Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff

NO SOONER THE WORD THAN THE FICTION

What I Read in 2017

I read 67 books in 2017, which was seven more than in 2016, but still a long way short of 2014’s epic 95. One of these days I’ll make it to 100.

Anyway, here they all are:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi Half of a Yellow Sun
Alderman, Naomi The Power
Ball, James Post Truth
Barnes, Adrian Nod
Bateman, Colin Divorcing Jack
Beatty, Paul The Sellout
Berger, John Ways of Seeing
Berkeley, Humphry The Life & Death of Rochester Sneath
Bilston, Brian You Took the Last Bus Home
Blacker, Terence You Cannot Live as I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This
Blair, etc. (ed) Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief
Bray, Carys The Museum of You
Broadribb, Steph Deep Down Dead
Bromley, Carole The Stonegate Devil
Brown, Dan Inferno
Carver, Raymond Can You Please Be Quiet, Please?
Conan Doyle, Arthur His Last Bow
Corlett, Anne The Space Between the Stars
Cowan Montague, Jude The Wires 2012
Curtis, Deborah Touching from a Distance
De Curzon, Colette Paymon’s Trio
Doig, Ivan Mountain Time
Elborough, Travis Atlas of Improbable Places
Emmerich, etc, (ed) The book of Tokyo
Fitzgerald, Martin Ruth and Martin’s Album Club
Fleming, Ian For Your Eyes Only
Frost, Toby Pincers of Death
Gapper, Frances In the Wild Wood
Gauld, Tom Mooncop
Gebbie, Vanessa Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen
Gebbie, Vanessa A Short History of Synchronised Breathing
Gompertz, Will Think Like an Artist
Gonzalez-Crussi, F. On the Nature of Things Erotic
Hannett, Lisa Smoke Billows, Soot Falls
Haruf, Kent Benediction
Haruf, Kent Our Souls at Night
Hoffnung, Gerard Acoustics
Hoffnung, Gerard Encore
Knausgaard, Karl Ove A Man in Love
Laurenson, Neil Exclamation Marx!
Macdonald, Rowena The Threat Level Remains Severe
Marsh, Henry Do No Harm
Mbarushimana, Andrea The Africa in My House
Menmuir, Wyl Bounds
Middleton, Nick An Atlas of Countries that Don’t Exist
Murakami, Haruki The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Moore, Alison Death and the Seaside
O’Neil, Cathy Weapons of Math Destruction
O’Neill, Ryan Their Brilliant Careers
Perry, Grayson The Descent of Man
Perry, Sarah The Essex Serpent
Ronson, Jon What I Do
Ronson, Jon The Elephant in the Room
Royle, Nicholas (ed) Best British Short Stories 2016
Shriver, Lionel We Need to Talk About Kevin
Slatter, Angela Home and Hearth
Stokes, Jones (eds) Unthology #6
Stokes, Jones (eds) Unthology #7
Stokes, Jones (eds) Unthology #8
Thorn, Tracey Bedsit Disco Queen
Tinniswood, Peter The Brigadier Down Under
Tinniswood, Peter The Brigadier’s Brief Lives
Tyler, Anne The Accidental Tourist
Van Den Berg, Laura Isle of Youth
Vincent, Bruno Five on Brexit Island
Vowler, Tom Dazzling the Gods
Watson, SJ Before I Go To Sleep

If I start trying to highlight any of these, I’ll probably tie myself in knots worrying about the ones I forget to mention (especially the ones by friends of mine). So I’m not going to say anything at all right now (although I may well have more to say about one or two of them later on in the year, once certain things are in place). However, if anyone fancies opening up a discussion below, I’ll be happy to join in. Also, in 2018 I am going to make a determined effort to do some proper reviewing. I have plans.

And, yes, that was the second post of this year to end on an enigmatic wink.

So Farewell Then, 2017

Well, that was an odd year for writing, that’s for sure. Some very good things happened, certainly, but a lot of things didn’t, and I’m only just beginning to work out why.

The first amazingly good thing to happen was that I found a publisher for my second short story collection, Dip Flash. I’m particularly excited about this, because the publisher in question, Cultured Llama, publishes some really ace people, such as Vanessa Gebbie, Sarah Salway and Frances Gapper. It’s really flattering to be sitting alongside people like them.

The second amazingly good thing to happen was that my first poetry collection, Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff, was published. Silhouette Press did a superb job on it too – I still love that startling cover.

So why do I still have a lingering feeling of disappointment about 2017?

Good question. I’m glad you asked.

The main reason is, I think, the fact that I wrote very little last year. I wrote no poetry at all, apart from a daft full-length poem for kids which I’ve performed once (when I really should have been promoting LALAOIS, I suppose), and which I’d love to have published as a picture book. However, the chances of that happening are lower than the chances of two snowflakes meeting in hell and forming a family, so I’m not entirely sure why I bothered.

I did, however, write one or two short stories. I had this idea that I should perhaps try to get a few more out there last year, seeing as I was going to have a new collection published. So I touched up a few old unpublished favourites, wrote a few new ones and sent them out into the world.

And nothing happened.

I had a completely wretched year. It happens, I know. Not every story one writes is destined for greatness. There are a thousand and one reasons why a given story won’t hit the spot. But it’s still galling when it happens – or rather, doesn’t happen.

Then I had a revelation. I was going through the stories to be included in Dip Flash, and it struck me that the pieces in there were a whole load better than the new ones I’d been touting around. I’d somehow managed to mislay the spark that brings the Dip Flash stories to life (at least, I think it does, anyway).

More interestingly, I’m wondering if some of that spark might also be missing from the current draft of the great novel-in-progress / completed novel / novel-possibly-in-progress-again, which is quite an exciting discovery, because I now definitely know what I can do to bring it back.

So I think in many ways, 2018 could end up being a lot more interesting from the writing point of view than last year, what with Dip Flash coming out as well. And I haven’t even mentioned some of my other plans, mainly because, well, they’re just plans right now. Yes, that was an enigmatic wink, since you asked.

Putting It All Together

Back in February of this year I signed a contract with Cultured Llama for my next short story collection, Dip Flash. One of the clauses of that deal stipulated that I was to provide them with a complete manuscript by the 1st of December. So it’s probably about time that I got this thing into some kind of order, right?

Deep breath.

A collection of short stories – or indeed poems – should be more than the sum of the parts. There should be some kind of logic and flow to it. When I was sequencing Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff, for example, (still available,  by the way – I’m told it’s rather good) I grouped poems with a similar theme together, but I also tried to manage the movements in tone throughout the collection, so that there wasn’t a sudden clunking gear shift from sad to funny. The choice of poems to open and close the collection was also important. I went through a similar process with Dot Dash (also still available), although I was also constrained there by my structural high concept of short stories interleaved with very short ones.

Dip Flash, despite its related title, doesn’t share the same structure as Dot Dash. For one thing, I haven’t got as many very short ones lying around – mainly because I lost enthusiasm for that kind of thing. There are a few, however, which begs the question as to where I put them without jolting the reader. As far as opening and closing is concerned, I know which story is going first and which one is going last – in fact, I’ve know about the latter since I started planning Dip Flash back in 2011 (or to put it another way, as soon as Dot Dash was put to bed).

As for the rest, I’m almost certainly going to stick to stories that have already been published in magazines or have been listed in competitions, as I did with Dot Dash (and indeed most of Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff). I do this purely and simply because I don’t trust my own judgement. Anything I put in a collection needs to have found its way past at least one gatekeeper in order for it to justify its presence there. It’s not enough for me to like it. Someone else has to.Which is a shame, because some of my favourite stories are still trying to find a home even as I write. I guess they’ll have to wait until the third collection comes along in 2024.

But is it any good, I hear you ask? Is it better than Dot Dash? Well, I’d like to think so. There are certainly one or two stories in there that I’m quite proud of. But I’m far too close to the thing to be 100% sure, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

[Edited to add: Of course, all of this is contingent on my publishers actually approving my selection…]

No Explanation Required

Well, it’s been a while since I last blogged. A few weeks back I did start on a rant inspired by that daft open submission invitation from Angry Robot (remember?) that specifically excluded anything humorous ( I mean, FFS), but then I realised I’d gone on about the problem of humour before and the world hadn’t changed as a result, so what was the point? And then I started to wonder what the point of having a blog anyway was, and what was the point of writing anything at all, and OH GOD WHAT IS THE POINT OF ANYTHING.

It’s been an odd year for writing, that’s all I’ll say.

Anyway, I thought of something else that I wanted to talk about, so here goes.

We went to see the new Blade Runner movie just over a week ago, and then – for reasons too boring to go into – we ended up seeing it again a week later. (Still just as amazing the second time round, by the way – if you haven’t seen it yet, GO. And if you can afford it, go to see it in the best cinema you can find, with the biggest screen and the best sound system possible.) Anyway, in between, we also got out the DVD of the first film, and what struck me about both films (although possibly the first one more so) was how much odd, unexplained stuff there was going on.

To take just one example, what is it with the towers belching fire into the sky? Is that energy efficient? Is there some kind of air traffic control going on to help all the flying cars avoid them when they’re about to blow? Or did Ridley Scott just happen to be cooking sausages on his gas barbecue the weekend before the design meeting and thought, “hey, that looks cool”?

There is probably an explanation out there. But I haven’t googled, because I don’t want to know. It’s sufficient that it’s weird, different from my own experience and also oddly suggestive of something a bit screwed up. And that’s quite enough.

The trouble is, there are those among us who seek explanations for everything, which is why we end up with midi-chlorians or that Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge because he was worried he was gay (who knew?)

Or Prometheus.

None of this is necessary. Sometimes the best storytelling leaves a bit of a mystery. Something open-ended. Something for the reader to wonder about. It’s what gives a story its longevity, too. Because if you tie up all the loose ends, what is there left for the reader to play with?

 

The Curse of Comfortable Reading

I’m a big fan of the BBC Radio 2 Book Club. However, there’s one thing that happens almost every time it’s on that exasperates me as a writer (and, in fact, as a reader). But it’s also quite fascinating and revealing, and I’d like to talk about it a bit now.

For those of you who are too cool to listen to such a hopelessly mainstream station, I’ll briefly explain what happens. Every couple of weeks, Simon Mayo and his team on the drive time show pick a book to discuss with the author. You get the impression that a fair amount of thought goes into the choice of book, and that Mayo himself and his team (particularly Matt the sports guy) are fully engaged in this. Mayo’s questions are thoughtful and reflect the fact that he is an accomplished writer himself.

There is also a democratic element to the Radio 2 Book Club, in that listeners can apply to become reviewers themselves. Following the initial part of the author interview, Mayo plays a recording of the thoughts of three of these listener reviewers, and this is where it gets exasperating/fascinating/revealing (take your pick). Because the first thing that ALMOST EVERY SINGLE REVIEWER starts off by saying is:

I wouldn’t normally have picked up this book but…

following which they go on to say how much they LOVED reading it. There’s probably a drinking game to be constructed around this, although I’d probably end up getting hammered every other Tuesday Monday night. I could be wrong but this week I think all three fitted this template, and it wasn’t the first time either.

It’s such a shame. There is such a variety of books out there to be read and yet too often we stick to our own comfortable little silos. I know of people who only read crime. I know of people who only read romance. I know of people who NEVER read science fiction. I know of people (mostly retired men) who only read non-fiction. I know one chap who only reads biographies of Formula One drivers, which is about as niche as you can get.

We seem to base our cultural lives on the mantra “if you liked this, you’ll love this”, whereas life would be so much more interesting if we adopted a principle of “if you liked this, try something completely different next time”. (I wonder if the experience of being a Radio 2 book club reviewer has changed any of the participants’ approaches to reading, incidentally. Do get in touch if you’re one and it has.)

Maybe I’m overreacting. I’d hate to presume to prescribe what people should or shouldn’t be reading. Also, it’s not as if I’m entirely in the clear myself. If I look at the books I’ve read so far this year, the male authors still lead the female ones, even if the differential is marginally smaller than in previous years (28 male, 20 female plus 6 mixed anthologies). And I’m almost too embarrassed to state the number of books by persons of colour. Well, OK, it’s 2. I REALLY have to do something about that…

But wouldn’t it be wonderful to get to a point where everyone picked up a book because it sounded interesting or challenging or unusual, and not because it sounded like something they’d read before? Just imagine all those minds being blown.

Then again, wouldn’t it be wonderful to get to a point where everyone picked up a book…

 

The Joy of Wikis

Fans of this website will be delighted to know that I have added another Wiki to it. Sorry, you didn’t know it had Wikis? You’re kidding me.

OK, the first one was, of course, Wickhampedia, which I originally conceived as a resource to help explain some of the more obscure references in MRS DARCY VERSUS THE ALIENS (such as what happened to the Bradford and Bingley Building Society – yes, really). However, I soon realised that there was potential for a lot more mayhem, and I very quickly executed a mid-course correction mayhem-wards.

Then I thought it might be nice to put together a slightly more conventional Wiki giving the background to all of the stories in DOT DASH, in case anyone was interested in seeing how they came about. Thus was Dashipedia born, giving such insights as to how a tanka turned into a story and how a story that eventually got broadcast on the BBC did really badly on its first competition outing.

Inevitably, when LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF got published, I wondered if it might be a cool idea to do the same for a poetry collection. So with great pleasure I hereby present Lossipedia. Do have a poke around and see what you think. Includes a rare sighting of my terrible William Carlos Williams zombie pastiche.

Finally, on a semi-related note, here’s the latest review of LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF, courtesy of BookTuber Katie Lumsden:

Housekeeping News

When I started having stuff published, I resisted the idea of having my own Facebook page, because it seemed a bit vain. Which is odd, really, because I’m actually quite a vain person. However, when I was campaigning to get MRS DARCY VERSUS THE ALIENS out in the world, it became a necessity, so I set up a page for her, and that became the page for the book when it finally did get published.

When DOT DASH and TAKE IT COOL came out, I followed the same logic and set up individual pages for them. However, when it came to LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF, I decided not to create a new page because it was all getting a bit out of hand.

The trouble was, the whole point of having a Facebook page is to encourage more engagement, and I needed to face up to the fact that what I really needed was an Author Page. Fortunately, it turns out that you can actually merge Facebook pages. But it’s not entirely straightforward.

The first point is that you’ll keep all the likes and followers from both of the pages you choose to merge, but you’ll lose all the posts from the page you choose to merge in. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Secondly, you can only merge pages that have similar names. How similar? Well, I’ll come to that.

Thirdly, given Facebook’s Byzantine navigation system, the only way you’ll find out how to merge two pages is by Googling “How to merge two Facebook pages”. Alternatively, you may just want to bookmark this link.

So how did it go?

This is what I did.

  1. I renamed “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” to “Jonathan Pinnock, Author”.
  2. I renamed “Dot Dash” to “Jonathan Pinnock, Dot Dash”.
  3. I renamed “Take It Cool” to “Jonathan Pinnock, Take It Cool”.
  4. I then tried to merge “Jonathan Pinnock, Author” with “Jonathan Pinnock, Dot Dash”.
  5. It told me there was a request to merge already pending for “Jonathan Pinnock, Dot Dash”. It took me a while, but I found out eventually that what this misleading error message actually means is “you have to wait a week after changing a page’s name before you can do anything about merging it”.
  6. So I waited a week and tried again.
  7. This time, it told me that the page names weren’t similar enough. So I changed “Jonathan Pinnock, Dot Dash” to “Jonathan Pinnock, Author 1”, and “Jonathan Pinnock, Take It Cool” to “Jonathan Pinnock, Author 2”.
  8. I waited another week.
  9. Finally, this morning, I tried again and, joy of joys, it all went through.

So I now have a bright new shiny Facebook Author Page with all the likes and (slightly confused) followers merged together. Here it is.

Consider this a public information service for any other authors out there wondering whether it might be worth doing this. It’s certainly do-able, but it takes a little time and patience.

And to reward you for persevering this far, here’s me performing a massively puerile new poem for kids, entitled “The Humungstrous Fart”. I hope you like it.

Novel Nights

Now I know I should really be out and about promoting my poetry collection, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to stand up in public and read from The Next Big Thing But One at this month’s excellent Novel Nights event. I did make a slight faux pas with the first extract I submitted, as for some unfathomable reason (probably something to do with testing my own comfort zones), I sent in a section with a lot of Very Bad Words. Fortunately, I was given a second chance and this time my piece was accepted, and I duly put on my pink performing shoes and stepped out, alongside the excellent Clare Snook and Mark Lewis.

For those of you who are interested, here’s a recording of my bit:

The main feature was a chap called Dan Jeffries, who gave a fascinating talk about crowdfunding and marketing, containing much food for thought. This inspired me to make a bit more effort about how I present myself online, as I’ve got a bit lax since the bold days of blogging and promoting Mrs Darcy. The first step is to combine the various Facebook pages for my first three books into a single author page, although this is not quite as straightforward as it might first seem. If you want to merge two pages, they need to have very similar names, and if you change the name of them in order to facilitate this, they seem to get locked for a while before you can actually go ahead with the merge. We’ll see what happens. I have at least changed the Mrs Darcy page to a more generic one, with a nice new banner featuring all four books. If you haven’t already liked it, please do give it some love.

Meanwhile, the reviews for Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff have started to trickle in, and everything is looking very positive. If you are a poetry blogger and you’d like to take a look, do get in touch and I might be able to spare you a copy.

Some More Thoughts on Failure

Inevitably, once I’d hit the “Publish” button on my last post, it struck me that there were a whole load of things I’d meant to say but had forgotten. Or to put it another way, the post itself wasn’t actually ready for the world. So here are a few more thoughts on the subject of failure. I’ll probably forget something important in this post too.

Anyway, what I meant to add was that as well as “the world not being ready for your story” and “your story not being ready for the world”, there are a couple of other frequent reasons for failure. First of all, there may simply be too many other really good entrants to that particular competition. Yours may simply not be up to scratch, and however hard you polish it, it still won’t ever be good enough. (Very rarely, the opposite is occasionally true: Zadie Smith famously refused to pick a winner for the 2007 Willesden Herald Short Story competition because she felt that none of the stories in the preferred shortlist was worthy of the prize.) I’ve got plenty of stories like this lying around and I know that whatever I do to them, they’re never going to win a prize or get published anywhere nice, usually because the central idea has turned out to be dull or unoriginal or (frequently) both.

The last major reason for failure is that your story is one of those ones that people either love or hate and that so far you’ve managed to pick the haters. This is particularly tricky if you’ve entered it in a competition where there are two stages to the judging process and you’ve therefore got to get it past two different judging agendas.

I checked back over the stories in DOT DASH (I have all this logged for easy access – did you know that?) and one in particular stood out: “The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife”. The first version of this was entered in a closed competition on the much-lamented Slingink website, where it pretty much bombed, coming 31st= out of a field of 57. This is what the judge said:

Compelling and thrilling once it’s going. The opening feels a little stumbling.

So the question is: what did I change to improve that stumbling opening before the same story took second place in the 2008 City of Derby Competition? Let’s take a look:

Ah. OK. So that would be no substantive changes at all, right?

Now this story subsequently went on to be chosen for BBC Radio 4’s 2010 Opening Lines season. So presumably I made loads more changes to improve it for that, yes?

Hmmm. Looks like it mostly involved strengthening a few of the verbs:

In other words, the story that got broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was to all intents and purposes the exact same one that failed dismally in a closed competition. Now it’s entirely possible that the Slingink judge was right and that it did need some more work to sort out that opening. But it could also be simply down to a difference of opinion.

That said, I have a couple of stories where the difference of opinion has lasted almost a decade. But we’ll get there. Eventually.

The Importance of Failure

Considering its significance in the life of a writer, we really don’t talk enough about failure. This is a shame, because failure is a good thing. Things are sometimes meant to fail. They can fail for any number of reasons. For one thing, the world may not be ready for them. This is a tough one, and all you can do is shrug and say something along the lines of ‘But your kids are gonna love it!’ (there’s a Marty McFly quote for almost every occasion) and move on.

More frequently, they may not be ready for the world. You may have written something that had a decent idea at its heart, but ultimately failed in its execution. In my case, it’s usually (but not exclusively) the ending that needed more work. But you sent it out anyway, because you’d rushed to meet the deadline, so it would have been a waste of effort, right?

Occasionally, a rush job gets through and while this can be gratifying in the short term, in the longer term it can be something of an embarrassment. For example, my first ever competition winner, the story ‘Convalescence’, was a classic last minute effort. I vividly remember racing over to the University of Hertfordshire on the actual morning of the deadline in order to deliver my entry by hand before 9 o’clock. I had about 5 minutes to spare. I was dead chuffed to win third prize for that, although it was only when I was proofreading my entry for the anthology that I realised that my protagonist had changed his name from Mr Sanderson to Mr Anderson half way through. More importantly, it was only when I submitted it to an audio story magazine for possible publication a couple of years later that I got the feedback I needed to get the confused ending sorted out. So the version that appears in DOT DASH is significantly different from the one that appears in the University of Hertfordshire’s VISION anthology.

What would have happened if ‘Convalescence’ had failed at the UoH, as perhaps it should have done? At the time, it would probably have been a bad thing for me, because the success of that story was what gave me the green light to make a proper commitment to my writing. But what if I’d taken that failed story and fixed the issues with it and then sent it in to another competition? Would it have won a first prize somewhere?

Obviously, I’ll never know. It’s equally possible that it wouldn’t have won anything at all anywhere else. Such is the nature of competitions.

The reason why I’m thinking about failure today is that yesterday I failed to make the longlist for the Bath Short Story Award. I was slightly miffed about this at the time, but after some more thought I’m actually quite pleased, because it was the first time out for the story in question and, while the idea had been germinating for a loooong time (we’re talking several years here), I did run out of road shortly before the deadline. I had to drop one entire section of the story that I just didn’t have time to sort out, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a proper go at that. Also, in the time between sending it in and yesterday’s announcement (not that I’ve been going over it in my head for the last few months, oh no), I’ve come to realise that I missed at least one significant trick, and there are also things about the overall background to the story that I’ve explained badly or not at all.

So it’s possible that there is a more exciting future for that story. It’s also possible that I may have got it completely wrong and that the central idea is fundamentally flawed to the extent that no-one’s ever going to be interested in it. But what I can say is that the way it was when I sent it in to the BSSA, it didn’t deserve to make the cut. I should add that if it hadn’t have been for the BSSA deadline, it probably wouldn’t have got written at all. I need deadlines, even if the way my brain actually handles them is highly suspect.

Of course, it’s going to be trickier to rationalise what happens when the Bristol Prize longlist is announced next week, because the story I’ve sent there is one that has failed and not-quite failed on a number of occasions already and is now at the point where I think it’s about as good as it’s ever going to get. So next Wednesday could be a difficult day for me 🙂

In other news, I found out yesterday that Poetry Kit have made LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF their Book of the Month for July, so it’s not all bad by any means. And that takes me to another key point about failure. Failure is a lot easier to handle when you have more than one iron in the fire. Chances are that unless you’re amazingly unlucky or inept, something is going to come good.

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