I need to know who you are: the problem with the first person

C. and I had a chat about one of the pieces I read at Illicit Ink earlier in the year. He said he thought it worked better as a spoken piece than a written one but couldn’t tell me why. I asked if it was because that it was in the first person. It has very little personal information about the narrator except that she has breasts and wears a bra. When I am on stage reading it, I become that woman – the first person is automatically my person – so the audience knows what she looks like, how old she is, where she’s from. None of that information is in the story. Many of my first-person pieces leave social context out: they are not about what I consider to be gender-, age- or class-specific experiences so that info feels redundant.

An early story of mine, and one of my personal favourites, Neon Tetra Suicides, didn’t originally specify the gender of the narrator. In my head, he was a man, but it didn’t matter to the story. It was about someone staying at friends’ while their flat was empty. What happened didn’t depend on the narrator’s age, class, nationality, race, sexuality or gender*. After reading an editor’s blog which said something along the lines of ‘Don’t send me a story where the narrator is ambiguous or doesn’t have a name’ I added gender indicators. My guy turned into a woman. Well, he turned into someone who goes to business meetings in skirts and tights. There’s still no name but we assume gender from the clothing. (Even with gender indications, Neon Tetras doesn’t sell so uncertainty about who the narrator is obviously isn’t its only problem. But that’s another story.)

But why should that matter?” C. asked me after I suggested that the lack of biographical content was why he preferred Mouth spoken. And that’s the question. I don’t know why, but I know that it does. Last December, I had a 100-word first-person story published online and in the comments one reader asked if the narrator was a man or a woman. For 100 words I didn’t think the gender mattered: either sex can milk cows and chop up frozen zombies with a chain saw. That’s just country living. But my audience clearly did think it was important.

I was asked to change the gender of Mouth‘s narrator for Liar’s League Hong Kong. It took very little effort. I changed a breast to a nipple, a top to a shirt and removed a reference to bras. The gender of the narrator can’t have been that important to the core of the story if that was all it took. For the performance it makes all the difference, however: it was read by a man and that man embodies the narrator.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any short first-person stories that I have read where I didn’t know basic biographical information about the narrator so I can’t tell whether I, too, want to know these things. That same fact makes me think that I do or more writers would leave them out. My perspective isn’t that of a pepper corn in a salt cellar: I’m not a uniquely socially blind individual. If I don’t think it’s necessary in the stories I write, that’s probably because I already know. I have an image in my head, one clear enough to satisfy my needs for detail. I need to remember to share that image, no matter how sketchy, with my audience. I don’t want to lose them to unnecessary questions.


* Saying that, there are some indications of age – the friends have children – and class – the narrator attends business meetings and mostly works from home on a laptop.


Acceptance #2

On Saturday, I had a second acceptance. This wasn’t for a paying market, but I’m still very pleased. Martin is, in his short form, finally getting published somewhere. On May 25th, The Wolf at the Door, the short version of Liz & Bob that I read at Illicit Ink last year, will appear on Flashes in the Dark. Flashes in the Dark is a flash fiction site that serves up a daily morsel of horror.

I’m pleased that someone liked my story enough to share it with their readers but I’m also pleased that I found out just in time to add it to my list of publications before submitting a story for Story Shop.

Story Shop is part of the plan. I’m hoping (fingers crossed, wood knocked on, superstitions engaged) that they’ll take my story so I get to read at Edinburgh International Book Festival. It would be the coolest thing ever.

Status update: I’ve made friends with the plan. Almost.

A couple of months ago I took my plan for the year public to goad myself into sticking to it. It’s time to reflect and see how I’m progressing against my goals.

  • Send out one new story per month: behind by two stories. I’m not going to catch up this month but I want to be behind by only one story by next month.
  • Send each story out at least five times before retiring: in progress (am circulating Neon Tetra Suicides, Space Carrot, L.V.I.S. and the flash version of Liz & Bob). It’s been suggested that sending them out five times isn’t enough so some of them might go out a few more times.
  • Start plotting novel: I’ve started and am making progress. I’ll publish some of my scrawls later for the fun of it.
  • Start writing novel: planned for June.
  • Apply to Story Shop: looking dicey since I haven’t managed to get published yet I’m keeping an eye open for the call for stories. Last year it was released in May.
  • Do three spoken performances: I’m upgrading this to four and am two down.

Goodbye Martin, it’s time for me to move on

I stayed at my friend’s flat for a few days last summer. (Actually, I stayed a few days in two flats last summer: I have very generous friends.) When I was there, working at a lovely desk in the dining room and enjoying the peace of their oldest son’s bedroom, I had two ideas for stories. They were both based on experiences that I had there. One turned into Neon Tetra Suicides and the other turned into Martin Stays Over. The first of these worked itself out quickly. I wrote it, did a couple of edits and then sent it out. The second one I have had all kinds of problems with.

It’s really a story about being a child and listening to adults having a dinner party. I can’t write that story without something happening, so there’s also some weird stuff. The feedback I’ve had on the story suggests that I got the little boy’s voice right. Really right. I’ve also got the scary action towards the end right. I read that part at Illicit Ink in October, so it has had a lot of work.

The problem is that the two sections don’t fit together.

In the first few drafts, there was too much background before the action. Too much detail and information. When the action came it was completely unexpected and confused some people. There was also no real resolution after the action. It is as if nothing happened yet we know that something did. There were 2,000 words of setup and 1,000 words of action followed by 50 of conclusion. The sections were like blocks of wood, stacked one on the other, not like fibres working together to form a branch.

In the final draft, I swapped sections about so that the action starts on the first line. The setup happens in flashback, as it were, before the big action piece. I also changed a couple of relationships, got rid of a parent, added a slightly unpleasant adult and attempted closure at the end. I tried to stitch it all together into a coherent unit.

Then I sent it out and had it rejected – very graciously – in four days. Voice good, plot and resolution weak.

So what now? I have options.

  1. Send the short story to a flash fiction market.
  2. Send the long story out again, to another market.
  3. Edit the long story again.
  4. Start again.

Option 3 is the only one I refuse to do. I have spent to much time trying to force this story into shape. Writing it from scratch again appeals to me. There’s a freedom in taking what I’ve learned from the feedback I’ve had on this story and applying it to something completely new. But I have other stories that I want to tell too. Spending even more time with Martin takes me away from them.

I need to move on now, walk away, give this one up for dead. Not everything I write will be brilliant. This particular story doesn’t seem to have a point other than that you’re pretty powerless when you’re eight years old. I think I’ve spent more hours trying to make that point than the value of my insight warrants.

The mostly silent story telling of Shaun Tan

A few years ago I worked off Broughton Street in Edinburgh. My closest decent café was Artisan Roast, which roasts and serves the very best coffee that Edinburgh has to offer. (Too bad I prefer tea.) One day, I found this book there, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. It was a tale of emigration and immigration, 128 pages long, all illustrations.

It was amazing.

In The Arrival, a man leaves his family to go abroad and start a new life. Eventually, they will join him, but before they can he has to find somewhere to live, a job and learn to understand the new place he’s in. The beautiful pencil drawings show a world similar but also very different from ours. I recognized the emotions and fears of anyone that has to go somewhere new, be it a new school, job or country. Learning the ropes, making friends, finding a place in a new context takes time and courage.

I have since acquired most of Shaun’s back catalog. His illustrations are beautiful and his words, when he uses them, open new worlds and new perspectives.

Shaun Tan spoke about The Arrival and his other works at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. He told a story – Eric, a lovely tale inspired by an exchange student – and explained that he writes with a very particular audience in mind. Shaun writes tales that his brother will find acceptable. The story doesn’t have to be simple, but the language must be. This straightforward voice works very well with the other-worldly illustrations.

I’m trying to emulate two aspects of Shaun’s story-telling: the simplicity of his language and the other-worldliness of the world he draws. My writing lacks the lyricism of Shaun’s drawings but I want my stories to take place in a world similar to his. A world very close to ours but different enough that anything can happen. And I try to tell them simply.

Recently, I sent the first story I wrote with the principles of simplicity and other-worldliness in mind to my mother. She really likes it. She likes it so much she thinks I should illustrate it.

Eagerly awaiting a response

I’m still waiting to hear whether some of my stories have made it or not. I know that it can take a very long time before you find out. Duotrope has lists of markets that are slow and swift. Response times range from a from a super-swift average of 0.4 days for a response, to a deathly slow 392.2 days.

392.2 days. That’s a year and a month.

The places I’ve submitted to won’t make me wait that long, I know it. Still, I look for a response every day. Even for the one that has over a month before the deadline ends.

I think it might take a while before I get used to waiting to hear.

The path to publication: passing the first post

Recently, I submitted a piece to a magazine. The deadline isn’t until the end of November, so I hadn’t expected to hear anything for a while. I also expected to receive a rejection slip once I did hear. It was therefore a delightful surprise to receive a very kind (if pro-forma) email yesterday that wasn’t an acceptance but wasn’t a rejection either. Someone’s read my story and now someone else will read it and make a decision.

The next stage is likely to be rejection: after all, if you could just write a story, send it somewhere and have it accepted, getting published would be easy. And it isn’t.

The path to publication: the first submission

Today, I submitted a story to a magazine. The deadline is November 30th, so chances are I won’t hear from them until early December. Still, it’s quite exciting: this is my first submission. Anything could happen. (Chance are nothing will, but it could.)

I’m using Duotrope to track the submission and share the results and waiting times with other writers.