Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff


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.

Authors for Grenfell Tower

OK, very quick post here, because time is short.

BUT you may already be aware that there is a charity auction under way for the benefit of the Grenfell Tower victims (in particular, you may have heard of what’s going on in the bidding for Philip Pullman’s lot – lovely).

There’s loads of amazing stuff that you can bid for, and I hardly need emphasise what a good cause it’s all in aid of.

I was a bit late off the mark in putting up something I could do, basically because I was a bit overawed at all the famous authors there and I couldn’t think of anything I could offer that people might want to bid for. And then I thought of something.

So here we go. If you bid for my lot, I’m offering to build a personal website for you. This page tells you a bit about the kind of thing I can do and why, along with some links to some sites I’ve already done. I don’t think they look too shabby. The site would be built using WordPress, using off-the-shelf themes and plug-ins, but if you need anything slightly unusual, I’ll be happy to throw in a custom plug-in or two as well (there’s one in use on this site – see if you can spot where it is).

And I’ll also chuck in a bundle of signed copies of my books (excluding PROFESSIONAL DCOM APPLICATION DEVELOPMENT, because (a) I haven’t got any spare copies left and (b) you really wouldn’t want it).


Get bidding then! Because it closes tonight at 8PM BST!

Publication Day

Well, then. LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF hits the shelves today, which means I am now the author of a poetry collection. I still find this an extraordinary thing to be able to say, so forgive me for sounding a bit excited.

Oh, and I don’t think I’ve blogged yet about the extraordinary cover.

In case you’re wondering how it came about, this is what happened. A few weeks back, Adam at Silhouette Press emailed me to ask if I had any ideas about a design. My response was that I was really hopeless at this kind of thing, so hopeless in fact that my PRIMARY REASON for never wanting to self-publish was to avoid responsibility for a cover design.

But I threw out a couple of vague ideas as follows:

Just wondering if some kind of combination of Cupid and Death might fit the theme of Love and Loss, and I was wondering if you could either have Cupid perched daintily on top of a skull, or Death leaning over Cupid’s shoulder trying to spoil his aim.

Either of which would have been equally terrible. But sometimes when you chuck out the germ of an idea,  someone way more talented picks it up and runs with it, and after a small amount of back and forth, we ended up with this:

which is absolutely perfect. I think the barcode on the rose is a touch of genius.

So there we are. The book is out there. The launch is next Tuesday and you’re all welcome to come along (details here). As soon as I have more information on how/where to buy it, I’ll put them on the website, somewhere under this page.

Woah. Look at me. A bloody poet.

Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff

Well, here’s some news that I’ve been sitting on for some time – since last June in fact. I’m very pleased to announce that, contrary to what you may have been thinking, I have not one but two new books in the pipeline. Regular readers of this blog (yeah, maybe the use of the plural there was a little ambitious) will be aware that my short story collection, DIP FLASH, will be appearing next year, courtesy of Cultured Llama.

However, I can now reveal that my first poetry collection, LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF, is actually going to be published first. In about a month, in fact. The publisher for this slim volume is the excellent Silhouette Press, and I will be reading some of the poems in it at a launch event at Housman’s bookshop in London on June 6th along with fellow SP poets Jamie Thrasivoulou and Andrea Mbarushimana. Frankly, this will probably be the poetry event of the year, so you really won’t want to miss this.

I have to say that when I was a kid, “one day I will have a book of poetry published” was not on my list of predictions for the future. But I’m dead chuffed that it’s going to happen.

Now. What next?

GAR at Spelk

A new flash of mine went up at the excellent Spelk yesterday. Usually these things come from prompts, but this one emerged out of the blue. Can’t quite remember exactly how it emerged, mind. I think it was probably the mysterious cage that set it going and it acquired a life of its own after that. You are free to add your own interpretations, explanations and back stories as you see fit.

Funny Bone – Flashing for Comic Relief

Ooh, this is exciting. Some time ago I was asked to contribute a humorous flash to an anthology for Comic Relief. So I offered them my story ‘Embarrassing Dad’. Fortunately, they seemed to like this, so there I am in the table of contents, along with the likes of Bernard MacLaverty, Roddy Doyle and Lydia Davis. I’ll repeat that. I am in the same table of contents as a Man Booker Shortlistee, a Man Booker Prizewinner and a Man Booker International Prizewinner. It’s all down from here.

Anyway, enough about my involvement. The MOST IMPORTANT THING is that you all go and buy it because it’s for Charidee and, honestly, with that bunch of writers (did I mention David Gaffney, Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman as well?) it’s bound to be the most awesome book published this year. Or possibly this millennium. Century, probably. Decade, certainly.

Here’s where you need to go. Do it now. Please.

Cultured Llama to Publish DIP FLASH

Well, it’s been a while since I last had a book published. Almost three years in fact. So I have to say I’m extremely pleased, not to say relieved, to announce that I have a new short story collection coming out in 2018, courtesy of the excellent Cultured Llama Publishing.

This book is a sort of sequel (or at least follow-up) to 2012’s DOT DASH, and is going to be called DIP FLASH. The running order is still a little fluid, although I can say that there will be fewer of the ultra short pieces, mainly because (1) I haven’t written many of them recently and (2) I’m beginning to think that kind of thing has run its course. As things stand at the moment, most of the stories have been published somewhere or other already, but it will be nice to have them all gathered together in one place. Stories do get lonely, you know.

And in case you were wondering where the title came from, here’s a clue.

What I Read in 2016

Round about this time of year I usually post a list of all the books I read in the previous year, along with some fairly bland comments on what I liked and (if I’m feeling particularly brave) what I didn’t like. So here we go.

I only read 60 books this year, down from 70 last year, which was in turn a steep drop from the dizzy heights of 95 in 2014. I’m not entirely sure what to blame for this – possibly the stint I did as a first stage judge for the Bath Short Story Award, or possibly my involvement in the quixotic poetry venture Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis (now deceased, or at least in indefinite hibernation). Either way, I’m intending to read more in 2017, and I’ve joined Vanessa Gebbie’s Read 100 Books in 2017 Facebook Group in order to force myself to get a move on.

One interesting revelation I did have this year was that reading bad books is just as useful for a writer as reading good ones. Because reading a bad book forces you to think about why it’s so bad. What would you do to fix it? Are you making the same mistakes in your own work?

Here are those 60 books. Some of them were bought new, some of them were sent to me by publishers, one of them was borrowed, some of them had already been bought by members of my family and quite a few were random acquisitions from charity shops (which I always try to follow up by making a proper purchase – if I like the author, of course). Embarrassingly, despite the fact that I bought several books of poetry, I only got round to reading one of them. Must do better than that this year. I’ve also realised that there are only four books in the list by non-white authors, which is something else I need to work at.

Aaronovitch, Ben Rivers of London
Ali, Monica Alentejo Blue
Barbery, Muriel The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Barley, Nigel Island of Demons
Bath Short Story Award Anthology, 2015
Bath Short Story Award Anthology, 2016
Beadle, Jeremy J. Will Pop Eat Itself?
Blandford, Richard Flying Saucer Rock and Roll
Bowman, WE The Ascent of Rum Doodle
Brayfield, Celia Sunset
Bridport Prize Anthology, 2015
Bryson, Bill The Road to Little Dribbling
Cartwright, Netta The Many Lives of Zillah Smith
Chabon, Michael Wonder Boys
Coe, Jonathan The Closed Circle
Cope, Julian Japrocksampler
Cox, Tom The Lost Tribes of Pop
Davis, Lindsey The Silver Pigs
Davis, Lindsey Shadows in Bronze
deWitt, Patrick Ablutions
deWitt, Patrick Undermajordomo Minor
Ellis, Brett Easton American Psycho
Frayn, Michael Towards the End of the Morning
Freud, Esther Hideous Kinky
Fuller, Claire Our Endless Numbered Days
Gayle, Mike My Legendary Girlfriend
Gordy, Berry To Be Loved: An Autobiography
Hadley, Tessa The Past
Haruf, Kent Plainsong
Haruf, Kent Eventide
Hawes, James A White Merc With Fins
Hawes, James Rancid Aluminium
Hensher, Philip King of the Badgers
Hershman, Tania Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open
Johncock, Ben The Last Pilot
Knausgaard, Karl Ove A Death in the Family
Lambert, Charles The Children’s Home
Lewycka, Marina We Are All Made of Glue
Logan, Kirsty A Portable Shelter
Logan, Kirsty The Gracekeepers
Mars-Jones, Adam Lantern Lecture
Mayhew, Becky Lost Souls
McEwan, Ian On Chesil Beach
Munro, Alice The Love of a Good Woman
Perry, Grayson Playing to the Gallery
Perry, Sarah After Me Comes the Flood
Porter, Max Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Powell, Gareth Macaque Attack
Pryce, Malcolm The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth
Rao, Mahesh One Point Two Billion
Ronson, Jon So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Shukman, Henry Travels With My Trombone
Stickley, Joel and Wright, Luke Who Writes This Crap?
Stickley, Joel 100 Ways to Write Badly Well
Stokes, Ashley (Ed) The End
Townsend, Sue Number Ten
Vigen, Tyler Spurious Correlations
Ware, Chris Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth
Welsh, Irvine Trainspotting
Williams, John Stoner

This year’s big discoveries (for me, obviously) were Alice Munro and Kent Haruf – both very low-key and unfussy writers who seem to be able to bring out some real truths about their flawed but realistic characters. Will be reading more of them in 2017. I also thoroughly enjoyed James Hawes’s first novel “A White Merc with Fins”, but the follow-up, “Rancid Aluminium” turned out to be a bit of a mess. (The film of it is supposed to be one of the worst British films of all time, incidentally, and I quite fancy watching it some time.)

Biggest disappointment was probably Stoner, which everyone was raving about a few years back. No idea what the fuss was about, although the fact that the protagonist is a creative writing lecturer may have had something to do with it, I guess.

Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” was a non-fiction highlight, and I also found Berry Gordy’s autobiography fascinating. My cousin-in-law Netta Cartwright’s “The Many Lives of Zillah Smith” was a fascinating insight into a totally different (and often-maligned) way of life.

Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” was probably the best debut I read, and I’m looking forward to her next. I also thoroughly enjoyed Mahesh Rao’s “One Point Two Billion” (not technically a fiction debut, I guess, but it was his first collection of short stories).

I continued with Malcolm Pryce’s excellent Aberystwyth series, and I also got going on Ben Aaronovitch and Lindsey Davis (both form favourites of other members of the Pinnock household) – I’ll definitely be working my way through more of those in 2017. And I also got stuck into Karl Ove Knausgaard (the second one in the “My Struggle” series, “A Man in Love”, was the first book I finished this year). The premise for “My Struggle” isn’t enticing – basically a disagreeable Norwegian bloke describing his life in microscopic detail – but it’s oddly compelling and I can see why he’s such a cult figure.

The book I probably enjoyed the most this year was Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor – a weird fable with Freudian undertones that really should have got more attention. And my favourite short story of the year was Anne O’Brien’s winning story from the Bath Short Story Award, “Feather Your Nest”. I actually picked this one out myself during the first stage reading process, so it was good to see it go all the way to the top.

Drop me a line below if you see anything in the list you’d like to talk about, or if you’d like to suggest something I really ought to be reading this year.

The Incredible Zapriskie Ponders His Retirement Plan

I should have posted about this yesterday, but I didn’t really feel like writing anything because of that thing that happened in the US. I haven’t got anything to add to the millions of words already written on the subject, except to point you in the direction of this post from eight years ago, which is really quite a sad thing to read now.

Ah well, onwards and possibly upwards. My poem “The Incredible Zabriskie Ponders His Retirement Plan” was published at Ink, Sweat and Tears yesterday. I’m quite pleased with how this one worked out, and I hope you like it too.

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