has dramatically truncated its consumption of short stories or excised them completely from their pages. And when did you last see a short story magazine on the shelves of a local, or indeed national, newsagent?

Increasing numbers of the remaining niche magazine publishers are now charging a fee to even bother reading submissions. I may be old fashioned but I like the view that writing flows from the author to publisher (maybe via an agent) to the paying public and money flows in reverse along the same channel.

The BBC competition while great publicity for those running it (In association with Cambridge University) is most decidedly not aimed at providing a practical outlet for those starting to write or looking to make their way in the writing world. You have to be a recognised published author to take part. You are already a success.

So celebrity authors and the established writers enjoy the benefits of the perennial recrudescence of the short story. Meanwhile future Edgar Allan Poes, Mark Twains or Hemingways are swilling around in a morass of fan fiction, wondering whether it is worth funding a publisher who can’t sell enough magazines to make it pay, to read their work.

I wonder if there is a future for the paid writing of short stories. And if not, how do we find quality short fiction to read, and where do we place it to be read?