Starting block

I did such a clever thing this month. I’d be boasting about it to you, but for the small problem that I’ve realised I have to do it again and at this moment I haven’t a single clue how. Let me call it a writing thing so that maybe it’ll be of use to you too but really I’m lying down on the couch now and you’re getting out your pen, you’re asking me about my childhood.

Funny: I said that as a gag but childhood is relevant because the problem is to do with where you start something. Specifically where you start a story.

You know this. There is a reason why any story, any drama, any play starts at the specific point it does and not one pixel sooner or later. This is one reason I think prequels are murder and so rarely successful murder: they’re set before that starting moment and have to concoct a reason why.

What I did that I was so smug about for at least an hour was that I wrote a short story which in retrospect you will realise covers nearly two decades of time for the character. As you read it through, however, you see quite clearly that it actually physically takes place in probably less than half an hour.

The cleverness, and every time I write that word I’m doubting it more, was that I had this incredibly long story but I didn’t just find the right spot to start, I found the only spot where it could all be told in that short moment.

Actually, do have a read some time. You don’t need to for the point I’m trying to make but I’m unusually pleased with it. It’s called Still Life and you can read it over on the Prompted Tales website.

I haven’t been taught writing and I don’t know if there’s some university module on starting but I’m on a thing now where, dammit, the story takes place over 32 years and I have 45 minutes in which to tell it.

I’ll get there. And although I blinked a bit when I realised I was in exactly the same hole as I was before Still Life, I’m going to enjoy finding the right spot to tell this story.

Readers need a good start, writers need the right start but somewhere in the tale there is a potent, pregnant moment where it can all take place.

Okay. Okay. I think that’s right. And it’s helped, thank you. Can I see you again next week?

Mars Bars: a Warning from History

There are no life lessons you can learn from Mars Bars or indeed any chocolate, but that doesn’t mean you should give up looking. I tell you now, chocolate has always been my Kryptonite but just lately it’s been my frustration and not for the weight-related issues you’ve just thought of. Thanks for that.

I am instead a discerning chocolate eater and I have been frustrated by a small thing, just the total betrayal of my entire life by the confectionary industry. That’s all. I want there to be a life lesson here, I want there to be something I can draw on as a writer, and I want that very badly because a) you won’t think I’m such an eejit and 2) it would be solace the next time I put those Mars Bars back.

I do put them back, that’s true. The writing life lesson is more of a stretch, but I do now regularly pick up a pack of Mars Bars in the supermarket and put them back with a howl that would startle a wolf. It would startle anyone, really, but wolves are professional howlers and that’s the level I’m howling at.

For have you seen Mars Bars these days? I’ve been worrying about sounding like a fool or a glutton, I might as well throw in something that makes me just sound old. Mars Bars used to be bigger in my day. Back in the war, when you walked to school over cobbled streets and the only computers were Windows PCs, at least you could count on your friends and on how Mars Bars were a decent size.

There are bigger problems in the world and throughout recorded history, chocolate bars have got smaller as they’ve got more expensive. Only this time the manufacturers have gone too far. Fine, make your bars smaller, see if I care, but this time they’re actively hiding the fact.

That’s why I have this cycle of picking them up and putting them back: try it yourself and see. Any pack of Mars Bars or of any chocolate bars at all will now be dramatically larger than the contents. Somehow the pack is padded, actually padded. You can feel it when you pick the thing up but you can’t see it until then: we are being lied to.

Well, I’m being lied to. You wouldn’t have that trim and toned body of yours if you were facing chocolate lies as often as I am. Thinking about it, I may have just gone off you.

I keep saying that this is happening now, that this conspiracy of confectioners is new, but it’s been happening for a long time, I’ve been noticing it for a long time. I think the reason it’s on my mind today may be because we’ve just had Easter, the great religious chocolate festival, but also because actually, yes, maybe, there is a writing life lesson here.

I’m part of a project called Prompted Tales wherein a group of us are tasked with writing a short story each month. The aim is get us focused, challenged and with a deadline as we all seem to respond to deadlines. The result so far is that we all have three short stories now that we didn’t before the start of the year. I’ve been thinking that’s rather good, I’ve been pretty happy with myself.

But as March’s Prompted Tales go live on the website throughout today, I’m reading them and I’m thinking that mine are lies.

I’m not wrong to have been happy with my January, February and March tales: I think they have something, I think they’re a good read, but I wonder today whether they just look like they’re stories. I don’t want to do myself down, especially not when I really enjoyed writing Departure Time, the story that will be published on the Prompted Tales website at 10:30 today.

But I look at the others being released and if they’re not wider or longer than mine, they have more in them. More depth, more chocolate, less packaging padding and it’s a sobering thing to see. It’s hopefully also an energising one as I’m currently clueless about what I’ll write for the April Prompted Tales but I know I’ll do something and I hope it will be the better for reading everyone else’s March stories.

Not easily, though. It won’t be easy. I think I need tea. And chocolate.

To cut a short story…

I was approached by someone earlier this week about short stories and whether I’d be up for contributing to a thing. Then yesterday a new anthology of short stories called What Haunts the Heart was published – and I have a piece in it.

So, it’s official: I’m a short story writer.

This isn’t actually a new thing, and of course it certainly isn’t an important thing outside my own head. This anthology is the second I’ve had a story in and I’ve performed three short stories at various events. Then this year I joined Alex Townley’s Prompted Tales project which is specifically about short stories and pointedly about making us write the bloody things.

Each month, she sets a prompt and around ten of us toddle off to write something. I recognise the benefit of the deadline and the commitment, I also just find it absorbing to see how one thought spins off and out into ten such radically, enormously, preposterously different stories.

But it is the deadline that’s the thing so she sets this at the start of the month, we write and deliver by the end. This should mean that I’ve now written two short Prompted Tales, one for January and one for February. I have – but I’ve also written my March one. For I am a show-off.

Nobody comes to my door asking for a show-off, though. Instead now I get approached about short stories and while I’ve got to underline how rare the approaches are, the reason I’m blathering at you is that there are now some people who see me as a short story writer. They see me as that before they see everything else and there is no reason they should know about anything else.

Here’s the thing. It has taken a couple of years but it hasn’t taken a giant amount of effort: at some point I realised I wanted to write short stories so I did. Now without my truly noticing it, it’s become true.

We can, therefore, you and I, decide what we want to do and then do it and the next thing you know, it’s what we do.

So that’s it. I’m planting a flag in the ground today, this moment, and vowing to you that the next thing I’m going to do is become a halfway decent short story writer.