A Straight Plantation
Heat #2, NYC Midnight flash fiction
September 25th 2017
“Time is a straight plantation,” wrote Jim Morrison in Wilderness: The Lost Writings. I don’t know what that means but I like it, and I based a story on it in my second entry for the NYC Midnight flash fiction competition, in which entrants must write a 1000-word story based on prompts (genre, setting, an object) they receive 48 hours before their deadline.
With this second heat I learned a lot: I didn’t panic, or over-research (my first assignment had been historical fiction, something I’d never tried before) or postpone the writing – I sat down first thing on Saturday morning (the assignment had arrived in my inbox at 5 a.m.) and wrote a first draft before I realised what I was doing. On Sunday morning I started again from scratch and wrote a second draft, independent of the first, and that evening I combined the two to make a third. I then asked my wife to read it (something there’d been no time for during the first heat, since I’d only finished a complete draft an hour before the deadline – ie at 4 a.m. on the Sunday morning) and expanded and clarified the story in response to her invaluable criticism, after which I stayed up till 2 whittling it back to meet the wordcount. Throughout I was calm, confident, didn’t expect too much – and I was happy with the results. Whether or not I’ll make it to the next round I don’t know, but I’d like to, since the learning curve has been so steep so far that I’m curious as to where it might take me next. Not that I thought my second-round story superior to the first; it was more polished, but maybe less original, less deep, less exciting to me. No, what improved was my work-process, and it has kept improving: since then I’ve written two longer stories (5,000 and 12,000 words, the most fiction I’ve written so quickly for years) and am confident there are more where they came from. And I believe a combination of NYC Midnight and my blog, Hand Drawn Heart, is to thank for this.
Incidentally, my feedback from the first heat was puzzling. On the one hand, I didn’t “place” at all; of several thousand entries, mine was not one of the few hundred that received a points-score. In itself this doesn’t disqualify me, since points from the first two heats will be added together to decide who qualifies for the third, but obviously it makes it less likely I will qualify. As to what I think of this, I’m not surprised: my story (I realised too late) was diabolically confusing. Of several readers in the online forum (where authors post their entries and receive feedback from each other while waiting for the judges’ scores) only one managed to fully make sense of it, and only with the help of Google to decode all the abstruse historical hints. (If only I’d finished it early enough for my wife to read it! She’s a great one for telling me, “I don’t understand.” And to me this is the greatest challenge in writing, to make yourself understood.) So I was not expecting a great score. But that said, one of the judges’ comments thrilled me:
This is without question the most original, authentic, and unnervingly textured take on the prompts I’ve read. Your approach to the story is remarkably idiosyncratic and daring. So many of these phrases sing, but the one I’ll carry with me for some time is “not just printed history: a jagged sound-wave history.” Superb! Your use of perspective, narrative voice, and state of mind is indicative of a fearless writer who is essentially capable of writing anything. You took a big gamble with this letter story, and every word washed over me. Engrossing at every level. A fascinating marriage of form and content. Bravo. Some clarity is sacrificed for the sake of bold storytelling, but I’m OK with that. (We wouldn’t have a perplexing masterpiece like Mason & Dixon if Pynchon didn’t follow the same impulse.) Though it’s imperfect, I applaud the mastery of language and the imaginative thrust of this piece. Clarity isn’t everything—especially when there is such overflowing originality.
What’s puzzling? That I didn’t place at all. Granted, the other two judges didn’t seem to get it: one was lukewarm, one was negative. Which means my story received the full gamut of responses. My story was divisive. My story appealed to a “niche” of one-in-three, and possibly only because that positive reader admired my talent, rather than the actual story itself. Still, with such a positive response I could at least have done with a point or two. (The highest-ranked writers received fifteen points.) But then again, who am I fooling? I know my writing doesn’t appeal across the board. But just to have read that one reader’s response was hugely encouraging. Now to harness that talent again.
Discipline – I had it at age 20, when I published Liadhen. And I kept it right up until the first draft of Vanishing Points when I was 24. Then I lost it, for a good ten or twelve years, and by then I was working full-time in cities to keep afloat. My discipline went into getting to work, to not caving in under the crushing boredom. Now I’m free again, for now at least, and getting my groove back. For most of the last two years my time has gone to music – to learning how to produce using high-end audio computer software and to recording what has grown to an unwieldy back-catalogue of songs (at least 40 newly recorded plus another 30-40 transferred from my old 8-track half-finished). But for now at least, in London, I’m focussing on prose. Aim: a book of stories by the time I leave for Iceland in December. First drafts only, but it’ll be a start. Oh and, judges willing, another NYC Midnight story.
“Pawn Takes King” – my Heat #2 story, with two-sentence synopsis. Genre: fantasy / setting: cancer clinic / object: chain-link fence.
“Figment of the Air” – my Heat # 1 story.