Good morning Jon and welcome to Between the Lines. It’s great to have you here. I was going to introduce you but it seems like a good idea to let you do that yourself. Would you like to give a quick sketch of who you are and where you’re coming from?
It’s really nice to be here! I see we’re starting off with the tricky questions …
Who am I? I’m a middle-aged, middle-class bloke with most of my own hair left, married for a surprisingly long time with two slightly grown-up kids. Where am I coming from? I’m one of those people who’s always wanted to be a writer but who’s always lacked the necessary drive to actually make it happen. I steered clear of English at A level because only the cool kids did that kind of thing, opting instead for double Maths like all the other geeks. So I read Maths at University and drifted into a career in software – which is where I’ve been ever since. But if writing’s what you want to do, it keeps nagging away at you. And when our children turned up I found I had a captive audience, so I started writing stuff for them and I actually got some encouraging letters from publishers – the significance of which completely eluded me at the time. In the end, though, I just didn’t have the time and commitment to capitalise on that and I gave up. However, a few years later, I managed to get a commission to write a book on a particular aspect of software development. Despite having bitten off way more than I could chew, I just about managed to finish it and I went on to contribute chapters to a further dozen. But for all the fact that I could be quite creative about the way I wrote, it just wasn’t the same and I packed that in too. In 2005, I rejoined the local writers’ circle and found that in my absence it had become quite a hotbed of creativity, with the result that I was galvanised into writing again. But the critical moment was when I entered my first big competition, run by the University of Hertfordshire, and somehow won 3rd prize. That was the point at which I got the scent of blood.
Thanks Jon – now I really know who I’m talking to!
As regards competitions, I confess to more than a bit of writerly envy over your success in the Bristol Short Story Prize (mainly because I live there and I write – ergo it should be mine!) Would you like to share a few memories of the event with all us Bristol wannabees?
Ha. The interesting thing about the Bristol Prize is that the first year it was held, I believe there were quite a few local writers on the shortlist. But now it’s gained such a high profile, you’ll get all sorts of riff-raff like me trying to muscle in, I’m afraid. Such is the price of success! I have to say that even though I wasn’t in the prizes, I had a wonderful time at the ceremony. The BSSP has to be one of the best-run short story prizes around, and the whole event ran like clockwork. I think ten of us turned up on the night (which would be half of the shortlist) and it was great to meet them all, including several that I’d already got to know on Twitter. It was particularly cool to meet members of the short story aristocracy like Tania Hershman (Orange prize nominee!) and Sarah Salway (according to Neil Gaiman, “an astonishingly smart writer”!) My inner groupie was very satisified.
As someone who has only got to know your writing recently, I’m reading your ‘markets’ links and thinking your roots might be in horror and genre writing (Necrotic Tissue is one that took my eye!)
Interesting question. I’m not sure that I actually make much distinction between genre and literary writing (whatever literary means). Sure, there are sometimes genre-specific rules that come into play, but in the end if a story is going to be successful, it’s got to have characters that you believe in and a plot that engages your emotions. I think the distinctions are being increasingly blurred. I was reading Adam Marek’s collection “Instructions for Swallowing” recently and I was quite startled – and impressed – to find that the final story in the book was a full-on zombie tale. This is the same Adam Marek who was a runner-up in last year’s Times/EFG short story prize. Having said that, I would like to say that I do have a soft spot for markets with names like “Necrotic Tissue”, especially when they give away really cool free T-shirts to their writers. My other favourite market name is “Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens”, and I made quite a concerted effort to get in there a while back. Sadly, that campaign failed.
Thanks for the T-shirt tip. I’m clearly in the wrong markets!
Still on the genre theme, I was recently reading the blog of a writer who has had poems, plays and non-fiction published but still feels her real ambition is to be a novelist. You also write in a variety of forms and genres. Is there one in which you feel most ‘at home’ or one in which you would most like to succeed?
I would say the complete opposite. I’ll have a go at almost anything. One example: if you’d told me just a couple of years ago that I would have now over 20 poems published in various places, I would probably have laughed at you. But I get a real kick out of trying something new and working out what the rules are. Obviously, novels are where the money is, but I would still dearly love to have a well-produced book of short stories out there – or a slim volume of poetry. Somewhere in a back drawer I have a very peculiar radio play that I am desperate to get produced.
Do you have any particular source of inspiration, e.g. a favourite writer, musician or artist?
Too many to mention. I can think of two stories I’ve written that have been indirectly inspired by Richard Thompson songs, but that’s about as specific as it gets. There are plenty of writers I admire, but they’re a very diverse range. According to one of those web things, I write like Chuck Palahniuk, which is odd because I’ve never read anything by him. (Nor me, I’m afraid!) But I sometimes think the chief influence on Mrs Darcy is actually Dan Brown. It’s that combination of a completely unbelievable plot driven by a sequence of gratuitous cliffhangers.
Well, I think I’ll take that last comparison with a pinch of salt (!)
Talking of the acclaimed Mrs. D. (Jon’s “slightly demented sequel to Pride and Prejudice”) I am not completely up to date but do dip in from time to time and get the impression it’s a real WIP rather than a finished article you are simply issuing to a schedule?
That impression is entirely correct, although it isn’t quite how I planned it. When I started, I had about two and a half months’ worth in the can and I completely failed to maintain that lead. More often than not, I end up writing an episode the night before it goes live. In that respect, you could view it as a kind of drawn-out NaNoWriMo process. I do, however, know exactly where it’s going and how long it’s going to take to get there. There are going to be 100 episodes, plus a prologue and an epilogue, which means that it will take about a year to run. So far, I’ve only missed one deadline, and I can afford to miss one more. There is going to be a massive cliffhanger at the end.
Sounds like a model a lot of us would do well to follow (as regards the process of planning if not the blog idea). Do you have any firm plans to take it forward – in print, as an e-book?
Good question. I’m actively exploring traditional publication routes, although the waters have been significantly muddied by the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies thing, even if it is quite a different type of beast altogether. If all else fails, and only then, then I might be tempted to self-publish, but only if I could be absolutely sure of doing it right. I don’t want to end up producing something badly edited with mismatched colours on the cover and the text in Comic Sans. Whatever happens, I’ve enjoyed the process of serialising it and I have learnt a hell of a lot about how to go about writing a full-length novel. My previous attempts all crashed and burned one chapter in.
It must have been brilliant to have your Amazing Arnolfini story read in Opening Lines. How did you hear about it and what was the submission process?
I’m still pinching myself, to be honest. I can’t actually remember how I heard about it. I think I went to look at the BBC website to see if they accepted unsolicited submissions and noticed that they were opening up for a limited time a month or so later. I didn’t even realise at the time that Opening Lines is the only unsolicited slot in the entire BBC afternoon reading calendar. So I picked the most suitable story (right length, no bad language, most linear structure) and sent it in – by post of course. I’d actually completely forgotten about it until the letter (yes, a letter!) came out of the blue to say that I was on the longlist. And then a couple of months later, I got another letter to say I was on the shortlist – at which point I started getting very excited. Then late one Friday afternoon, just as I was getting ready to go out to meet some old friends, I got an e-mail to say they were going to produce it.
I bet that was quite a moment.
Like me, you clearly get a lot of support from your local writers’ group. Can you tell us about the format and structure of a typical Verulam Writers evening?
We have formal meetings every other week in a church hall and informal meetings every other week in the pub. The formal meetings vary between manuscript surgeries (where we give tough but fair critique on each others’ work – no group hugs, though), competition adjudications (we have four internal competitions every year, usually set by last year’s winner), workshops (usually run by members, but occasionally by a guest) and guest speakers. The informal meetings are manuscript surgeries. What is exciting is that almost all of our successes are home grown, in that – for example – all but one of our members who are represented have acquired their agents since joining the circle. It is wonderful to be there right at the start of things – I remember the time when Toby Frost decided he fancied trying his hand at a comic science fiction book and read out the very first section of “Space Captain Smith”. Was it worth carrying on with, he wondered? Oh yes, we said, and he’s now got a whole trilogy published by Myrmidon. And I must put in the obligatory plug for next year’s Get Writing conference on Saturday February 19th. Keep an eye on www.vwc.org.uk for details – last year’s was an absolute corker and this year’s promises to be even better.
Plug duly noted!
You are clearly fully signed up to the virtual writing community and all it entails. Do you have to consciously balance time spent in networking/promotion against actual creative writing time, or don’t you perceive this as a problem?
Good question. It’s definitely a problem, because it eats into real life time as well as creative writing time if you’re not careful (and I haven’t always been careful). But writing is a lonely business and the interactions you have with other writers and like-minded people – whether via Twitter, writers’ forums or through your own blog – are absolutely essential to stay motivated and in touch with what’s going on. I’m 100% sure that if the web had been around to this extent when I was first trying to make it as a writer, I would never have given up the way I did. Whether my relationships with my family would have survived is less certain.
As far as the promotional aspect of being a writer is concerned, it’s absolutely essential to have a web presence, though. But you do need to work at it. Blogs don’t write themselves, and Twitter isn’t quite what it seems either. One of the the things that fascinates me about it is how different people present themselves and what effect that has on my perception of them. But that’s a discussion that could go off on a very long tangent.
Yes, all fascinating stuff, especially the whole online persona idea.
And finally. Anything in the pipeline you’d like to tell us about?
I’ve got a long-standing non-fiction project that I want to get going again, and it’s struck me that it might work best if I run it on its own blog, a bit like Mrs Darcy, except a bit looser. I can’t say too much more without giving the game away, but I’m hoping to start it in the next month or so.
Can I say thank you for having me? Happy blog birthday, too!
You certainly may!
Sorry I haven’t been able to actually ply you with home baking or beverages (alcoholic or otherwise) but I hope the day has provided some virtual refreshment. I know I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Best of luck with that radio play, and the next magnum opus.
Visitors, don’t forget you can keep up with Jon’s exploits at Jonathan Pinnock’s Write Stuff.