Writing the Apocalypse

Last week I spent quite a lot of time wondering whether you could get petrol out of petrol station tanks without using electricity. Also, how long it would take foxes to move into Asda if Asda was deserted and the power was down, and how many months a small group of people could live off the dry goods contained within one supermarket, and how far one woman could carry a dead body cross-country.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a new genre to me, and it’s tricky. Short fiction, especially modern short fiction, is full of shorthand. It’s impressionist. From the swift daubs that you lay down on the page, the reader’s brain lifts a whole person, a whole world. It mirrors the neural work of reading itself, in which the brain reads the word rather than the individual letters. The olny iprmotent tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer is in the rghit pclae.

Shorthand is much easier when most things are given. It is tricky to use it when the world in which your story takes place is our world turned upside down. The structure, the social and cultural order which surrounds and supports your characters, is no longer given. The physical environment which encloses them is alien. There’s a balance to be struck between explaining nothing and leaving your reader asking where your characters are and how they can possibly be alive, and dogmatically laying down the technicalities of every part of your world in a way that’s tedious and overwhelming. The aim is to illuminate the new world so that it’s exciting and real, but without giving it centre stage over your characters. The process is one of deciding which questions to answer.

The added difficulty is that as a writer, you’re excited by your new world too. You want to gambol off to obscure corners of it, exploring them and then metaphorically peeing on them to mark your territory.  ‘Ooh,’ you think, ‘they’re living on a farm and they’re cooking stuff, and obviously they can’t use gas because the apocalypse, so I’d better specify that this is a wood-burning stove and also, hang on, that the farm is surrounded by trees and they cut those down to use for fuel.’ You have to curb those instincts, because no-one cares how your characters are cooking potatoes. On the flip side, a little bit of exploration can come up with really interesting directions for your story to go in.

I found that this P-A story, my first, took a lot more head-processing and drafting than my work set in the present world. It had to be written piecemeal and then returned to my brain for further processing. It was in my brain that most of the technical questions were asked and answered, questions like ‘If you took spice seeds out of a cook shop packet and sowed them, would they be viable?’ and ‘Do zombies tidy up after themselves?’ With the world built in my head, it was then possible to factor back down to the shorthand which told the reader what they really needed to know and left the rest to their imagination.

I could have spent a novel in my new world, but I spent 4000 words there. There are unanswered questions. There are an awful lot of unanswered questions. But these are questions that intrigue, rather than annoy. They are not questions which I can’t answer or would have to have ridiculous answers for the story to work.

Part of achieving this involved leaving huge chunks of the world completely alone. A small amount of elaboration breeds three times as many questions and actually makes the world feel less real, more fake, than the world that was only hinted at. Obsessive detailing would have undermined the story by highlighting my presence on the page: hi, it’s me, I think you’re wondering how that little bit there works and look I’ve worked it out right here, kthxbai! The scenery becomes cloth and paint, the characters become marionettes in silly costumes. I’m exposed, the little wizened person behind the Wizard of Oz mask.

The story had to feel perfectly natural, as natural and easily accepted as a story set in your home town, today. I hope I have achieved this, and if I have, it’s by seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. They live there, after all. It’s not an ordinary world to them, but it’s totally real. They refer a little to what happened in the past and how they eke out a living, but they’re also preoccupied by love, and clothes, and the future; still human, just under extraordinary circumstances.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Cheltenham Writers’ Retreats

A couple of years ago, in severe need of time and space to write, I travelled halfway across the country to Brighton to go to an affordable writers’ retreat run by Writers’ HQ. Writers’ HQ is two writers, Sarah and Jo, who know exactly what it’s like trying to write at the same time as raising a family and paying the bills. Difficult.

At many stages of our lives, writers find that we don’t have enough time to write, or that we feel guilty about carving out the time to write, or that it’s doing our heads in trying to work at home. Sometimes we need to get some time out to pull ourselves out of a rut and kickstart whatever project we’re working on, or sometimes we’re just desperate to get away from it all for a few hours. That’s what writers’ retreats are for.

Personally, before this my idea of a writers’ retreat was the one described in Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, in which Adrian flies to Greece and skinny-dips in the Aegean with poets. This is the standard, ‘fancy’ writers’ retreat. They may not involve Greece, but you’ll be looking at a stay in a lovely country house, talks by professional writers, a few days away, and a price tag many of us can’t afford. Plus it’s hard to take that amount of time off if you’ve got children, other care commitments, or a demanding job. That’s where Writers’ HQ comes in. The retreats are affordable (£35 for the day, or £30-ish if you bag a first-timer’s discount code/10%-off flyer) and they’re on one weekend day, 10-4. They are not in country piles, and skinny-dipping is positively frowned upon. There’s just a chance to meet other writers, talk about what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, and then get your head down and get some work done. With plenty of caffeine and food.

I liked the retreat I went on so much that when WHQ announced they’d like to expand the retreats across the southern UK, I was one of the people who put themselves forward to host them. There are five of us, in Cheltenham, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Cambridge and Hastings. We’re all early-career writers, and we’ll all be running one retreat a month for writers in our local areas.

Cheltenham’s retreats will be on the third Saturday of every month, starting in August. If you’re interested in finding out more about retreats here or elsewhere across the country, check out the Writers’ HQ website; or go straight to the Cheltenham booking page here, and get £5 off with the code ‘itsmyfirsttimebegentlewithme’. They’ll be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll join me.

 

Live lit and disabled access, or: How I learned to check my privilege and start shopping for lecterns

I posted a piece last week about how to start your own live lit night, and now I have an addition to make. An embarrassing addition. It’s about disabled access.

Embarrassing, because I neglected to mention it. I neglected to mention it because I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about it until I’d hosted three live literature events and noticed that – oh look – some of our readers and audience members are disabled. The reason I didn’t think about it was, of course, because I am not (yet) disabled myself. Hello, able-bodied privilege.

Disabled access is not an addendum. It should have been something I looked at as soon as I began to plan the night. Except that, being clueless, I hadn’t. Clearly I needed to sort this out, and fast. If you are thinking of setting up your own night and are, like me, non-disabled and clueless, please read on and benefit from me being ignorant before you.

I will, naturally, get some things wrong here, so I apologise in advance if I put my foot in it. Corrections and suggestions are more than welcome. Let me know in the comments section.

Some things to consider:

Venue

Luckily, and purely through serendipity, Flashers’ Club is held at a wheelchair-accessible venue. It’s not ideal, as it’s an old building with a narrow front door and a couple of steps. I probably should have twigged this when I tried to get a pram in there once, and had to get help from a waitress. However, there’s a ramp available, and once inside, everything you need is on the level ground floor. The other venue I looked at was the first floor function room of a liftless pub, which would have been useless.

There are no disabled toilets, which is an issue. The loos are hard to get into for those using sticks, frames or wheelchairs. If you have the option of a nice modern venue with level access and disabled loos, this would be ideal.

Stage access

A raised stage may present problems. Flashers’, and many other live lit nights, just has a mic on a stand in the middle of the room. The seating is in clusters, at tables. There’s plenty of space in the room so the route to the stage is clear from most tables, meaning fewer obstacles for those who are blind, partially-sighted or have mobility issues.

Standing-only venues, or those with long rows of seats and narrow aisles, may exclude people with mobility issues or leave them languishing in crappy seats behind the back row. Plan in advance to make sure there’s seating provision.

Performance

In its initial inception, Flashers’ was just a mic on a stand. The stand is important, allowing people to read standing or seated whilst keeping their hands free. If someone is reading using a Braille terminal, a mic on a stand is essential.

After a conversation with a partially-sighted attendee at the last event, I’ll be adding a lectern with a bright clip-on adjustable light. The lectern I’ve bought for this purpose is actually a music stand: a heavy-duty one, as it shouldn’t be rickety or easy to knock over. They’re much less expensive than lecterns and available via the web on big selling sites.

Bear in mind that people may want guiding or assistance to and from the microphone, and that you may need to take paperwork such as sign-up sheets and e-mail lists out to blind and partially-sighted attendees rather than leaving them at a table.

Listening

Background noise is inevitable at most live lit nights. The bartender will be washing glasses, or the pub downstairs will be playing music. The informal feel is part of what makes live lit nights lively and spontaneous. When it gets annoying is when it interferes with listening, and that can happen very easily if you’re hard of hearing and/or wearing a hearing aid.

Flashers’ has something of a background noise problem. Not a huge one, but enough to cause a bit of grumbling from our hearing audience after some events. Our venue is one half of a coffee bar, the other half of which remains open to walk-in trade. The music in the back half is turned off, but the music in the front is kept on, just quietly. The venue’s take on this is that they need to maintain the atmosphere their normal trade expects, and I get it. The bar and kitchen is also open to the room, so there’s a bit of cutlery clinking and chatting. This means that our hard-of-hearing audience sometimes finds it difficult to hear the speakers.

This problem was the first thing that showed me I needed to do more to make Flashers’ Club more accessible. I was approached after a recent event by a friend of an attendee who wore a hearing aid, to tell me he had found it difficult to hear all the stories. Would it be possible to have hard copies for him to read along? Well yes, of course it would. We now ask all readers to bring a couple of spare hard copies for those who need them. If they’re not provided (and because we’re open mic, people are sometimes unaware of this request), we collect them after the event and distribute them out via the post.

I would love, love, love to have a portable induction loop for Flashers’. Sadly, they are prohibitively expensive for a shoestring-budget live lit night. If you are reading this and you would like to be our anonymous benefactor, go for your life.

Website

Flashers’ now has a section on its website which details how accessible the event is. It tells readers about wheelchair accessibility, toilet provision, access to the stage, the mic/lectern/light setup and the availability on request of hard copy. I hope that this will help any new attendees who want to plan their night, or are wondering whether it will be possible to visit us at all.

I’m in the process of learning about making our website itself more accessible, and it’s fascinating. Updates should be coming soon.

 

OK, that’s it. I wish I had thought of all of this earlier, and I’m aware some of this is pretty basic, but the best I can do now is listen and learn. If you’d like to tell me something I need to know, pop it in the comments below.  And if you’d like to join us next time, our next event is on the 3rd August. Full details on the website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guide to Running a Live Lit Night

Yeah, there were probably better titles, but I’ve had four hours’ sleep and I went out to the local jazz festival yesterday and drank too much wine. Also my small daughter is doing that ominous coughing that suggests she’s thinking of waking up from her nap an hour early. This post is going up and it may not be pretty, but I like to think it may be helpful.

I run Cheltenham’s premier (only) live flash fiction night, Flashers’ Club. We’re barely off the ground, with our third event happening tonight. But as we lumber along, flapping our ungainly wings, there’s definite air between us and the dirt. Flashers’ works. I didn’t know that it would. It has been an extremely steep learning curve which has required me to be more mentally agile than should be demanded of someone who’s constantly knackered, and it has been fantastic. And now, feeling like I’ve actually learned a few things about creating a live literature event, I feel the need to share them. Because anyone can do it.

So, you want to run your own live lit night?

Rule 1 (and the only real rule, but I’ll include a few other things I personally have learned): do it. That is all. Do you love the idea? Does it give you that feeling in your chest that you could really actually maybe make this work? Then you can make it work. There is no better way to learn than to throw yourself at the thing headfirst and see what happens. This may be alien to your nature (it is to mine), but still, try it. You might like it. There is nowhere on the web (especially not here, given my state of mind) where someone can tell you exactly how to set up your live lit night. It will grow organically. It will evolve to become just the right thing for your city, your crowd, your genre. Your thing is your thing. Run with it. Having said that, a few tips:

  1. You cannot over-promote a live lit night. Get a WordPress site, if you like confusion (sorry, WordPress, but man), or get any other free webpage/blog that you can. Twitter is your friend. Facebook is a bit shit, but you need that too. I don’t do Instagram, but I guarantee you if I did it would garner us a larger audience. Use all of these channels like you’re trying to wear them out. Promotion is work. It means being confident about your night when you’re not sure anyone – anyone at all – is going to turn up. It means writing chirpy tweets that that sarky person in your head keeps reading back to you in the voice of Reece Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. It means finding new ways, every week – sometimes every day – of saying the same thing without pissing off your followers. ‘Come to my thing!’ ‘Hey, why not come to this thing!’ ‘Are you coming to our thing?’ Annoying yet? Yes, it is. Promotion means getting creative. It also means getting reciprocal. The writing community, the live lit community, is amazingly supportive. You’re going to need to get out there and go to some things, talk to some people, get to know exactly what your local community is. Other live lit events will promote yours to their audience, as will indie publishers, writers’ circles, bookshops, litmags, university writing departments and individual writers. You should do the same back. Apropos of which:
  2. You need to be listed on ShortStops. ShortStops is a literary institution and it is invaluable and FREE. ShortStops also uses WordPress, so if you’re thinking of getting to grips with one blogging platform it should probably be WP. Get on it.
  3. Venue. Lots of places will host events for free. Coffee bars, bakeries, pubs, art spaces, anywhere they have funding or can sell your audience stuff. If they offer a free PA system, bite their hand off. It’s preferable to have no background music/noise, but that might not be possible. It’s going to be a bit rough and ready. Bear in mind that it’s your job to make the venue’s gamble worthwhile. Be good to them. Keep them updated on ticket sales, or Facebook likes, to let them know how many people may turn up. They need to know how many staff to put on. You are doing each other a favour, so good communication and two-way respect is essential. They may not want you to run your first event on a Saturday, because you’re an unknown quantity and they don’t want to lose half their floorspace to an event that may pull in 6 punters. Accept this. If you have an amazing turnout and you desperately want a Saturday, you may be able to negotiate it for the second event.
  4. Format. In some ways all live lit nights are basically the same: some people read some stories, then there’s a break, then some more stories. Then again, there are a thousand decisions to make. How long are the stories? What’s the limit? Is the limit by read time, or word count? Actually, are you featuring just stories, or poetry? What about novel extracts? What about memoir? What about travel writing? Do you accept genre stories? Be clear about this, or people will submit/turn up with something you don’t feature and be upset if told they can’t read. Probably best to specify that you don’t feature porn, polemics or gratuitous violence. People can be very strange.
  5. Selective or open mic? Selective nights are harder work than open mic nights, because they require you to review submissions, but they’re less seat-of-the-pants than open mic. On open mic nights you never know how many people will turn up, or what they’re going to read. On selective nights you do, and you can give them a proper intro and everything, and you know pretty exactly the run time, and you can cherry-pick the most interesting stuff. However, you are also putting yourself in a position of editorial decision-making, which raises three issues: a) how qualified you feel to make those decisions, especially if it will be just you and not a group of writers, b) the fact that selection places a certain pressure on the night’s stories to be good quality, and c) the fact that the selection of stories will reflect directly upon you or your group. It is a stone-cold fact that not everything submitted to lit events will be great. Not everything I have submitted has been great, as evidenced by the rejection e-mails. If you have an insufficient number of quality, interesting pieces submitted to your selective night, you are going to end up selecting some that you’re not happy with. On the other hand you might get 30 stories for a 10-slot night and happily pick out a bunch of great stuff, and your night will look awesome and you won’t get that oh-shit feeling that I sometimes get when the open mic readers’ list is at 2 and we’re starting in five minutes. Then again open mic nights are glorious for their lack of control, the sheer anarchic surprise of it all, and they are much less work. Up to you.
  6. USP. Do you do badges? Do you give freebies? Do you have guest speakers? Workshops? Quizzes? Little things like this help to mark you out. They are good.
  7. Hustle. Flashers’ Club gives away free litmags to our readers. I hustle litmag publishers for these. In return, I offer as much promo as they like to our audience, via Twitter mainly, retweeting their calls for submissions, competitions and on-sale-now announcements. It’s that reciprocal thing again. They are doing me a huge favour by sending me free litmags, because running a litmag makes running Flashers’ Club look like sandpit play, and I do my best to repay them by getting them more subscribers and more submitters. Other things can be hustled: notebooks, wine, biscuits, other writer-bribery items. Try asking. You have nothing to lose. And always remember to give in return.
  8. Ticket money: yes or no? Flashers’ charges for tickets, because it’s also a charity event. Until recently all proceeds went to charity, but the realisation dawned that We Needed Money. You can run a very good straightforward event on a shoestring and have it be free, but if you want to expand and elaborate it you will need money. £3 is a good ticket price because it’s low enough not to make people think twice. You will be able to charge more for a selective night, or one featuring a special guest. For open mic it’ll need to stay pretty low, because people are taking a chance on the content. If you’re doing tickets and you have more space than you think you’ll sell, I recommend selling on the door. Advance booking sites like Eventbrite are good, but they charge a fee and in my experience the audience for live lit (open mic, at least), doesn’t book way in advance. If you’re unlikely to sell out, do tickets on the door. You’ll need a float, which the venue can often provide. It’s good to be clear about what you do with that money, whether it’s book guest writers (you will need to cover travel at the least; an opportunity to sell books to your audience may do instead of a fee) or print flyers. However, do bear in mind that:
  9. No-one really gives a shit. In the nicest possible way. If people are paying to see your event, it’s because they want to see the event. Don’t get too hung up on changing the way you use ticket money. I got myself in an ethical twist about changing the Flashers’ income from 100% charity donation to partial charity donation, partial running costs. It felt wrong. I canvassed the audience at our second event, asking for feedback. Only one person came to give feedback, which was: It’s fine. No-one else gave a shit. Do what you think’s best, and be transparent about it. It’s nice to run it past the audience if you can.

That’s not really it, but I have to go and wake my daughter up now or she’ll refuse to go to bed later and I won’t make it to my own flash fic night. In conclusion, here is the Flashers’ Club Quick Guide to Starting Your Own Live Lit Night:

  1. Find a venue
  2. Choose a format, and a USP if you can
  3. Promote
  4. Promote
  5. Hustle
  6. Promote
  7. Hustle
  8. Fear
  9. Run event
  10. Enjoy

Bon chance.

The view from up here

Just the other day, a fellow writer referred to me on their blog as ‘formidable’. I was delighted. And surprised. You see, I don’t think of myself as formidable. I set up the live lit night Flashers’ Club, but I’m running it by trial and error. I have had moderate success in finding publication for my short fiction, but I have only published three stories. I’ve won a competition, but it was a local competition. Though I was very pleased to win it, I wasn’t competing with the world. I entered the Bridport Prize and not only didn’t get longlisted, I didn’t even get the standard rejection e-mail. I’ve been rejected by Stinging Fly, Litro, Lighthouse and Shooter, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to get rejected by Unthology. I’m writing a novel, but it’s a daily slog and I have no idea whether it’s any good or not – or, rather, I veer between thinking it’s killer and thinking it’s dross.

That’s not to say I deserve sympathy. That’s the life of a writer. I’m quite proud to have been rejected by all those mags, in a badge-of-honour kind of way, and some of the rejection letters were even encouraging ones. Bonus. And there is a quiet voice underneath all the wobbling which says that the novel isn’t awful, but there is a chance it’s not good enough. While I don’t think of myself as formidable, I don’t think I’m useless either.

I’m not sure if this wavering confidence – or, perhaps, this honesty about wavering confidence – is something which is stronger in women writers. Women are socially moulded to take up less space, to be less forthright, less self-confident. Many of us still find self-promotion difficult, because we’re worried that confident words from a woman’s mouth are seen as abrasive or egotistical. Plus there’s the old, boring, but worth-restating fact that the majority of our most-lauded modern authors are white American men. They possess a particular voice, one which is bombastic and complex and artful and brutal. It is a voice which I enjoy, but it is not my voice, and nor is it the only way to write a great novel. Muriel Spark, one of my most beloved writers, does not sound like this, and it’s something I have to remind myself of. It is easy for writers to believe that we do not measure up because our voices are not brutal but subtle, not bombastic but playful.

Though women may be more susceptible to the inner critic, it’s a disease of all writers. In the business of promoting Flashers’ Club I had a conversation with a young writer who wanted to help promote the event. He read widely, he wrote, but he’d only shared his work with a handful of people close to him. He was nervous of reading to an audience. I felt his uncertainty, his fear that maybe his writing was just not good enough. I recognised it because it was my own. It was my own four years ago, and it’s still mine now – just in a different form. I know the fear that in exposing your precious work to the world’s arc-lamps, all its flaws will show.

I gave him some advice. I told him that the fear itself meant he probably wasn’t a terrible writer (most irremediable writers suffer from the Dunning-Krueger Effect), and that the best way to give himself confidence was to get his work out there amongst that of his peers. I told him that by only reading the most brilliant of brilliant writers, he was comparing his startpoint to someone else’s endpoint.

Then I got home, and started to wonder if I had been a dick. After all, who am I to give advice? I’ve had three short stories published. Three. I messaged him to apologise. ‘Honestly, it’s fine,’ he wrote back, ‘it’s always nice when someone offers some wise words.’

Wisdom. I’m not sure I have it; not across my whole life, certainly. But perhaps I have a little bit of it, in places. Perhaps I have a little wisdom for the writers around me right now, at the same stage or just that bit earlier on their writing journey. The thing is, the me from four years ago thought that being published was an impossible dream. Being published meant you had made it. I would have thought someone like me was formidable. I would have wanted to know how you did it, just as I, now, want to know from those just that bit further on that me how they did it. And I know now that they, too, will be sitting there thinking, ‘Jesus, I don’t know,’ or they’ll qualify their advice, because they don’t feel like they’ve ‘made it’ either. None of us do. Not even the most brilliant of the brilliant. There is no ‘making it’. No endpoint at which we are fully trained, incapable or learning more; at which we do not want or need to develop our art.

The view from up here, from this ledge a few feet up the infinite mountain, is this: writing is work. It involves reading, and submitting, and experiencing, and reading, and experimenting, and setbacks, and learning, and reading, and editing, and slogging, and probably some more reading (the importance of reading what you write might need another blog post). It starts as something hoarded close to the chest, something gloated over and feared for, and after that there’s a choice: keep it close and never know, or knock it into shape and send it out into the world. Then the real work starts, and the real rewards. You get knocked back. You retrench. You read. The writing grows, your mind grows. Like physical training, you need to do the thing over and over and over and over to get stronger, to develop flexibility and stamina. Your work gets better. My work has got better. And the wonderful thing about doing this is the world opening out ahead of you. It is the realisation that your ability to write is only 10% innate, and the remaining 90% is what you make it. Everyone else is just the same. No-one is born a brilliant writer. Everyone else is working for it too. You do not have to be frightened to put your work out there, because you know now that its rejection will not be a judgement on whether you can or cannot write, it is a reflection of the stage you’re at in learning your craft (or a reflection that you sent it to the wrong journal, or the wrong publisher, or your work’s wonderful but not saleable, or a reader really hates stories about divorce, or you went over the word count, or you used single-spaced Comic Sans and they threw it in the bin).

Without this exposure, this apprenticeship, my writing would have forever been a point rather than a line. I might have written, but my self-doubt would have been stronger, because I had no reference points – my own, or others’. The critic and the egotist would have loomed large, squabbling unchecked in my brain. They’re still there, but nowadays if they’re annoying me I can batter them with evidence.

Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes is always revealing. It gives perspective. I tend to give the inner critic a bit more leash than the inner egotist, because the odds are on her side rather more. And I’ve seen what happens when writers don’t have that critic. Bad, bad things. But maybe the critic deserves a little less scope, because it turns out I’d forgotten how daunting those first steps were. How gruelling this little climb has been, and how lovely the view is when you look out, not up.