Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff


Category: Rants

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…


Fish Off The Hook

Excellent news. The people at Fish have sorted out the problem with my entry. The problem – as far as I can make out – seems to have been a twofold one.

First of all, there definitely seems to be some kind of issue with the “buy one entry, get one half price” offer. I know of at least one other person who has had a similar problem (although, for reasons related to the second part of the problem, they got their entry fixed a lot quicker than mine). The good news is that they appear to be going through all the “unpaid” entries by hand and sorting them out. (I don’t envy them having to do that.) However, if you have taken advantage of this offer, it might be worth checking your author page to see what the status of the second one is.

The second part of the problem was to do with my having two author accounts and e-mailing them from the address that was tied to the wrong one. For some reason, they don’t seem to be able to look up entries by using the name of the account (which I was giving them), or indeed by using the number of the entry (which I was also giving them). They can only look them up by using the e-mail address, which of course was the only piece of information that I was (implicitly) giving them that was wrong. The result of which was that I appeared to be banging on about a completely unrelated entry that was (a) paid for, (b) for a different competition and (c) several years old. They almost certainly assumed I was some kind of crank.

Many thanks to the people at Fish and also to those who helped behind the scenes.

The only thing is, after all that, I’m really not sure if the entry’s any good. But I guess it’s the principle that counts.

The One That Got Away

UPDATE This issue has now been resolved satisfactorily. More information here.

Attention short story writers! Has anyone else had problems with their entries for the Fish competition this year? Or is it just me?

This is what happened to me.

I’m a pretty regular entrant for the Fish competitions. They’re pricey, but there’s potentially a fair bit of kudos to be had if you get into the winners’ enclosure. I haven’t, as it happens (and chances are I won’t in the future once this post has gone live) but I have been shortlisted for the poetry competition in 2014, the flash fiction one in 2008 and the full length short story one in 2009. Long shortlists, but close enough to make it think it might be worth carrying on entering.

On November 30th of last year, I uploaded two entries for the short story prize, noting that whereas the price for one entry was €20, the price for two was €30. I duly paid my €30 via PayPal. However, I didn’t receive any confirmation that my stories had been entered, so I went to look at my author page on their website, where it appeared that only one of the stories had actually been entered. The other one was flagged as “unpaid”.

So I wrote to Fish via their online form:

I just entered a couple of stories for the short story prize and paid €30 (order ID XXXXX). However, only the first one is showing up as being “paid”. Can you reassure me that both will be entered into the competition?

I also mentioned underneath my sign-off that my user account was JonPin. Remember this, because it will be important later.

On December 1st, I got this message back:

You have uploaded and paid for one Flash Fiction entry.

To upload more, simply repeat the entry process.

Let me know if I can help in any way.


This is what I wrote back:

I hope not! If you take a look at my account, you’ll see that I uploaded and paid for two short stories (entry ids SS15/YYYYY and SS15/ZZZZZ). I paid €30 for this (€20 for the first one and €10 for the second one). However, only SS 15/YYYYY is marked as having status “Marked”. SS 15/ZZZZZ is marked as having status “Unpaid”. I hope this doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been entered.

I then got a generic e-mail from the “Fish Publishing Team”:

We noticed you are experiencing difficulty uploading one or more entries to the Short Story competition.

Entry lines have been extended until December 3rd at mid-night GMT, to assist you with any technical difficulties you may have encountered.

Let us know if we can help in any way.

To which I responded thus:

No problem in uploading at all. The story is there and, crucially, paid for. The problem is, as I’ve already reported to you, it’s showing up as “Unpaid”. So extending the deadline isn’t going to do me any good, I’m afraid.

Their response on December 2nd was not entirely helpful:

Your entry is showing up as paid from this end.

So I replied with this:

Sorry to be pedantic, but do you mean that BOTH of my entries are showing up as paid? Because SS15/ZZZZZ is still showing up as unpaid.

They replied with this:

Yes, with the e-mail address: [redacted 1] there is one entry. Do you have another account set up with a different e-mail address?

which at least explained some of the confusion. It turned out that I had a zombie author account (jonpinnock) at Fish containing a single one page story entry from 2013 which was tied to the e-mail address [redacted 1]. My main author account was tied to a different e-mail address, [redacted 2].

Unfortunately, the people at Fish had assumed that because I was e-mailing from [redacted 1], I was referring to the zombie account, despite (a) the fact that I’d told them I was specifically referring to the user account JonPin, (b) the only story in the jonpinnock account was one from 2013 and (c) none of the short story identifiers I’d given them matched up with the zombie account.

I thought I could clear things up by sending them, on December 3rd, a couple of screenshots from JonPin:

Please find attached two screenshots (user JonPin). The first is from my payment screen. As you can see, I’ve paid for TWO entries, the first at €20, the second at the discounted price of €10.

[screenshot showing entry ID XXXXX with two stories, YYYYY at €20 and ZZZZZ at €10]

The second screenshot is from my entries screen, where it shows the second entry as “Unpaid”.

[screenshot showing YYYYY flagged as “marked” and ZZZZZ flagged as “unpaid”]

Please can you sort this out?

There was no reply to this, so on December 7th, I e-mailed them again:

I was just wondering if you’d got any closer to resolving this. It’s still showing exactly the same – both paid for, but only one marked as such. The account name is JonPin, and I think it’s tied to account [redacted 2].

There was still no reply from Fish, so on December 17th, I e-mailed them again:

This still doesn’t seem to have been resolved. I just logged in again as user JonPin and the situation is exactly as I reported before: two entries to the short story competition paid for, but only one of them marked as such. Can you please either confirm that both have indeed been entered (and marked as such) or refund the fee for the second entry, €10.

Which seemed fair enough.

However, there was still no response from Fish and to be honest I got caught up in Christmas and other stuff and didn’t chase it any further. But then on January 25th, a stray neuron fired at Fish HQ and the following e-mail popped into my inbox:

From this end, you have uploaded one entry and paid for it and there is no sign of  another entry.
What competition did you enter it to? Can you please forward a copy of your PayPal receipt?

Apologies for any inconvenience.

Gritting my teeth, I responded with a screenshot of my PayPal receipt:

I entered two stories (SS15/YYYYY and SS15/ZZZZZ) into the Short Story Competition. I’m attaching my PayPal receipt which clearly shows that I paid €30, i.e.€20 for the first one and then the discounted price €10 for the second.

I hope it isn’t too late to sort this out.

There was no response to this. So yesterday (January 26th) I thought I’d nudge them along once more in case they were still confused about what I was talking about:

I’m attaching a picture of part of my author page (JonPin). As you can see, I have one entry flagged as marked and one flagged as unpaid. Can you please either (1) reassure me that the “unpaid” one (which, as we all know, has actually been paid for) has been entered and marked or (2) refund me the €10 for my second entry.

What worries me is that this suggests there is a problem with your entry system and I’m sure there must be many others in the same situation.

So far I have had no response to this at all.

Anyone else taken advantage of the €30 two-story discount? If so, have both your stories been entered? Have you checked?

Vast Emptiness

So, Gravity, then. I’ve been wanting to write something about this ever since I saw it on Tuesday, but for various reasons haven’t got round to doing so. This isn’t a bad thing, because it’s given me a bit more time to think about what I wanted to say. Here goes. Oh, and there will be minor spoilerage, so if you haven’t seen it yet, look away now. Also, if you’re a friend of mine and you thought it was wonderful, you might also want to look away now. I’d hate this to come between us.

Continue reading

Funny Stuff

There was a really interesting piece in The Huffington Post yesterday on “what makes a good short story”, by Heidi Pitlor. Heidi is the series editor of the mighty annual Best American Short Stories anthology, so she can safely be taken to know a little of what she writes. There’s plenty of excellent advice in there, particularly this paragraph:

Here are some things I’m always glad to read: loathsome, despicable characters (who says we readers all crave likable characters?); bone-scraping emotional honesty; a strange, off-kilter voice; unreliable narrators; surprise; a solid command of language; a story written with urgency and profundity; great, weird titles (titles matter); the assigning of language to something I have never thought about but should have. Humor.

It’s that last word that leapt out at me – especially as it wasn’t the first time she’d used it in her piece. Here’s an earlier paragraph:

Here are some things I wish I saw more frequently: humor, genre-bending, humor, risk-taking, a more direct addressing of real world matters, humor.

This reminded me a little of the time when Tracy Chevalier was the judge for the Bridport Prize and reading her report, you could detect a bit of a cry for help, having been given a final list to choose from whose subject matter was almost exclusively pretty grim. I hasten to add that most of the stories were excellent (most especially Vanessa Gebbie’s “I Can Squash the King, Tommo” and Toby Litt’s “The Fish”, an extraordinary piece of weirdness that somehow snuck in undetected), but having read the anthology, I can sympathise with her comment here:

It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting, to find out what subjects people choose to writing about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: aging and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith.

and especially this:

If only writers could be a little, well, jollier about it! Sorely missing from the entries was humour, with the honourable exceptions of “Ghost Lights,” which made me laugh aloud, and “The Fish,” with its surreal subject matter and bravura style (there is only one full-stop, at the end of the story). Otherwise, reading the stories made me more and more depressed. While I’m not in a position to chastise – I myself am not known for many laughs in my books – I would like to make a plea to future writers: humour is good! Not only that, but a funny story is so much harder to write than a sad one. Let it be a challenge to us all. I will if you will.

Judging by Heidi Pitlor’s remarks, there still aren’t enough short story writers around who have accepted that challenge. I wonder if it’s because if you write humorous stuff, you don’t get taken as seriously. There haven’t been many out and out funny stories in the shortlists for the BBC NSSA award, for instance, although Julian Gough’s wonderful “iHole” from last year’s shortlist was a rare exception (and this wasn’t the first time he’d made the shortlist – he won in 2007 – so perhaps he has some kind of pass :)). Is it simply because, as Chevalier says, it’s more difficult to write a funny story – or is it because the primary stage readers are trained to weed out that kind of thing before they get near the judges?

Why does this matter to me? It matters personally because there I think humour is massively important as a storytelling tool, and most, if not all, of my stories have an element of humour in them. I can’t see that changing, frankly, because that’s the way I am. I’m incapable of staying serious for very long. So does that mean that, however much I improve as a writer, I’ll always be regarded as a bit of a lightweight? And should I care?

How to Avoid Being the Worst Among Sequels

[Thought I’d have a bit of rant every now and then to liven things up. I’d be interested to see what you think.]

We live in strange times. William Boyd’s Bond novel, “Solo”, is just about to be published, following in the footsteps of – amongst a surprising number of others – Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver. Sophie Hannah has recently been commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new Hercule Poirot novel. This isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. After all, “Virginia Andrews” has churned out considerably more novels since her death than prior to it. (BTW Did you realise there were quite that many? I didn’t. Whew.) But there seems to be more of it about now than there used to be.

Here’s what’s bothering me.

I have no problem with the idea of taking an existing character or set of characters and reusing them. It’s what literature has done ever since people started telling stories to while away the hours sitting around the campfire. But the whole point of creating stories is to add value to the material – to bring in something new. And I worry that any work generated to meet the demands of a dead author’s estate is necessarily going to be limited in terms of what the new writer can bring to the party.

On the contrary, I would argue that the only truly creative way to go when writing any sort of sequel, prequel or whatever is to mark out your own territory by heading off in a completely new direction.

The initial germ of an idea for “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” (ah, here we go) was actually a creative writing consequences game in which I started playing with the idea that, a couple of years post marriage, the Darcys hadn’t had any kids yet and that Wickham might not necessarily be quite such a bad guy. Then the alien concept came along, and that immediately opened up the possibility that Wickham was a hotshot deep cover alien hunter. In this new worldview, the elopement with Lydia was actually to protect her from alien kidnap and all the concomitant probing and stuff. The entire plot of “Pride and Prejudice” was henceforth up for reinterpretation.

I’d like to think that Jane would have approved. But I’m actually not that bothered. As I’ve said, my main concern was to use her characters as a starting point, not a straitjacket.

In fact, all the best Austen spinoffs are the least reverent and most outrageous ones. I normally try not mention “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (because of all that, you know, daring to turn up in print while I was still writing mine), but it’s surely got to be more interesting proposition than “Murder at Pemberley”. Best Austen film? Got to be “Clueless”. And so on.

I realise there are copyright reasons for all of this and that, at least outside the dark and weird worlds of unpublished fan-fiction, you can’t just grab anyone’s work and do whatever you like with it. But if you can’t do that, I do wonder a little what the point is, especially when there are big-name authors involved. I hope I’m wrong, and I wish the likes of Boyd and Hannah well (although I will admit to continuing to harbour ill will towards Eoin Colfer – I mean, how could he?)

All the same, I would still love to think that one day the Fleming estate will give the nod to someone like, I dunno, Jeanette Winterson and say to her, “Go on, do what you like. It’s all yours.”

Read This and Act Now

Apologies for the peremptory nature of the post title, but quick action is required here. It emerged today (although the press release announcing it is dated a week and a bit ago) that the BBC (who had the stupendous good taste to broadcast my story “The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife” last year) are reducing the number of short stories broadcast on Radio 4 from 3 per week down to 1. I cannot begin to fathom why they are doing this, but whatever the reasons, it’s not good for short stories.

Did I hear you say “We’re not gonna take it”? I thought I did. Good. So here’s what we’re going to do. This is the text of an e-mail I received this evening from Susie Maguire (aka @wrathofgod on Twitter). Please read it and act on it, as soon as ever possible:

The new Controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, will be a guest on FEEDBACK on BBC Radio 4 next week. How very timely.

Would you add your name to a letter/question to ask her?

Would you pass on this email to other writers who care about the health of the short story…?

The more of us, & the better known the writers who sign it, the more likely it is to have some effect.

If so, please find below a short, polite question, proposed by Ian of

Reminder: info on her decision to cut the short story’s presence on Radio 4 outlined here

If you’d like to add your signature, please email YES to

ian AT shortstoryweek DOT org DOT uk

& cc to me: info AT susiemaguire DOT co DOT uk

NB – It would be really helpful if you could reply within 24 hours so that the question can be lodged as soon as possible. This is by no means the *only* action interested parties can take, but it’s a start, and I hope you might add your weight to it with this (and further suggestions are welcomed)




Proposed question:

We were surprised and disappointed to learn of the decision to reduce the short story output on Radio 4 to once a week from next spring. Radio 4 has been a great champion of the short story for many years. It is one of very few places in the UK where both new and established writers can have their short stories broadcast to a large audience, and where radio listeners can enjoy readings of the short story form. This move comes at a time when interest in the short story is growing, but paid opportunities for short story writers are still scarce. Could Gwyneth Williams please explain:

1) what has led her to make this decision?

2) whether the short stories on Radio 4 extra will be new commissions or repeats of existing recordings?

3) how this decision fits with the BBC’s sponsorship of the National Short Story Award (and indeed if this will continue?)

I know I can rely on you. Thank you. You’re all wonderful. Except possibly you. But I’ll even like you if you act on this one.

National Short Story Week Guest Editorship

Last week I was asked if I fancied being this month’s guest editor for the National Short Story Week web site and I must have hesitated for – ooh – at least a couple of seconds before saying yes. Anyway, the resulting piece is now up on the site – do go and have a look. It turns into a bit of a rant in the end, albeit a very polite one.

In other news, I’m on Google+ if you’re into that kind of thing. To be honest, I’m not madly excited about it at the moment. The “circles” concept strikes me as exactly the thing that a geek would come up with as being really cool, but I’m not sure I really see people making great use of it. Sure, in theory it enables you to post different stuff for different groups of people to see, but I have two problems with this.

Firstly, if a tech-savvy US senator can accidentally post a picture of his todger to his Twitter stream instead of a DM, then sure as hell other people are going to screw up which Google+ circle they’re posting their “look at me I’m so wasted LOL” pictures to. At least on FB and Twitter you know that everyone’s watching.

Secondly, I actually quite like the blurring that occurs in these places. You find out that people you’ve had one kind of interaction with have a whole other side to them and sometimes that’s very interesting. Sometimes it’s weird, too, but there you go. Ho hum. I’m probably just resisting change as usual. We’ll see.

Word to the Wise

Now listen ‘ere, you lot, he says with a conspiratorial tap of the nose. On checking my site stats (which I do from time to time – oh all right, every day), I’ve noticed that an awful lot of new people have found this site either by a direct link from this post on Teresa Stenson’s blog or by Googling variations on a theme of “Bridport Shortlist 2010” (see the last post but one for the reason behind this).

Now this is all very nice – and a big “Hi!” to everyone, by the way (do have a look around whilst you’re here) – but I find the scale of it a bit surprising and ever so slightly worrying. I know that the Bridport is – for obvious reasons – pretty much THE writing competition (at least for those of us without an established track record), so it’s inevitable that an awful lot of writers start getting very twitchy at this time of year (I know, I’ve done it myself). But there are other ones out there that are just as deserving of your support, ones in which we all stand a much better chance of being in the money.

So whilst any short story writer or poet worth their salt should most definitely be sending their best work Dorsetwards every year, those of us who are looking to build up a track record should also be going in for as many of the second- and third-tier competitions as we can manage as well. If you’re wondering how on earth you can get enough material together to do this, I strongly recommend checking out competitions like the Slingink Scribbling Slam (running at this very moment) or the Whittaker Prize (which usually starts in March). There’s no better way of forcing yourself to come up with stuff, trust me. And if you need to know what competitions there are accepting entries at any time, the lovely Sally Quilford has done all the work for you: here’s her calendar.

Apologies if this came over as (a) a bit of a rant or (b) teaching Grandma to suck eggs. But when a perfectly respectable, if slightly low-key competition such as this year’s Slingink Prize fails to get enough entries to cover its costs, you have to wonder if we writers are sometimes being a bit too picky. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about this.