This summer, after writing professionally for eight years, I finally penned my very first short story.
To some readers of this blog this may come as a surprise. Creative writing guides often advise those getting started to begin with short fiction: it is regarded by many as part and parcel of the traditional apprenticeship that writers must undergo. The short story, according to the theory, is the training ground where we’re supposed to hone our craft, to find our voice, to tighten our prose, to learn the skills that will allow us to tackle our bigger projects.
There’s a certain logic to this school of thought. A novel is a mountain: to scale it takes considerable planning and preparation followed by a long and arduous climb to the summit, punctuated by unforeseen obstacles that aren’t always visible from base camp. And the metaphorical descent can be just as tricky, as you return over ground already covered: editing, reassessing and rewriting, often repeatedly. The prospect is daunting, and there are any number of reasons to give up along the way. The gratification that comes with completion can seem forever out of reach; it’s easy to misinterpret the constant struggle as a sign of failure.
The short story, on the other hand, offers a quicker route to that sense of gratification. For the novice, the knowledge of having completed something is invaluable: it is validation of one’s own ability. Success breeds confidence, and confidence breeds success. It’s a virtuous circle, or at least that’s the principle. It enables experimentation without risk.
But writing short fiction has its own unique challenges. Few of us read it, and even those of us who do tend not to consume it in the same quantity that we consume novels. If we don’t read it, how can we expect to be able to write it? When in 2006 I started out on my writer’s journey I certainly hadn’t read enough short stories to understand their form and structure. I did attempt to write a few, but without a clear idea of what I was trying to achieve, and so I soon abandoned them. What I wanted was to write a novel, and so with the single-mindedness of youth I set out from the beginning to do exactly that.
It’s only now – after an MA in Creative Writing, four published novels and now the first year of a PhD – that I feel I understand my craft well enough that I’m able to graduate from the novel to the shorter form. The short story is more technical, more succinct; it requires greater precision of language and phrasing. Every word matters. What is not said can be just as important as that which is made explicit. Working out how best to exploit the negative space around the words can reap immense rewards, but takes time.
A short story doesn’t obey the same conventions as its longer counterpart. It can be a puzzle for the reader to crack; it can pose questions without the pressure of having to offer resolution. In its very brevity it offers complexity. The process of writing one is certainly shorter, but not necessarily any easier than writing a novel. It requires skills that my younger self twelve years ago simply did not possess.
For me, writing short stories this summer has offered me a chance to experiment with voice, form and prose technique, to break away from my usual habits and comfort zones, and to test ideas for my bigger project – the novel that forms the heart of my PhD thesis. It has been liberating, allowing me to expand my horizons beyond historical fiction and try out other genres for the first time in years. (Not that I’ve ever seen myself purely as a historical novelist: that’s simply where my career has happened to take me so far.)
These past few months have been some of the most creative I’ve experienced, and the stories I’ve produced are, I believe, some of my most challenging and imaginative work. As I turn now back towards thinking about the novel, I feel reinvigorated but also increasingly aware of the possibilities of the longer form – and increasingly confident in my own ability to achieve them. More than ever I feel I’m on the cusp of something very exciting: I’m redefining myself as an author.
Get ready for James Aitcheson 2.0.
This week I wrote.
That probably seems like a fairly unremarkable thing for a novelist to say. But in fact this was the first time since last summer that I’d produced any substantial creative work at all.
Sure, I’d scribbled down musings from time to time: a phrase; a sentence; sometimes as much as two sentences in a row. I’ve put together a quick-fire story in ten minutes as part of an exercise during a writing workshop that I led recently.
What I hadn’t done in over six months was spend a full day at my computer engaged with my current novel. In fact, for most of 2017, I deliberately didn’t write, or did so only intermittently. My total word count for my work-in-progress amounted to not much more than 10,000 words – that is to say, roughly around 30 pages.
I was a writer who wasn’t writing.
Of course, there have been a few mitigating circumstances. I was busy with other things: firstly preparing to begin my PhD at the University of Nottingham, and then, from the autumn onwards, launching myself into my research, which has taken me down some fascinating avenues. (Look out for more posts about my research coming soon.) But the main reason for this extended break was simply that I needed the time to recharge my creative batteries.
By that point I’d been writing consistently for over a decade: I began working on my first novel, Sworn Sword, shortly after I graduated from Cambridge in 2006. Traditionally I’ve tried not to take very long between finishing one novel and starting the next – often no more than a couple of months. It always seemed like the best way of overcoming the fear of the blank page, and gave me a continuing sense of purpose.
What it’s meant, though, is that there’s rarely been a moment when I’ve not had one project or another actively underway. In ten years, I hadn’t allowed myself the chance to step back and think more broadly about my creative direction and what I’m looking to achieve.
Hence why I decided for once not to pitch myself into this latest novel with the same single-mindedness, but instead to let it evolve gradually. In fact, the most important imaginative work I did in 2017 was away from the computer, as I refocused my energies.
I ventured out into the field to explore the history embedded within the urban and the rural landscapes: castles, cathedrals, abbeys, churches, palaces, you name it. I invested in a replacement for my aging 2003-spec digital camera and experimented with photographing these sites, searching for new ways of looking at them and the world in general.
Armed with notepad and HB pencil, I sought out the ancient and medieval collections in museums across the country, and made rough sketches of the artefacts I saw: whatever inspired me, however magnificent or mundane.
I thought about writing, even though I was doing very little of it. I went on a retreat, and even though it wasn’t as productive as I hoped, I came back re-energised. I spent more time than usual in the company of other writers, talking with them about the challenges, joys and frustrations of the creative process, and revelled in that sense of community. (Writers, in my experience, tend to be solitary creatures by necessity rather than by nature.)
I read books by authors I’d never encountered before, in all sorts of genres: historical fiction; memoir; SF and fantasy; young adult; contemporary; short stories; magical realism. All the while I continued to make reams of notes for my work-in-progress – gems of insight that I could add to my treasure hoard.
When I finally came back to the novel this week, having not looked at it – or those extensive notes – for several months, I saw it at once in a new light. To put things into perspective: those 10,000 words from last year were already, in my view, a cut above anything I’d ever produced before. In purely numerical terms it might not have amounted to much, but technically and conceptually, I felt I’d made an enormous stride forward.
Once I set to work, though, I was quickly aware of how often the 2018-me was bringing out the red pen for paragraphs that the 2017-me had considered brilliant. Even though I hadn’t been actively exercising my writing muscles, my expectations had evolved. I had raised the bar; I’d become more demanding of myself, not to mention more confident in my own abilities.
The revised draft that eventually emerged was a considerable improvement in almost every aspect: better control of voice; greater precision of imagery; a more tightly worked approach to dialogue. And this made me think.
Is it possible to become a better writer by not writing?
From the very beginnings of our literary careers, we authors put pressure on ourselves to keep busy. How-to guides on getting started in creative writing often stress the importance of establishing a routine: making it a familiar habit. Indeed, the most common piece of advice I give to aspiring writers is simply to practise, and then to practise some more. There’s no great secret to it: the more you write, the better you’ll get.
For professional novelists, too, it’s easy to feel that if you’re not actively working on something, you’re not being productive. Readers, editors, booksellers and fellow authors are all eager to know not just about the current project, but also what’s next in the pipeline. (Will there be a sequel?) And, of course, time is money: if you’re not writing, you’re not earning.
At some point, though, it’s worthwhile taking a step back. If you’re to take your craft to the next level and produce something truly original, it makes sense to pause once in a while. Only by gaining some distance from the nitty-gritty can you see the bigger picture.
Don’t be a slave to your manuscript! Give your writing the room it needs to breathe. Take stock of what you’ve achieved so far. Think about how you might do things differently next time round. Consider new approaches, new ways of challenging yourself.
Reflect. Refresh. Get out for a bit. See the world. Read more books. Try your hand at another creative discipline. Open yourself up to new experiences. Do anything but write, at least for a little while.
Most importantly, by stepping back you allow yourself to recapture the passion, energy and ambition that made you want to write in the first place.
You owe that to yourself. And, in the long run, it’ll be worth it.
As many of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook will already know, later this month I’ll be beginning a brand new chapter in my literary career. In just a few weeks I’ll be starting my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, thanks to an AHRC-funded studentship from the Midlands3Cities DTP.
The PhD will see me explore the boundaries of historical fiction and magic realism. I’ll be looking at medieval concepts of the otherworldly and supernatural in sources ranging from Beowulf to the Icelandic sagas, and using my findings to inspire and inform a novel set in medieval England that incorporates fantastical themes. It’s something of a departure in style and subject matter from my recent work, and I’m looking forward to delving into some of the weirder and more wonderful aspects of life in the Middle Ages.
Lately I’ve found myself thinking back to the autumn of 2007, just as I was embarking on a similar adventure with the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where I began to develop the manuscript that eventually became Sworn Sword. I’d been writing in my spare time for several years, but I’d never before taken a formal course in the subject. Like everyone else, I was hoping it would be my first step on the journey towards seeing my name in print, but at that point publication, if I’m entirely honest, was still a distant dream.
Instead what most excited me about the MA was knowing that I had a whole 12 months ahead of me to develop my writing in a nurturing environment where experimentation was actively encouraged. The sheer energy of our cohort was infectious; it didn’t matter that were each working on wildly different projects, across every conceivable genre and in all manner of prose styles. We all knew the same joys of fiction-writing, and we all had the same goals: to learn and to improve.
Now, as I prepare for this next stage in my literary career, I find that same excitement returning, in a strange reflection of that autumn ten years ago. That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t enjoyed the process of writing four novels in the meantime: each one has been an exciting, sometimes terrifying, frequently frustrating, but always hugely rewarding adventure. But that raw passion and energy for the creative process – the thrill that comes from venturing into the unknown, exploring new horizons and discovering as-yet-untapped potential, without the burden of expectation – is something I’ve not experienced since I was a novice writer. It bodes well, I think, that I’m rediscovering those feelings now.
I’ve often said that it would have taken me ten years to learn on my own what I learned in a single year on the MA. The course transformed my prose and I emerged from it armed with the skills I needed to turn my ideas into a fully fledged novel, having opened up avenues that I’d never previously considered. Partly that was due to the support I received from tutors; partly it was the result of the considered and constructive feedback from my peers; partly it was down to self-reflection and intensive drafting, redrafting and studying.
As well as the strides I made creatively, I also made friendships to last a lifetime. I still meet regularly with many of the other writers I met on the course, to review each other’s work over coffee and cake: this has been without a doubt the most valuable legacy of the MA. I had no idea when I started just how big an influence it would prove to have on my life, and it makes me wonder what lies in store for me over the next three years…
I’ve no doubt that the PhD will be a different beast: more self-directed, more research-focussed, it will require me to use different skills, and to develop some new ones along the way. But if I can recapture and hold on to that spirit of ’07, I hope to be able to match the progress I made that year, and even surpass it. To infinity – and beyond!