77. Angry readers

A writer friend told me about a reader who got angry with a character in her draft novel. This character tried to control the actions of his lady love, and, worse, had not been completely frank. That anger made me think.

Enjoyment, intrigue, excitement – yes those are emotions you want your readers to have. But anger? And was their anger with the character or the author? The situation struck a chord with me because I’ve also encountered anger recently from writing colleagues.

Storm Catcher Felicia Simons
The Storm Catcher © Felicia Simion

Anger is a disturbing and scary reaction to provoke. As a writer, it makes you wonder if you’re doing something wrong. Our instinctive response to anger is usually to conciliate or to strike back. Conciliation can lead to messing up a storyline. To strike back is, of course, human but very stupid. Anger generally tells you the reader is reacting to something in themselves.

My friend had made her character a little more flawed, a little more like a real person. That can only be good.  But of course she worried that she was risking alienating her readers. She compromised her intention and wrote a chapter that didn’t work.

This made me consider my own reactions to readers’ anger and what the lessons might be. I’ve braved some anger in my writers’ group towards my novel The Golden Illusion. And also towards the story that I’m working on for the Sunday Times competition.

What do these stories have in common? Unsympathetic characters is the most obvious thing. Ruairi, the main character in The Golden Illusion, is charming but manipulative. Margaret, protagonist of the Sunday Times story has many traditional working-class values but is also racist. Do your readers have to like your characters? No, not necessarily, but they have to find them interesting. It also helps if the characters go on a journey and end up more sympathetic than at the start. Ruairi and Margaret follow such journeys. I guess the anger shows that neither Margaret nor Ruairi are leaving readers cold. You can’t be angry about something if you don’t care.

One friend apologised later for the ferocity of her reaction to Ruairi. She had said she found Ruairi’s seduction of a woman he meets in a bar unbelievable. She confessed she was, in fact, angry that that the woman succumbs.

In Margaret’s case, there’s an added element. The story is overtly political, a response to the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. The British learn early in life not to talk about politics or religion in polite company. But then, I don’t think the conversation between a writer and a reader has much to do with politeness.

Writing political stories is, of course, risky. It divides your readers and can lead some of them to see you as “preaching”. When that happens, they’re probably angry with you rather than your character. It’s an odd fact that portraying a politics is often seen as “telling me what to think” while depicting any other facet of personality rarely provokes such a reaction. I’ve never had a reader tell me that they felt manipulated by a character’s selfishness or courage. In my defence against the charge of “preachiness”, Margaret’s fear and racism isn’t defeated by her friend’s political arguments, but by music.

The up-side of being political is that it’s topical. So, while it may turn off some readers, it may engage others.

And I guess this is the main lesson – you can’t please all the readers all the time, so cast your reading net wide. A writer has no choice but to walk the tightrope of simultaneously believing in their work and being open to criticism. I got very disheartened by colleagues savaging The Golden Illusion and had decided it was a bad book. That was until another writer read it and loved it. In fact she loves it more than I do and restored my confidence in the novel. So it pays to get lots of opinions.

Friday fictioneers – The Signature

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PHOTO PROMPT © Georgia Koch

Joel wasn’t a believer. Not in spirits, faeries or deities. But neither did he believe in coincidence. Two samples containing the strange DNA sequence he could dismiss, but not 500.

“It’s crazy,” he told Emily. “the gene’s present in humans, mice, fruit flies, and amoebae. It’s ancient. But does nothing.”

“Oh, it does something,” Emily said digging her hands into the pocket of her lab coat. “But you’re not going to like this.”

She spelled out the amino acids the gene coded for – Alanine, Lysine, Phenylalanine, Histidine, Arginine.

Joel didn’t follow. “So?”

“It spells Alpha. This is a signature.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

 

Friday fictioneers – What’s the point of wasps?

wasp-nest
PHOTO PROMPT © Janet Webb

“I mean, what’s their point? What do they do for us?” Calum is emphatic in his opinions. He has similar views of football hooligans and foreigners.

“Pollination” I suggest.

A wisp of smoke curls from the pest gun as he advances on the filo-pastry wasp nest.

Calum shakes his great grizzled head. “The beggars stung me for no reason. Bees don’t do that. Bees are useful.”

“Maybe they don’t need to be useful. Perhaps it’s enough that they exist?”

Like an activist protecting a mangrove swamp from a marina developer, I step forward and seize his wrist.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Friday Fictioneers – Thebes

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PHOTO PROMPT © Adam Ickes

The causeway extended across the fen into the mist.

“You can see how Alfred the Great escaped the Romans here,” Jane said.

“Vikings,” I said

“What?”

“Alfred escaped Vikings, not Romans.”

A gust of wind lifted the fog’s cowl. At the exact vanishing point of the causeway, the afternoon sun kindled fire in a pyramid.

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” I said. “We should go back, Jane. Now. Or we’ll miss tea.”

She raised her ray gun. “That’s okay. Phasers on stun.”

Hand in hand, we marched forward into the white pre-world of possibility.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

76. Why it’s worth writing short stories

Do you suffer anxiety about whether your writing is any good? If you don’t, you’re probably not doing it right. You get lots of advice and encouragement when you start writing. Most of it is well-meaning. Much of it is wrong – at least for you. There’s one thing I wished I’d known when I started. Of course, like most well-meaning advice, it may not be valid for you. But my advice is write and publish short stories, even if your main interest is novels.

Short story Stephen King

Why? Many reasons, but these were the main ones for me:

  • Polish your craft.
  • Boost your confidence
  • Measure your ability.
  • Build a track record.

Polish your craft

Short stories are short. You can write them faster than a novel and revise them more easily. It’s a simpler apprenticeship to serve.

Boost your confidence

Publishing and selling a novel is hard. It takes lots of work, and lots of luck. Mostly, you get negative feedback from agents and publishers (if you’re going the conventional route) or reviewers and sales (if you’re self-publishing). It can dent even the toughest hide and the most humble spirit. Self-doubt eats away at your confidence. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s easier to publish short stories than novels – there are many more outlets, both print and on-line magazines. The website Duotrope lists 5,821 markets. There will almost certainly be one that will publish you. Nothing beats the boost of seeing yourself in print. If you’re just starting out, these magazines accept over half of the work submitted to them.

Measure your ability

Pick your market. Different outlets for stories have different acceptance rates.  I didn’t know about acceptance rates when I started out. Until 2015 I was unwittingly submitting stories to prestige magazines that accept less than 1% of everything submitted to them. No wonder I wasn’t getting published. No wonder I was dejected and felt talentless. In 2015 it all began to change when I got hold of data on acceptance rates. Duotrope  publishes these figures. Armed with them, I can target where I sent my stories.

place in market

Last year, I had stories accepted by Alfie Dog and The Opening Line. Not so hard to do since both accepted around half the material sent to them. I got bolder. Gold Dust, with an acceptance rate of 12.5%, accepted a story, Zhuang Zhu’s Dream, about a man who has memories he believes are not his own. Then this year Structo accepted Interstices, a slipstream kind of story, to be published in issue 16. At the time of submission, Structo accepted only 3.85% of the material submitted, and currently the number is (an impossible) 0%. Now I can place myself in the market, so I’m no longer anxious about whether I’m any good as writer.

Build a track record

The publications give me a track record. Now, when I submit book manuscripts to agents and publishers, I can claim some credits attesting to my ability. The outlets with 50% acceptance rates don’t help this, but the two below 20% do.

Disappearance

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PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

Marnie disappeared slowly. So slowly, I didn’t notice her going. Like any good barkeep, she listened – absorbing tales of sorrow, protestations of innocence, and howls of outrage. Listened and never commented – just faded until she vanished into the mahogany bar top, the racked bottles, and nicotine-yellowed walls.

There was theatre to it. She bent emotion around her until she became invisible. Theatre and magic make us see stuff that’s not there. And not see what is. I miss Marnie.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Abstract

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PHOTO PROMPT © Janet Webb

I watch. The brush is poised. And then he moves. From the shoulder, leaving a row of lines on the parchment that summon feeling before my mind understands. I smell the stone ichor of rain, and sense the blunt endurance of a gaunt herd. Beneath his brush, a world begins to breathe.

“Though I saw, I don’t understand. How do you do it, maestro?” I ask.

He smiles that infuriating smile of his. “Rather, ask how you did it. I only made a few squiggles. Your mind made the meaning.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

 

75. The Sunday Times Prize – tempting the muse with breadcrumbs

It’s worth £30,000 to the winner. At £5 a word for a 6,000 word story, the Sunday Times EFG Award is the richest prize in short story writing. Hilary Mantel was only a runner-up in a previous year’s competition. So you might say it’s hubris for a tyro writer to enter such a competition. And you might be right. But I’m doing it anyhow.

Partly, I’m doing it because I can. Last year, I would not have been eligible. Entrants must already have been published by an established house or magazine. This time last year I hadn’t reached that mark.

Partly, I’m doing it because there’s a story I’m struggling to tell, and the competition gives me a spur to doing it. Assuming (reasonably) that I don’t win, at least I will have written the story.

The idea responds to my plea for new stories about post-Brexit Britain. My first attempt at writing read so much like a rant that one of my writing friends didn’t even realise it was supposed to be a story.   So I tore the thing apart and started again. This time, I created a version with which I’m happier.

Land Girl is a tale of Margaret and Malina. Margaret is a British pensioner with traditional working class values, but also a strong streak of prejudice against the immigrants who she feels threaten her way of life. Malina is a Roma immigrant and Margaret’s carer, threatened by racist abuse. Margaret loves music and dance. Malina’s singing is beautiful. Finally, this brings them together. Allie, a community activist, is the catalyst for challenging Margaret’s attitude to immigration. The political rant is now buried in one small section and narrative is now foregrounded.

Alright as far as it goes – a tale of a decent person overcoming prejudice and recognising the humanity of a foreigner. But it’s not a winner. Friends’ comments have helped to improved and polished it (thanks Derek and Paula).  I’ve checked that there is a narrative spine that drives the story forward, and short ribs of added tension that add depth – a technique I described in an earlier post. I’ve looked for opportunities to create repeating motifs that reflect each other in the hall of mirrors. None of this is enough.

Cordoba

What else can I add?  I wonder.  I know I need another narrative axis at right angles to the first. A hall of mirrors may not only reflect, but also distort and change perspectives. I’m still searching for what that right angled theme may be.  My intuition is that it may be to do with music.  Or with land and maps. Nothing is gelling yet. You can’t always tempt the muse down with breadcrumbs.

Friday Fictioneers – Leaving

the-boat-and-miss-liberty
PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

Cranes march across the horizon like a slur of notes, ending in a deformed quaver. The last note might be somehow iconic, but the sun-dancing waves create a mask of light and Pascal is unable to recognise the piece. He clutches the scuffed violin case to him, lest it and his fortunes tumble into the pitching water. The ocean is very big. Yet he is also very big.

Chattering passengers crowd the rails, counting down their time to arrival. Pascal’s clock continues forward, the days elongating since leaving Elise.

His heart breaking, he shuffles forward to be processed.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Friday Fictioneers -The Ambassador

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PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

The car jolted on a pothole, and the Ambassador feared he might lose his excellent lunch. The trouble with the poor, he thought, is they have such bad roads.  He made a note to work the conversation over dinner.

Hernan, riding shotgun in the front, fretted. “Why aren’t you taking the expressway?”

“Calm yourself,” said Simon. “We’ll return that way, so the Ambassador gets to his cocktail party. The route out offers sensuous contact with poverty. If he doesn’t get shit on his shoe, he won’t feel the adventure. And without that, he won’t fund the project.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here