GO ON, TAKE THE PLUNGE
I’ve often heard some writers say that they cringe when they are asked “Where do you get your ideas from?” I’ve never understood that as, until recently, I’ve always been able to remember where the idea for a particular story came from. Although now, possibly because I’ve had too many stories published (can you ever have enough?) or been writing too long, that I’m starting to forget where some of the ideas did actually come from. Ideas are probably gifts, from somewhere. Brian Aldiss is attending this year’s Fantasycon in Brighton and years ago, I saw him at the Edinburgh Book Festival, back in the day when it only took place once every two years. He read, rather brilliantly, his short story “Last Orders”, and mentioned that the day before he had had a “gift” of an idea about plants being able to talk. I wrote a story yesterday about (after using the same idea a couple of weeks ago for a poem) someone who has unwanted clones made of himself from discarded fingernails. I bite my nails, usually when I’m bored at meetings, and at the end of those meetings I look down and see little slivers of fingernails beneath my seat. Paranoia then kicks in. Suppose someone picked them up and dropped them at a scene of a crime, next to the victim? A daft idea, but it has given birth to a poem and a story.
Stephen King has been mentioned in some of the other guest blogs, and I think in “Danse Macabre” he writes that if he was at a waterhole out in the plains then he might suddenly have an idea about something horrible rising from the depths to kill cattle, while Western writer Louis L’amour might have an idea at exactly the same, but his would be about cattle barons fighting over that same waterhole. I write poetry. I write children’s fiction, I write horror, fantasy, and science fiction to a lesser extent. Why? Probably because of what influenced me when I was growing up. “Dr. Who”, “Star Trek, “The Prisoner”, “The Avengers”, all those Lew Grade programmes like “The Champions”, all those Irwin Allen shows like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. And American comics. Where I lived there were nine shops that sold Marvel and DC comics. I still buy comics, but have to go to specialist shops or comic marts to stock up. But the biggest influence was horror movies, or the lack of them. I can still remember hiding behind a copy of “The Daily Record” and peeking out at “The Cat and the Canary” as the Cat stalked Paulette Goddard down a dark corridor. Every Friday night the series called “Don’t Watch Alone” showed the classic Universal horror movies, and then the early Hammer ones, with a smattering of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies thrown in, and I was banned from watching them, having to rely on the accounts of my friends on the way to primary school on Monday morning to hear the gory details. But I could still read, graduating from Famous Five and Secret Seven books, and The Three Investigators to James Bond and Tarzan, and then James Herbert, Stephen King, which led to Kirby McCauley’s “Dark Forces” and a whole wide world of brilliant writers - Charlie Grant, Dennis Etchison, Joyce Carol Oates, Ramsay Campbell, Lisa Tuttle, Manly Wade Wellman and a host of others. What a crime it would have been never to have encountered their work.
Which I suppose brings me on to writing. Like Terry Pratchett says: if you want to write, then read, everything, but if you want to write, you actually have to well, uh, you know, write. Don’t think about it forever and ever. Go ahead and write, it’s the only way. Seek out if you can a copy of Stephen King’s first short story collection “The Night Shift” which has an introduction by John D. MacDonald who wrote the Travis McGee series as well as blockbuster summer reads. His introduction is funny, and wise and true in its comments about writing. If you want to be a writer you have to write, but don’t put yourself under pressure by giving yourself unrealistic targets. If you have a day job you need that creative, nervous energy to write late at night or early in the morning. It may not be there at all the time, not enough to write that un realistic 10000 words or chapter a day you have set yourself. Try and write most days, but it may not always be possible. At the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2009 I saw the title of a children’s book (no, I’m not telling you what is was) that ignited an idea in my head. I started writing on the 1st September, intending to write 1000 words a day, and I almost did it that month, writing 28000 words by the 30th, but was fairly burnt out and toyed with the book for another six months or so before getting that first draft done. Which brings me on to another point - try and finish most of what you start. Don’t have half-finished short stories lying around everywhere because that spark, that mind-set which kick-started them into existence is gone and they will just languish on your desktop or in folders, glaring at you accusingly. Oh, and be thick-skinned about rejection, to borrow the golfing phrase “never up never in”, “never out never published” is a rule you have to follow.
If you can, find some kindred souls. That might be by being a member of the British Fantasy Society, or by going to festivals or events to hear other writers. I’m lucky to be a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers Circle, populated by writers more successful and more talented than me, with years of experience that they are willing to pass on. It can be pretty intense, and not for everyone, sitting in a circle and using the Milford method of constructive criticism. On the other hand, I’m also a member of the Scottish Writers collective Read Raw which met last night in Glasgow where we sat in a corner of a pub and read poems, and flash fiction and novel extracts. The venue varies, the people vary, but it is honest, constructive criticism.
Finally, wearing my editor’s hat as poetry editor of the British Fantasy Society’s “Dark Horizons”, and editor and publisher of “Unspoken Water” – issue one out next month with stories by the likes of Joel Lane and Steve Rasnic Tem and Gary McMahon – here’s some tips from the other side of the fence. Get my name right. Get my gender right. Follow the instruction guidelines. Don’t submit outside the submission windows (they are on the website and on Duotrope). Don’t say your work is so good, that I won’t be able to resist it. Honest, I can. But keep writing, keep submitting, keep watching the skies.
Ian Hunter was born in Edinburgh and lives in a small town in the West of Scotland in a house too small for all the books he has in precarious piles. His short stories and poetry have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK, the USA and Canada, and is the author of three children’s novels, a humourous guide to Glasgow, and a collection of some of his published poems, as well as being the editor of several anthologies including “Raw Terror”. He is a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers Circle and Read Raw Ltd, and is poetry editor for “Dark Horizons” and edits and publishes “Unspoken Water”. One of the reason he has too many books is that he writes reviews for “Interzone”, Concatenation and the British Fantasy Society.