The Wait

Writing fiction is not a pursuit which gives immediate rewards. Novel-writing is probably the worst. Even short stories, though, require a hell of a wait before they show results: results which may well be negative. There’s the initial rush of waiting for your beta reader to comment (and many thanks, here, to my beta readers: you are wonderful and I really should buy you presents some time soon), but after that there’s the wasteland. The three months, minimum, that it takes for publishers to respond. The even longer period you may need to wait for the competition longlist. If you’re writing and submitting consistently, then the wait only exists for the first six to eight months, after which there will be a steady flow of feedback. But when you stop and start again, you’re back to the beginning.

I stopped and started again when I had my daughter, now one year old. I started writing again in May, and I will not see any results until October. That’s kind of OK: after all, life’s busy enough with a toddler in the house. You look away for a second, and when you look back it’s July. But it leaves me with nothing to say to people who ask me, ‘How’s the writing going?’ If the person asking is not a writer, the only possible answer to this is:’OK. I wrote some stuff.’ Or, if things are going really badly: ‘I haven’t done anything in ages. No time.’ There is no day-to-day progress. No ready reckoner. No translatable marker for success. Other jobs offer this, even if longer-term goals remain elusive: ‘I went to Edinburgh for a conference.’ ‘We got the accounts finished.’ ‘I’ve prepared my teaching for the next term.’ ‘We’ve got the roof on.’ This is what people want when they ask you how it’s going: a titbit, a soundbite that will give a quick idea of what’s going on. Even ‘I got a rejection letter’ is better than ‘OK. I wrote some stuff.’

It’s a long, dry wait for those answers. Often writers suffer from imposter syndrome anyway, and having nothing to report feeds into that. What you do is intangible, solitary and hard to quantify. You find yourself fantasising about the moment when someone will say: ‘How’s the writing going?’ and you’ll be able to answer ‘I WON A PRIZE.’ Or ‘MY STORY’S BEEN ACCEPTED.’ Or, unlikeliest yet, ‘I’M GETTING PAID.’ An answer that reassures people that your pursuit is not a potential embarrassment to be wary of. An answer, basically,  that justifies your lack of a proper job.

One of the best ways to survive the drought is the company of other writers. This is when I wish I lived somewhere else. London would be great, Brighton even better. I need a peer group. I need writer’s retreats. I need open mic poetry nights, and constructive criticism, and people to rave and bitch and laugh with. Twitter is a good proxy, but it’s no substitute. So next week I’ll be heading off to a writer’s retreat run by the wonderful Writers’ HQ (tagline: ‘For badass writers with no time or money’). Not only should I meet people who know exactly what I’m talking about, but I know I’ll come away with fresh ideas and a shitload of stuff to work on. It’s on Sunday, so given that I’ll need to take a Southern train back, I should be back by Tuesday. Wish me luck.

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Revenge writing: a bad idea

Scooting around the internet last week I came across this: an engaging blog post by American literary magazine editor Cady Vishniac about what not to submit to litmags. A lot of the undesirable things seem obvious (porn, bigotry), but the fact they’re listed must mean there are people out there who think that including them in a short story is a good idea. Alarming. Others are things that I know I should avoid, but am never entirely sure I have (cliché, plot holes and extraordinary coincidence). These are the kind of errors you may only spot once you’ve left the piece alone for a while and then come back to it, and even then they can slip by.

It was the section on wishful thinking and revenge, though, that caught my eye. We’ve all been tempted (well, I have) to immortalise in writing an annoying acquaintance or particularly egregious work colleague. At best your aim may be a bit of fun; at worst, a chance for justice. And it never works. Not for me, anyway.

This quote from the post shows why: ‘Literary fiction shows us characters who have positive attributes and serious negative ones. Every protagonist has a deeply human, deeply flawed core, and even evil people exist in a context that helps us understand their choices.’ In a nutshell, you have to feel sympathy for your characters. Even the most appalling of them can’t be entirely irredeemable and doomed.

Sure, it’s possible to take elements from people you’ve met and disliked, and to incorporate those into a character, and for that character to work. But only when you don’t have a revenge agenda. Writing, an act of creation and, unsentimentally, of love, withers up in an atmosphere of negativity.

I’ve tried revenge writing, and the prose comes out airless, didactic and (worse) dull. It goes nowhere, because it requires the piece to be a cypher for the resolution of my own personal gripes. This makes it cryptically specific, cramped and closed-ended, as opposed to multi-layered, generous and relevant to wider human experience*. On top of this it’s hard to do, because it’s no fun putting down grievances on paper.

As it turns out, it’s no fun reading those grievances either. The author of the post points out that revenge writing is pathetically easy to spot, and embarrassing to read. A publisher’s rejection is, as she says, a kindness: it prevents you from showing your thinly-disguised wounds to the world.

The post’s an intriguing read, and has a sister piece on ‘Some Myths About Your Litmag Submissions’. It leaves me with even more respect for those who edit or read for magazines, and the reassuring knowledge that however many rejection letters there may be, at least I’ve never written a story in which ‘a guy spots a gal on a bus and she starts masturbating’.

 

 

*On a good day.