2020 Hindsight: My Year in Review - Part 1
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Firstly, apologies for the obvious and no doubt already-overused title, but I couldn’t resist - it’s been such an unusual, dire, and largely frustrating year on so many fronts that it only feels fair to try and extract the merest of fun from it, however one can. Indeed, while it might seem (and certainly has felt at times) incredibly trivial to trumpet my writing achievements, especially when compared to the indispensable and still undervalued work of essential and emergency workers, I also feel like I need to do this if only to remind myself that 2020 hasn’t been a complete washout, and that I have somehow still made progress in at least one area of life. Of course, if it serves as a reminder to anyone considering award nominations, I would be grateful for anyone’s support on that front. But, honestly, I believe there are many more worthy stories out there, and writers who better deserve and will benefit more from such acknowledgement - and hopefully I’ve already directed you towards some of them in a few of my short fiction reviews.
However, and because I am at this stage unlikely to have time to wrangle my own Year’s Best Stories list, I would like to also direct you towards these posts from two massively talented authors, A.C. Wise and Eugenia Triantafyllou, which give a fairly comprehensive selection, and intersect with a lot of my own suggestions. And then, as always, I recommend investigating more work by the writers of any stories you enjoy, and other pieces in the magazines that publish them - I promise you won’t run out of good reading material any time soon!
And now, finally, we come to the reason for this piece - a brief summary of the six short stories I’ve had published this calendar year. As well as a bit of background on the creation and submission process behind each piece, for anyone who’s interested in that kind of thing.
Last Contact (Daily Science Fiction, Jan 23rd, 2020) - Daily Science Fiction has been such a constant source of entertainment since I signed up for their newsletter years ago, that I was delighted to at last have a story accepted, on my 21st attempt [Reminder to any new or emerging writers: don’t give up!]. I’m pleased that it was this one, too, as not only is it probably the best drabble-length piece I’ve written, but I had already had it accepted once before only for the magazine to fold before it could be published, so I was starting to worry I wouldn’t get lucky with it again (I had a similar experience with two other stories this year, and, to date, have still not placed them elsewhere, despite numerous attempts). Fortunately, that setback also gave me the opportunity to revisit this story and make slight improvements, which were ultimately enough to get it in through the door. I wasn’t quite sure exactly when it would be published, though, so it was a very pleasant surprise to wake up and find my name and story in that day’s newsletter - definitely ticked off one of my writing goals there!
Spoke Music (1st Place, Winter 2019 Writing Contest - March 2020) - Before this year, I hadn’t entered many competitions for a while, due to both some severe lapses in time-management, resulting in missed deadlines, and the frequently prohibitive cost of entering most of them. However, pretty much as soon as I heard about this one (which was free to enter), and researched TreadBikely a bit more (a great resource for anyone who’s a fan of any form of cycling, especially those who might have missed doing too much of it at some points this year), I found myself drafting a piece that ended up being more personal than the majority of the tales I was trying to complete at that time. As a result, and also by necessity (I only heard about the comp a few days pre-deadline), it came together quickly, and I was very fortunate and remain incredibly grateful that the judge deemed it good enough to win.
No Smoke Without (Features as an extra in Ash & Thorn #1, from Ahoy Comics - 24th June, 2020) - Returning to the issue of writing goals, being featured in a comic is definitely one, and I was utterly thrilled to achieve it this year! Granted, it is for a prose story, which means I still haven’t achieved my dream collab with Danijel Žeželj (yet…), but it still very much counts, and I’m chuffed that it’s in this particular issue. Ash & Thorn’s premise is basically ‘Buffy with pensioners’, which is a nifty initial joke, but elevated to great entertainment by the combination of Mariah McCourt’s snappy writing and Soo Lee’s vivid, kinetic artwork - complimented by Pippa Bowland’s colours. If that sounds like your sort of thing, the first 5 issues/Vol.1 is currently on sale over on Comixology until Thursday 7th January.
As for the story, it’s one of my favourite sci-fi pieces I’ve done, in terms of both concept and execution - and, before acceptance, it was one of my oldest unpublished stories as well, dating back to about 2014. In short, I was stuck outside Stoke-on-Trent Rail Station, waiting for a lift, cowering under the awning as the gloomy Staffordshire mizzle descended, and ended up being joined in that shelter by a chap with an e-cig (just in that liminal period before they were everywhere). And, as my lift was delayed by some terrible traffic, I had time to note the bones of the story down in my phone. Perhaps not quite up there with Paul Simon writing ‘Homeward Bound’ while madly keen to leave Widnes, but I’m still proud that it turned out as good as it has, and that it ultimately helped me make such a fun career breakthrough. (Seriously, look at it - my name on a comic!)
Slipping the Leash (PodCastle #638 - August 4th, 2020) - PodCastle, being the premier podcast for short fantasy fiction, is another venue I’d been trying to land my work with for ages (14 submissions before this), and though I had come close on a few occasions, those were all with stories that were fairly different to each other, as ‘Slipping the Leash’ was different again. That being the case, and with it using perhaps more horror imagery than outright fantasy, I wasn’t entirely sure whether to try it or not. But I managed to overcome my self-doubt for long enough to submit it, and was ultimately stunned (in a good way) to have it accepted. This was only the second time my work had been adapted for audio and the first by an Escape Artists podcast, so again it felt like a significant progression for me.
As the story revolves in part around jazz, the rhythm of the piece was of crucial importance when I was writing (and endlessly rewriting) ‘Slipping…’, but even though I had read it aloud and even recorded myself doing so a few times, it can still be difficult to know if you’re forcing some of the rhythm to suit your own intent/conceptions, or whether it will actually be apparent and feel natural to new readers. So, I’ll admit there was an element of trepidation about the process, and it took a fair few minutes for me to psych myself up to listen on the morning it got published… Obviously, I had listened to PodCastle episodes before, and could tell they always put a lot of time and effort into sourcing the right narrators for a given piece. Yet still, I couldn’t help but worry - no matter how good the narrator, would the reading nevertheless uncover tragic flaws in the plot (and the rhythm!) I’d somehow overlooked?
To my immense relief, it became clear within the first paragraph that Austin Malone had just clicked with the story, and carried it through without fail right to the ending, which he absolutely nailed! So, yeah, it all turned out even better than I could have hoped, and as a result I received some very generous, positive feedback and reviews about it, from some wildly talented writers, so am doubly grateful to PodCastle for facilitating that!
Note: Regarding the link between the trauma and transformation at the core of the protagonist’s journey, while I obviously hadn’t read Danny Lore’s excellent essay, ‘Transforming Anxiety’ (Uncanny Magazine, July/August 2020) at the time I was writing this story, it contains a lot of interesting crossover with what I was thinking - and is just a fascinating read in its own right.
Body Language (When the World Stopped, Owl Hollow Press - Oct 13th, 2020) - Here’s another story I’d been working on for a couple of years, and which had come close at a couple of places, albeit with a few fairly crucial differences. It was initially inspired by an article I saw about some proprietary tech for a kind of ‘Human Uber’, which was essentially just paying people to wear tablets on their faces, livestreaming your own face, to go out to places/events you either couldn’t get to geographically, or just couldn’t be bothered to physically attend. And, as such, was also about a fairly rudimentary form of that idea, which is probably a big part of what really held it back from being accepted before - the story was always pretty tight, but visually the central arc just lacked plausibility, and therefore tension. My little brother (one of my most frequent test readers) was neither slow nor shy about pointing this out. But at nearly 5000 words, the thought of completely rewriting it to include more advanced tech (not to mention writing believably about it) always seemed a bit too daunting (translation: I was probably too lazy, had too many other plates spinning), and so I just kept polishing what was already there. And re-submitting. And getting rejected. Fifteen times, in total - nowhere near my record, but more than was ideal in an only-two-year span… I had pretty much shelved it, in fact, until I saw this submission call, which finally gave me the impetus to make the necessary changes. In large part, this is because I realised what else had been missing - a sufficient reason to justify the widespread growth of such technology, beyond a niche, kooky side-plot/joke to add into random TV episodes (looking at you, Elementary). This current pandemic, with its prevalence of Zoom interactions (other video call/conferencing software is available) etc., has certainly made the idea of being able to go out without actually going in-person a prospect with a broader appeal, at least until vaccines are more widely available, and so that informed the story’s revised direction.
Of course, I was very aware of the ethical grey area of looking to fictionalise, and thereby generate entertainment from, an ongoing global emergency, which has taken and continues to take a devastating toll upon people’s lives, businesses, and communities. But this wasn’t a cynical cash-grab or profiteering exercise - for a start, there was no guarantee when I submitted that it would be accepted, and even had it been pro-paid, the compensation would still not have been high. And while I’m still mindful of the potential for art made from such a contemporary topic to seem distasteful and cause offence or even upset, that clearly wasn’t the intent of the publisher or this collection. As far as trigger warnings go, it’s right there in the cover and blurb, so anyone who feels they may be adversely affected by its contents knows to steer well clear. Likewise, anyone who does want to take a fictional deep-dive, perhaps in search of some kind of catharsis, is free (and encouraged) to find and read it. I found it unexpectedly comforting to actually, actively consider a kind of proactive adaptation to life in a post-pandemic world, rather than keeping my head entirely in the sand - and now that I have my contributor copy, I’m looking forward to reading other writers’ responses as well.
Adonis in Furs (Honeyguide Literary Magazine, Issue #1 - Oct 2020) - This is a relatively straightforward and hopefully charming little ditty, which sprang from a simple query: What if Bigfoot happened to see some of the purported photographic evidence of himself? How might this affect his ego and self-esteem? The initial draft at only around 800 words long came together very quickly, and while it has gone through (as with most of my work) a fair number of edits and rewrites, there haven’t been too many major changes from how it started - certainly the narrative arc and the conclusion are the same. It’s also a relatively rare ‘light’ story from me (the sort of thing that might work as a Pixar-esque animated short, almost), and so I feel a great warmth towards it. I’m pleased that it found a home at Honeyguide, not simply because of how well put-together their first issue is, but also because a portion of the profits from that and future issues will go to support animal shelters across the US. In short, it’s a little beacon of hope and compassion in an otherwise turbulent year, and I’m proud to have been involved, in however small a capacity.
Alongside these publications, I’ve also had a few other breakthroughs/successes, not the least of which is finally getting this new site up and running (thanks in no small part to the encouragement and advice of Mike Elsmore). My output on here has been slowed this past month due to my being focused on a few other projects that are taking a lot of time and effort, but I’m aiming to get back to a more regular pattern of reviews and updates in the New Year. Likewise, I was glad to start my Curious Fictions profile, and am planning to add some more work to it soon.
I was also honoured to be invited to take part in this year’s Northern Short Story Festival, to give a mini workshop on my approach to submitting and selling short stories. Although the physical event was derailed by lockdown - meaning I couldn’t a) dress up in a funky suit, and b) use props, much to my disappointment - the festival team (led by the brilliant SJ Bradley) adapted to the changed situation quickly and effectively, and I was able to give a twitter Q&A (which went much better than I expected - always nice to be reminded I can think on my feet, when required) and contribute this blog post, which I hope people (especially newer writers) will continue to find useful.
Looking forward to 2021, I already have 4 confirmed publications, including my first couple of reprints, so am feeling cautiously optimistic about my prospects of ticking off more writing goals. In the meantime, I’d like to give thanks (again) to all the editors who've accepted and helped to improve my short fiction this year, and to all the readers, reviewers, and fellow writers who've supported and signal-boosted my stories - and also kept me distracted, entertained, and frequently amazed with their own stellar writing. On which note, I urge you to look out for forthcoming work by the authors I’ve highlighted in my reviews (more of which should hopefully be incoming before Christmas…), and just otherwise take care of yourselves and your nearest and dearest. And whether/however you’re celebrating the season, I hope you’re able to relax and have at least a bit of (sensible, socially-distanced) fun in the run-up to the New Year!