Rejected, but not Neglected

I’ve been invited to appear on a new podcast called Story Circle Jerk. It was started by my pal Kai Durkin to showcase short stories and music, either self-written or from others. We’ll be recording our episode at the end of the month, giving me a deadline to prepare material.

One part of my appearance will be an interview about my open-mike evenings. I’ll have to do some preparation for this, so I cover the all main points without overloading the listeners with information.

The other part will involve me reading one of my own short stories. The one I immediately reached for was a piece called Him, in which the narrator talks about seeing his life replayed through his own eyes after his death. I wrote this in 2014, with its most recent revision dated 2018.

Between these dates, the story was rejected by six different publishers. However, I’ve also read it to an audience on a number of occasions during that time; I deliver it in a slow and stark tone, inspired by Salman Rushdie reading Concerning The Bodyguard by Donald Barthleme. As such, it seems to work better on stage than on the page so I still have faith in it.

The story will need to be revised a little. The way I start the process is by reading it out loud, not to an audience, but to myself. If it sounds excessively wordy, or if I find myself unable to follow a plot point, it needs to be revised. This particular piece, however, shouldn’t need too much changing for Story Circle Jerk.

Another podcast I can recommend is The Beans Podcast, run by three friends. Be advised that it’s not specifically about writing, but covers many topics, from advice columns to caffeine to nuclear bombs.

Back Six Years

I don’t often post my work online, as publishers often consider it to be previously published. This week, however, I wanted to devote an entry to something that’s already in the public domain.

In 2013, my first short story was included in an anthology by The Fiction Desk. This was before I began to write poetry. Even reading this back six years later, I’m still pleased with how it turned out. Below is the full text.

A Big Leap

By Gavin Cameron

I don’t know exactly how small you are, I think I might be about three thousand times bigger than you. It must be really horrible being your size. When you jump through the grass it must be like going through a forest, and the nettles must sting you if you’re not careful. The sky probably looks even further away to you. Do you have a bedroom? You could have a glass of milk and an afternoon nap when you get tired.

You’d probably like to be a bit bigger. If you were the same size as me, you’d be able to run over the grass and go a lot further. You could play football, or ride a bike, or we could even get you some clothes, maybe a T-shirt and some jeans and a pair of new trainers and a hat if you wanted one. Can you swim? A puddle must seem like a swimming pool to you, but the leisure centre probably wouldn’t let you in, even if you were my size. And I know Mum wouldn’t let you sit at the table because she hates creepy crawly things so you might have to get your own dinner.

I don’t know what I’d call you if you were a girl. I’d call you Graham if you were a boy so you’d be Graham the grasshopper. I’d get a collar with your name on it like a dog and tell everyone you were mine.

If you were the size of an elephant, I could ride you. We’d go down to the shops for sweets and we could patrol the library and tell noisy people they had to be quiet or we would throw them out. On a Saturday, we’d go out for the whole day and go over the hills and see people in other countries and they would give us little wooden things to take home with us, but we’d still stop for sweets on the way back. Maybe you’d even be able to fly and when it got dark, you could take us all the way up to the moon, and we could play there for a bit, then land back in our back garden, but you’d have to be really quiet because Mr Parker next door doesn’t like noise. I think you’d like to be me but I don’t think I’d like to be you. You’re just an ornament so you can’t move unless we move you but I can move anywhere I like. Oh well, at least you’ll be here later. I’ll come and talk to you again after dinner.

The Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


Restoration

I’ve had some computer problems over the weekend. Windows was running slowly and wouldn’t update, and I eventually had to perform a system restore.

Although this has caused lots of short-term chaos, it seems to be a good long-term solution; it already feels like a new machine. Unfortunately, this episode has taken up so much of my attention that I don’t have a full blog entry for you.

However, I did manage to catch up with some reading earlier in the week. I was on a train to Birmingham and back, a total of around 11 hours, so I’m halfway through the short story collection Arcanum Unbounded by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.

Most authors write short stories of mayble a few thousand words long and that stand alone from each other. By contrast, this author’s short stories are more like novel extracts, while some would qualify as novellas. What’s more, almost all of them link into the same universe, known as the Cosmere.

I bought the book when I met Sanderson last year because there were no more copies of his latest novel left. I’m glad I started with this collection as it’s given me an excellent sample of his style, and now I look forward to tackling his novels when I have the chance.

In With the Old

Over the last week, I’ve been revising two pieces of prose.

The first piece was a 1500-word short story about a female soldier returning home after conscription into an unnamed war. I first wrote this in 2013, but I’ve periodically returned to it, most recently to submit it to a publisher who might appreciate the sentiment.

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The second is an overhaul of the piece I wrote for my Masters dissertation in 2016. I subsequently turned it into a one-woman play, but the last revision didn’t reach the 60-minute mark. Over the weekend, I’ve been lengthening the script by unpacking and exploring some of the plot points that the original doesn’t address. In two weeks’ time, I have the opportunity to have an extract read by an actor at a new playwriting evening.

When I read back over those two pieces, there were no major problems, but I could find a number of minor ones. Perhaps I’d used a clause too many in the sentence; perhaps a vital piece of information could be shown rather than told.

Whatever the problem, I’ve enjoyed fixing them. I feel the two pieces are better overall now. I keep all my drafts, so I was able to look back at previous versions and I can see that my writing has improved over the years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll revisit these pieces in the future with more experience and be able to improve them in ways I can’t imagine right now.