Monday 17 October 2011

Sprinting To Marathon

Writing and athletics.  Not things I usually link together.

I was thinking about the different skills used in longer and shorter events - the marathon and the sprint, the novel and the short story.

There aren't many sprinters out there who can turn in a good marathon time and there aren't too many middle-distance runners challenging the 100m world record.  They have different muscle strengths and skill sets which mean that it doesn't work to spread the net too widely.

At the same time, I have no doubt that world-class athletes can manage all the events in times that would laugh at anything I tried to do.  100m is about the distance I'd be prepared to run for a bus; after that you'd be looking at calling in the medics.

Usain Bolt might be one of the exceptions to any of this.  He has the lanky stride that could suit any distance as far as I can tell and I love him for that.

I've recently been varying my length in fiction.  It's not been easy and it hasn't been a natural progression.  There are many aspects of writing which are similar, just as runners put one leg in front of the other, breathe and move their arms.  There also enough differences to mean being good at one aspect of writing doesnt' mean an easy transfer to another.

There are examples of writers who manage short and long forms with elegance.

People I know who do great jobs as all-rounders are writers I admire greatly.

F Scott Fitzgerald, who could even manage to write a great unfinished novel.

Ernest Hemingway, brutal with words when long or short.

Allan Guthrie, brilliant builder of chaos and fine when limited to a short word-count.

Richard Brautigan, Charles Bukowski and Reed Farrel Coleman, not only running short and long but throwing the poetry javelin.

Hilary Davidson, Gary Phillips, Eric Beetner and Heath Lowrance, killers with short jabs or straight lefts and rights. 

James M Cain, master.

Ian Ayris, whom I've not read in novel form, but know that when I get my hands on the soon to be released Abide With Me will need to be careful it doesn't blow off my fingertips.

Donald Ray Pollock, a man who created his own event.

There'll be more.  I want you to tell me who they are so that I can check them out.

I think I write some good short stories and yet I've always wanted to write a novel.

My first attempt at a novel just lurks in a cave of darkness.  It won't come out and I'm too scared to go in and drag the thing.

My third, I think I've completed as well as I'll ever manage.  More on that one day, I'm sure.

My second, that was different altogether.

It started with a story, a short piece called 'An Arm And A Leg'. 

When Jen Jordan read it, she was right back to me claiming it for Crimespree.  Bless her and her brother for that.

Next it was accepted for the 'Mammoth Best British Crime Sotires'.

I was bowled over.

It seemed to me I had a great opening for a novel.

I set to writing it and took advice.

On the one hand, to make this attractive to publishers, a police presence might help. 

That was tangent one.

On another, if I could build up my dog-fighting theme in a way that followed the journey of one pup into the ring (and wasn't Jack London another with legs to suit any distance or terrain?) it might keep a reader involved.

I twisted and turned, twisted bits of string together to make rope - long, beautiful, golden rope like Rapunzel's hair.

I stood back.  Looked at it.  Couldn't see the wood for the trees.

Asked for help and received some of the best.

My opening didn't work.  Nor did the follow on.  And the next chapter?  Chapter 4, though, that was OK.

Off I went.  I probably cried.  I found another idea (novel attempt 3) and left the other on the shelf.

When I went back to the shelf, there was plenty to work with.

I took my 70,000 word story told from 4 different points of view and cut out two characters entirely. One of them, Smokey Arbroath, I could hardly bear to dispose of I'd come to love him so much.  

Smokey's wife had to go, too, and she had some of my favourite lines.

After that it was the favourite chapters that were cast aside.

Next came the fat and chaff from the remainder.

I found a little fairy dust, polished hard here and there and 70000 words had been trimmed to 22000. 

Rapunzel was now a skinhead.

I sent my novella to Trestle and hey presto, it's now available as 'Smoke'.

My fears that it might have been a haircut too far seem unfounded.

I thought it was good and so do the reviewers and readers so far.

I guess the only way you can tell whether I have moved successfully from sprints to middle-distance is to read the thing.

And I'm rubbing in the Wintergreen to see if when I completely finish the marathon I do a lap of honour or collapse at the line.

If you want to find out what happened to the bald Rapunzel, you can thank Mr Allan Guthrie for his wisdom and Trestle Press for taking the risk.



  1. I was privileged to see Smoke from the first time Nigel let it out of the dingy back room he had it chained in. I told hiim then I saw a critter that needed to be set free. Took him a while, but it's out there now, roaming around, singing its unique song. It's . . . oh fer fook's sake, shar up Hayes, ya git, and let te folks read ter damn ting! Good advice. Please take it.