There’s a lot of terrible advice for writers out there at the moment. In fact, if I’d have to single out one thing as a deterrent to people thinking of starting to write, it’s have to be the mosaic of arcane and arbitrary rules scrawled on the Writers’ Club toilet walls. So it was refreshing to come across some genuinely sage advice in the third edition of Gutter magazine, which dropped through my letterbox (ah, the antiquated joys of snail mail) this week:
‘Where are all the experimenters? As you might expect, much of the work we are sent as editors is derivative. A scarily larger portion is competent but anaesthetised. Although it may be well written, possibly in the style of someone else, it does not get under the skin. It is stage two writing. To reach stage three, rip it up and start again.’
As coincidence would have it, I read this just as I was about to sit down and revise one of my first stories. At the time of writing it was very definitely a stage one story. I can remember exactly when and where I wrote it: during my paternity leave after my elder son was born, as he took one of those cherished daytime naps and I forsook the chance to catch up on my sleep to batter away at the keyboard. It was early June, the start of the last really glorious summer in Scotland, and I was nearing the end of a decade-long affliction that made me believe that if I just kept rewriting the same four stories, I’d eventually get one of them to Stage Three.
Risk was one of those stories. I flattered myself it was experimental because it messed about with structure and sequence of events and employed an unaffected, straightforward style. In other words, nothing that Chandler or John Fowles hadn’t done, and done miles better, decades earlier. It was very definitely Stage One writing. Over the years I’ve come back to it, tweaked it a little, revised it a lot, shortened it plenty and occasionally tried it in the odd competition. Most recently I put it in for last year’s Willesden Herald prize. I wince a little when I reflect on that presumption.
My son turned seven this year. Risk wasn’t getting any better. The time had come, I decided, to let it go. The main problem was length. Few websites and even fewer journals are prepared to swallow 7,400 words from an untried writer. Especially when even my best efforts couldn’t push it past Stage Two. And then I came across Scribd. A rather good website for publishing and sharing PDF files. You should give it a try some time. That was when it hit me. I knew how to design pages, so why not publish it myself as an e-book? Self-publishing is a cop-out, goes the usual riposte. Which is one reason I’ve tagged this post ‘failure’. But since I’d signed up to Scribd anyway for work purposes, and I had the means, why not rework Risk and stick it it in the shop window, rather than let it perish altogether? As much as anything, it was a chance to shed some writerly flab and promote myself, both as a writer and an editor.
Are you sold yet? Perhaps honesty isn’t always the best policy. Have I mentioned it’s free? How about this: take a Risk and read it (ha!). In spite of everything I’m still quite fond of it and hope you’ll find time to enjoy it too. It’s the story of Adrian and Sarah, a couple who go on holiday on their first wedding anniversary and quickly get drawn down into a vortex of chaos. I don’t think it’s stretching my authorial privilege to say that Adrian is an incorrigible, premium-grade arsehole. And Sarah? Well, you can make up your own mind about her (I seem to use the name Sarah a lot in fiction, which I hope doesn’t worry the real Sarahs I know). To me the seven years I spent on it will always serve as a reminder of how hard it is to make it to Stage Three. Any comments will be welcome, though please be assured this really is the finished article, so be as brutal as you like.