Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff


Category: Writing (page 1 of 3)

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?


Submitting Things

This post was inspired by a comment under yesterday’s post the post from two days ago about an acceptance from the venerable Every Day Fiction, which asked three important questions:

  1. How does one submit things?
  2. Where does one find out where to submit things?
  3. Can anyone submit things or does one have to be known already?

Rather than give a cursory answer in the comments, I thought it might be helpful to write up my thoughts on this in a separate post (in the vain hope that it might go at least semi-viral and draw some much-needed traffic to this place).

Before kicking off with the answers, I’d like to throw in one more question:

  1. Why might one wish to submit something?

And then, just to be perverse, I’m going to answer them in reverse order.

Why might one wish to submit something?

Why indeed? If you think the answer is “to make money”, let me introduce you to the real world. Yes, there are a tiny handful of people who make decent money out of, say, getting published in the New Yorker, winning the Sunday Times/EFG Short Story Competition and so on, but if you somehow imagine that writing short stories and poems is going to provide you with a regular income stream, you are almost certainly on the wrong planet.

Alternatively, you may imagine that by getting stuff published you are somehow building up some kind of reputation which will stand you in good stead when it comes to trying to get your first full-length work published. I’m really not sure about this. I certainly do recall one occasion when I bumped into someone in real-life who I’d always admired for getting stuff published in cool zines, who proceeded to greet me with “Are you Jonathan Pinnock? Gosh, you’re all over the place!” However, I’m also pretty sure that most agents will be unimpressed that your compelling cannibalism story “Angst with Alice: Turkey Street, Friday” was published in Issue 2 of The Goatfelch Review, and the unfortunate reality is that these are the people you’re really wanting to impress if you want to find a six-figure deal for that tenderly brutal coming-of-age novel of yours. The sad truth is that the only thing they’ll really be interested in is the manuscript of that novel, not your amazing track record.

I’m not being entirely fair here. I’m pretty certain that having my name pop up from time to time as a short story writer helped with Salt getting 100% behind Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens. And it obviously helped with Dot Dash that all but one (I think) of the 58 stories in it had already been published in various places (and had therefore been passed as fit for publication by one other independent editor). That said, I’m pretty certain that one of the other Scott Prize-winning collections that year only had one previously published story in it, so even that isn’t a hard and fast rule.

Incidentally, this did all get slightly out of hand when it came to the back of the actual book, resulting in two and a half pages of notes:




In the end, however, I submitted all of this stuff for publication for two main reasons. Firstly, I’d written it and I wanted other people to read it. Secondly, as a deeply insecure person, I wanted validation, and an acceptance from a complete stranger gave me that. I think those are both about as good as you’re going to get.

Can anyone submit things or does one have to be known already?

There are one or two competitions that require entrants to have some kind of publishing track record (the BBC National Short Story Award and the Sunday Times / EFG spring to mind) but generally speaking, competitions, magazines and anthologies are open to anyone. Indeed, some places take great delight in discovering new talent and may even follow your subsequent career with interest. So don’t hold back because you think you’re not worthy. Reach for the stars. And then when you don’t quite get there, try the Moon. And if that doesn’t work, try Basingstoke. The thing is, no-one ever needs to know about failed submissions. Just learn to deal with rejection (and, boy, does submitting stuff teach you that), suck it up and keep trying.

Where does one find out where to submit things?

Ah, now for the important question. There are a number of online resources that will help you find places that are looking for submissions.

Duotrope is a vast database of magazines, both print and online, with stats on acceptance rates, response times and so on. It used to be free but is now only available on subscription, so whether or not you spend your hard-earned £££ depends on how much you’re likely to be submitting. I would imagine that since going subscription-only, the stats are possibly less reliable, because there will be fewer datapoints. Or maybe they will be of better quality, because they’re all from paid-up subscribers? Dunno.

ShortStops, run by the excellent Tania Hershman, is a UK & Ireland – centred site that has comprehensive information on who’s taking short stories at the moment. She also sends out a regular newsletter that lists new opportunities.

The writer Paul McVeigh also maintains a very useful list of current short story opportunities on his blog, here.

Finally, the Thresholds forum, run by the University of Chichester, has an excellent list of competition and submission deadlines here.

Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to find anything equivalent to these resources for poetry, which may say something about poets as opposed to short story writers. If anyone reading this does know of anything, drop a note in the comments and I’ll update this post accordingly.

HOWEVER, I’ve actually found that the best way to find new markets for short stories and poetry is to STALK people. Writers love to brag about competitions they’ve won or been shortlisted for, and places that have published their stuff, and if you follow them on Twitter or hang out with them on Facebook (or writers’ forums), you’ll soon get to know what’s out there. Take a look at their websites, too. You may find stuff like this. Or this. Or this. (Yeah, I know. Sorry. I said I was insecure.)

Also, if you look at the magazines you know about, you’ll often find some other useful clues in the author bios. For instance, if you’ve chanced upon a story you like by Vince McFurby in the Fall 2015 edition of Clostridium Difficile, you may learn that Vince has also had work published in Splatter, BOLLOCK and What’s on in Peoria? (It will turn out that, sadly, BOLLOCK is on hiatus at the moment, but the other two may be worth a look.)

[UPDATE: Vanessa Gebbie has reminded me of this massively comprehensive (and slightly exhausting) list of magazines on the Poetry Library website. They also have an excellent list of competitions, ordered by closing date. I take back what I said about poets…]

How does one submit things?

There are only three rules:

  1. Follow the guidelines
  2. Follow the guidelines
  3. Follow the guidelines

So that’s it, really. Drop me a note in the comments if there’s anything I’ve left out or got hopelessly wrong. In the meantime, good luck.

Work Still In Progress

I had a plan. I was going to finish this novel by the end of 2015. Then I was going to give it a quick whizz through and send it out to a couple of trusted beta readers so I could have it ready to chuck out into the world some time in the first quarter of this year.

Then December came along with all that December brings with it and I ended up not writing a word between the end of November and the beginning of January. And the problem was that I’d left my main character on the cusp of the BIG REVEAL which would explain pretty much everything that had happened in the rest of the book.

This was a problem because during December, when I wasn’t able to find the time to sit down and write, I was constantly going over the big reveal in my head and planning how it was going to unfold. Over and over again. The result of this was that by the time I sat down to write it, it already felt as if the big reveal had been going on for a month and I was frankly bored of the whole thing. I ended up with a horrible, clunky mess.

I guess it all comes of not plotting. I somehow imagined with this book that at some point I’d sit down and work out what was going to happen and why, but somehow I never actually did. I raised this with my tutor at Bath Spa and, to my considerable surprise, she told me that if I felt comfortable with not plotting, I didn’t actually need to. So I didn’t. And I was very pleased to find out recently that Ian Rankin feels exactly the same way (and, it turns out, for much the same reasons).

The downside of not plotting is that you tend to end up with a massive tangle of stuff to explain at the end. This is really good if your aim is to confuse the reader, which I guess is the case in the kind of mystery novel I’m working on. However, the time has to come when you do have to sort it out, but – and here’s the tricky bit – without looking as if you’re sorting it out. I suppose it’s analogous to the problem with exposition at the start of a novel. It’s probably necessary for you to explain, for example, that your characters have three arms, are the size of ants and live on a square planet called Zöbsqurtz, but do you let that emerge during the course of a (possibly rather stilted) piece of dialogue or do you just come out and just say it? Or do you incorporate some kind of device like Douglas Adam’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide?

Anyway, I ended up disposing of the large clunky explanatory mess (and one entire character, who now no longer needs to make an appearance at all) and I’ve now got a slightly tighter, slightly less clunky explanatory mess. The really good thing is that I’m happy enough with it to put it to one side and continue on to the spectacular final scene, which I’m enjoying a LOT more.

85000 words down, maybe 5000 to go. Let’s say we’ll do this by the end of January, right?

You’re on.

Spelk, The Nottingham Review and Other Stuff

A casual viewer of this blog over the last few months would scarcely guess that it’s been running pretty much continuously for seven and a bit years. Time was when I’d be constantly bombarding you with reports about things I’d had accepted or published, to say nothing of the occasional interview or even a review or two. I recently got invited to a couple of events for book bloggers at the Groucho Club, and I felt too embarrassed to go because it’s been so long since I last reviewed anything here.

Still, even though the blog is a bit thin on the ground, I have been writing stuff. TTAAAP is now over 77000 words long and is nearing the final showdown. I’d love to share some nuggets of information about the process I’m going through with it, but it feels a bit presumptuous to do so. I still feel like a complete beginner with this. Perhaps I always will. One thing I can say is that I had a massive wobble last week when I discovered a plot hole the size of a small crater and it seemed like I was going to have to unpick a considerable part of the book in order to fix it. Fortunately, I managed to find an acceptable way of filling it, and I think I can now see my way to the finish. Just one detail to sort out, and we’re done. Then one last edit, and it’s over to the beta readers.

In the meantime, I’ve had a couple of acceptances for short stories. My cheeky little ultra-short, “Graffiti”, has been taken by Spelk, and my slightly longer story, “Phosphorescence”, has been taken by The Nottingham Review. “Phosphorescence” was actually shortlisted in the 2012 Bridport Prize under the name “The Joy Inside”, but it’s been struggling to find a nice home ever since. I’m quite fond of it, even if I still don’t quite understand it. You’ll see what I mean when it gets published.

Where’s the Careers Advisor?

I got into a minor spat on Facebook recently, after someone posted a link to the BBC Opening Lines submission details, remarking that it was a ‘career-changing’ opportunity. I commented that yes, it was an excellent thing to go in for, but not necessarily career-changing, adding a link to my recent post on that very subject by way of evidence. This led to a slightly heated discussion as the original poster clearly felt that getting a reading on BBC Radio 4 (albeit via a different route) had changed their career.

So I began to wonder about the nature of career changing moments. Actually, I also began to wonder about writing careers, full stop. When do you start to call yourself a writer? Even after four books, if anyone asks me what I do, I still say that I’m a software developer, and, oh, I do a bit of writing as well. Because after all, software is what pays the bills, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

I do know the exact moment at which I started taking myself seriously as a writer. It was when I got the e-mail to tell me I was on the shortlist for the University of Hertfordshire Creative Writing Award, back in 2007. I eventually won third prize, but that was just the icing on the cake; I’d already made it to base camp. Even then, though, I remember my father saying to me ‘Well, what does that mean?’ – a question only an accountant could ask. The irony is that the one thing that might have convinced him that I wasn’t totally wasting my time was getting picked for the BBC, and that happened in 2010, four months after he died. He might have seen it as career changing, even if I didn’t. To me, it was  just another – albeit very prestigious – credit to add to the list.

So at what point can you say you have a writing career? When can you say you have a successful writing career? As I was considering this, up popped a remarkable series of blog posts from Harry Bingham, a writer who seems to have had the most extraordinary switchback of a career, and is – unusually – prepared to spill all the beans. And quite by coincidence, this considerably more downbeat blog post from another Facebook friend, Sally Zigmond, appeared today. Both of these gave me pause.

I know a lot of writers both online and in real-life. I’ve also known quite a few of them long enough to see them make it big, make it small, fail to make it at all, make it big and then have to retrench and sometimes walk away altogether. The only consistent thing that seems to emerge from this is that writing careers demand a Sisyphean level of perseverance. Relying on a single career-changing moment is a recipe for disaster. The only consolation is that a significant level of obsession comes with the territory, so we are remarkably well-suited to Sisyphean tasks. We keep buggering on, and eventually with a bit of luck something good may happen.

Phase Two

I usually think of Phase One of my writing career to have begun around about September 2004. OK, I’d had software books published before then, and I’d also dabbled a little bit in creative writing, but September 2004 was when I decided to have one last bash at carving out a proper writing career for myself. I started off gently, by re-joining the local writers’ circle and becoming a regular entrant in their competitions. Then I started to reach out further, joining various internet forums and submitting stuff left, right and centre, until slowly I began – in a small way – to make a bit of a name for myself.

BRAG ALERT WARNING: There’s a bit coming up that sounds like I’m bragging. But it’s contextually necessary. Trust me.

If I were to go back a decade in time and tell my ten-years-younger self what had actually transpired in those years between 2004 and 2014, I would have been pretty amazed to hear that I’d actually managed to get three VERY different books accepted by respectable publishers, had one of them (briefly) in WHSmiths’ charts, had the other two reviewed in the national press, had a story read on BBC Radio 4, had the same story read by a bunch of naked women in New York (actually, that’s probably one to save for my 12-year-old self), won several prizes for short stories and poetry, had several poems published (where did THAT come from?), appeared in 40 anthologies, read my work in public on many occasions, had random strangers get in touch to say how much they like my work and so on and so on and so on.


And yet. The thing is, I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’ve never had any formal training (beyond what I learnt along with everyone else at that writers’ circle and those forums – and don’t get me wrong, I learnt a hell of a lot from them). I’ve never had a mentor. I don’t have an agent. My writing career, such as it is, is a bunch of random events with no underlying logic to it. (Vanessa Gebbie’s interpretation of this as me not wanting to be pigeonholed is far more generous than it deserves.) To be honest, right now, I haven’t the faintest clue as to what I should be writing about. I have a few ideas, sure (I’m very rarely short of them), but they’re currently showing an alarming tendency to self-destruct a few thousand words in. Whether this is because I don’t have the right skills or if it’s simply because I’ve lost confidence in my writing doesn’t really matter. The plain fact is that there’s only one way I’m ever going to find a route upwards and out of this.

I need to go back to school.

So tomorrow I’m off to register for the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. I’m going to be taught how to write by People I Have Heard Of. It could of course all go horribly wrong. I may find it impossible to fit it all in with the day job. I may not even like being taught stuff at my age (it’s been a while, after all, although I was delighted to find out recently that I won’t be the only extra-mature student there). But it may just be the start of something wonderful.

This is the campus, by the way. They have peacocks there and all.

Corsham CourtPhase Two, here we come. Wish me luck.


Normal Service Will Resume

Oh dear. Another blog gap. Let me try to explain…

I think I may have learnt something important over the last week or so. For various reasons, not all of which I want to reveal quite yet, I’m in a bit of an odd place with my writing. The thing is, despite having had two books published (and several more, if you include the software ones), I’m no closer to working out what kind of a writer I am. Now it’s true that this matters less and less these days – you’ve only got to look at the CVs of the likes of Naomi Alderman and Steven Hall on the Granta Best Young Novelist list to see that – but it would still be nice to have a bit of a clue as to what I’m doing instead of stumbling around in the dark.

So lately I’ve been looking for Signs, and as luck would have it last week there were two opportunities for Signs to appear. Unfortunately, neither Sign bothered to show up. The first one was the announcement of the shortlist for the Venture Award for poetry pamphlets. Now, I didn’t hold out much hope for this one, but a small amount of hope was nonetheless present (because otherwise, why had they put me on the longlist?). However, it wasn’t so much the fact that I failed to make the cut that bothered me, it’s the judge’s remark that many of the collections that fell short had too many weak poems padding them out. My problem is that I haven’t a bloody clue which ones are the weak ones and which are the strong ones. But then again, maybe this means that I’m not a proper poet yet. Either way, I’m no nearer finding out if I’m ever going to be one.

The other Sign that failed to make its scheduled appearance was the shortlist for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Now again, it was an unlikely proposition, given the unprecedented strength of the field this year, but the hope was always there, and as John Cleese’s character says in Clockwise, it’s not the despair – I can cope with that – it’s the hope I can’t stand.

The important thing I have learnt from this is that it’s pointless as a writer to wait for external agencies over which one has no control whatsoever to provide a direction. To be strictly accurate, it’s not actually something I’ve learnt this last week – it’s something I’ve remembered again. After all, I’ve never had a mentor and I’ve always made up my career as I’ve gone along. Back in late 2010, against advice from some people, I started blogging Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens as a direct reaction to my frustration at not getting a short story collection accepted. Two years later, they’d both been published and it didn’t matter that they were two totally different books. Maybe I just need to find another project that I can love and get stuck into it, without worrying about what kind of a thing it is.

The good news is that the week ended with a couple of nice acceptances. The first of these was from Josephine Corcoran’s splendid And Other Poems blog, which specialises in re-publishing poems that haven’t previously appeared online, for “Pants Outside Trousers, Big Letter H On T Shirt, Here To Save The World.” The second was from the Ilanot Review for my short story “Oddly Enough, It Wasn’t About Larry Walters At All.” Coincidentally, out of everything I’ve ever written, I think those may be two of my favourite titles.

Happy Anniversary, Niteblade!

Writers are – let’s make no bones about this – an odd bunch. No surprises there – we all know that. Moreover, what is particularly fascinating about writers as a group is the sheer diversity of their oddness.

However, there is one particular subgroup that I can’t get my head around, and it’s the writers who read out their work to a group and then put it away in a drawer for ever. The ones who, when you say to them “Hey, that was really good – why don’t you try to get it published somewhere?” say, “Oh, I’ve no idea where I could send it to” or “There’s nowhere to get anything published these days, is there?”

I have met a surprising number of these people.

The fact is that – thanks to places like Niteblade – there has never been a better time to get your work out there. Yes, I know you can self-publish, either for free on your own blog or on Kindle if you’re feeling more ambitious, but unless your amazingly talented AND amazingly lucky, you’re not going to build up much of a reputation that way.

Small magazines like Niteblade play an absolutely crucial role in bridging the gap between complete anonymity and getting your work in front of the general public. First of all, if you manage to get something published by them, you are getting anonymous validation by a complete stranger – someone who has absolutely no interest in you as a person and is prepared to assess your writing on its merits, and – crucially – someone who has seen an AWFUL lot of writing (and that last adjective is moveable, incidentally). Secondly, if you don’t happen to make it through to being published, you’ll get your first experience of dealing with rejection, and in some ways that’s the most important lesson to learn if you’re ever going to get anywhere.

Almost a year ago I wrote a guest post on the blog of Niteblade’s editor, the lovely Rhonda Parrish, as part of my tour to launch my first book “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens”, and it amplifies a lot of what I’ve said above. One of the things I said then was that a lot of these small magazines fold after a short time (I was particularly sad to see the end of Dog vs Sandwich, if only because it had to be the daftest name ever for a publication), but some of them keep on going. And some of them, like Niteblade, even get to see their fifth anniversary. So go and take a look. Buy a copy. Submit to them. Keep those small presses turning over.

Happy Fifth Anniversary, Niteblade!

(You can find the previous link on this blog train at Amber Stults’ blog, and the next one will be back at Niteblade‘s site itself.)

Making History

As you may or may not know, my current work in progress is a work of non-fiction. Now I have dabbled in this area before (the evidence is here, in case you hadn’t previously strayed onto the other pages of this site), and what I’ve found is that, even if you’re writing a computer manual, you still need to have some kind of narrative. By which I mean, you’re still telling a story. If you’re not telling a story, you’ll very quickly lose your readers’ attention.

The problem with the current WIP is that it involves historical elements, some of which go back to the 18th century and some of which go back twenty or thirty years. And as you pull all the facts together, you do get some kind of sense of what the overall story is (and in fact in this book, there are several) and so that’s what you write your narrative around.

But every so often you come across something – a link to a website that you’d forgotten about, perhaps – that doesn’t quite fit. And when you’re dealing with areas of history that are only covered by unreliable sources, this tends to happen quite a lot, whether you’re dealing with the 18th century or indeed the 1980s. When this happens, it’s actually quite exciting, because you’re actually forced to adopt a position. Do you stand by your narrative and dismiss the newcomer or do you absorb the new facts and readjust your narrative?

And then, suddenly, you realise you are literally making history. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

National Flash Fiction Day Anthology

Well, at least it’s less than a week since I last blogged…

I’m currently heavily stuck into Project Y, which has somehow made its way up to the remarkable total of 23500 words today. There are a few crucial things that have to fall into place (mainly because it’s a non-fiction project and certain real-life things have to either happen or not happen soon), but apart from that it’s all fitting together really well. Touching wood as I say it, it seems to be working, and it’s the best feeling ever when a project does that. I’m so looking forward to the time when I can tell everyone what it’s all about.

However, I haven’t been completely neglecting fiction. Last week I was really chuffed to receive a commission to write a piece for the forthcoming anthology to be published in association with National Flash Fiction Day (which – spot that logo in the bottom right-hand corner – is now supported by the Arts Council!) Check out the other names involved – there are several of my flash fiction heroes and heroines there 🙂

The good news is that you – yes, you! – can be involved too. As you can see, submissions are now open, so get cracking and send something in by close of play on Tuesday April 10th. Hmmm. Better get going on my own effort soon, I guess.

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