Huge stacks of paper

Improve your writing – become a slush reader

For the last few years, I’ve been a slush reader for Aurealis speculative fiction magazine, and it’s done wonders for me as a writer.

What is a slush reader, you ask? Simply put, open-submission publications like Aurealis receive hundreds, possibly thousands, of submissions every year – far too many for their editors to read through every one when choosing what to publish. So they rely on (usually) volunteers to sift through this virtual mound of unsolicited fiction – the slush pile – and figure out which stories are of high enough quality to pass on up the chain.

I joined the team at Aurealis on a whim, but haven’t regretted the decision for a minute. In fact, slush reading been integral to improving my abilities and confidence as a writer.

Here’s why:

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Girl with a lantern finding her way through a dark forest

Figuring it out as I go: on pantsing with anxiety

One of the questions that comes up in writerly circles is: are you a planner or a pantser?

Planners like to know exactly where their story is going before they begin. They’re the writers who create outlines, spreadsheets, scene planners, character maps, etc ad infinitum.J. K. Rowling? Definitely a planner. J.R.R. Tolkein, with his volumes of world history and mythology, his carefully crafted languages, was possibly the ultimate planner.

Pantsers prefer to just sit down and go, and let the story fall as it may – in other words, they write by the seat of their pants.

There’s a lot more appeal, to me, in being a planner. Planners have plans. They know what they’re doing. If they get stuck, they can just look at their plan and figure out where they need to go next – or, if that’s not enough, they can do some more planning. Right?

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Close up on hands typing at a computer keyboard

Writing update and reflections on being in the writing zone

As of this morning, my latest story – tentatively titled ‘Two Turns of the Moon’ – is polished up and in the hands of some of my wonderful beta readers. That’s something I haven’t been able to say since – oh gods – July.

While I await their feedback, I’ll take another look at the story I was struggling with before writing this one. After a lengthy writing drought brought on by travel, job-hunting, and getting too caught up in expectations, I’ve been really pleased by my momentum over the last week, and I want to make every effort not to let that momentum drop.

Just a short post this week – some reflections on what it feels like to be back in the writing zone.
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Someone sitting in a park with a notepad and pen

Stop procrastinating, start writing

I’m pleased to report that I’m continuing to write almost daily, though the amount I get through before it becomes a battle to remain focused is still much less than it was earlier this year, when writing was an established part of my daily routine.

There are some skills, like cycling, that I can put down and pick up again as if I’d never spent a day out of the saddle; others, like knitting, require a conscious retraining of my mind and my muscles if it’s been too long since I last picked up the needles. Writing as a practice – sitting down to do it every day, without procrastination, and, having sat down, being able to keep my fingers moving even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired – is a skill it’s all to easy for me to lose.

After four months of writing not very much at all (a combination of going on holiday, coming back and looking for work, and then dealing with starting a new job), it’s taking a lot of conscious work to get back to place where writing is something I just sit down and do, not something that requires me to wrestle myself into the chair.

Experience tells me that the key here is practice – just keeping going until I build the habit again. But since I can’t just fast forward to the point where habit is enough, here are some tricks I’m using in the meantime to help me sneak past the desire to procrastinate:

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Typewriter with a blank page on a dark background

Rejecting success

Earlier this month, I resigned as Senior Ranger and departed the organisation and the field in which I’ve worked for the last decade of my life. “Park ranger” is no longer a key part of my identity. I’ll have to update my profile here – and elsewhere – once I can actually figure out what my identity looks like now.

I’ve started work at a customer service call centre, on casual hours. I’ll have the chance to move to part-time – and a more stable routine – once I’ve been there a few months.

The complete rejiggering of my life has been greeted by friends, family, and workmates with all kinds of supportiveness, and for the most part I’m really appreciating it. But I want to talk about one particular sentiment that’s been cropping up a lot in certain people’s words of support:

You’ll have so much time now to focus on your writing.

It’s great that you’re taking the next step on your writing journey.

Congratulations – I can’t wait to see your name on the cover of a book!

Here’s the thing, though: since handing in my resignation – blog posts aside – I’ve barely written a word of fiction.

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A smartphone screen lit up in the dark, displaying an image of hands reaching for one another

Writer’s review: ‘Heart Emoji at the End of the World’

Why do we keep telling apocalypse stories? Surely there are only so many ways to write the end of the world. So why is it such a fertile subject for speculative fiction?

There are multiple answers to that question. As a predictive tool, apocalypses let us highlight the hazards we see in the world today or imagine in the world tomorrow. As a setting, a world gone mad provides plenty of fodder for daring action sequences and thrilling near-misses. But the apocalyptic story that reached out from the screen and grabbed me this week contains neither prediction nor action.

Instead, Shauna O’Meara’s ‘Heart Emoji at the End of the World’ demonstrates another reason the apocalypse is such brilliant writing fodder: it has a potential for emotional impact like no other. Catastrophic events lend unprecedented urgency and depth to personal interactions – and O’Meara’s story takes the broad-scale tragedy of a society coming apart and makes it deeply, achingly personal.

Like my other writer’s reviews, this will be about what I took away from this story as a writer as much as a reader, and as usual it won’t try to avoid spoilers – so if you’re interested in experiencing the story as a reader, I highly recommend you go and read it before you read my analysis of it. It’s well worth it. I’ll wait.

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A dark wall containing several identical doors

Writing a compelling, character-driven climax

It’s one of the most common pieces of advice for would-be writers: read widely, read often. Less often appended is: read thoughtfully. But that’s what it means, really. As a writer, you’re no longer just reading to be entertained – you’re reading to learn from those further along the journey than you are, studying the work of skilled craftsmen to find out how to better your own craft.

This kind of detective work is one of the best things about my own endless journey towards being a better writer: analysing fiction that appeals to me and discovering clues to improving my own fiction. Sometimes it’s a work of concentration and deep thought; sometimes, like this morning, the pieces just fall into place and suddenly I can see a picture I didn’t even know was there. This morning’s epiphany: the element that ties together the climactic moments of so many of my favourite character-driven short stories.

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A half-formed sandcastle

Inspiration paralysis and how to get past it

I’ve been in a writing drought for the last week or two. Not through lack of inspiration, much to my relief, but simply through lack of time and – which is just as important thought less often discussed – lack of mental and emotional resources to spare for it.

This week, though, I’m finally back in the saddle with plans for a brand new story. I have themes and characters and a general shape, and it’s all brimming with potential. And so I find myself confronting the single most hair-tearingly difficult challenge of writing: actually putting words down.

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Mermaid swimming inside a lightbulb on the forest floor

Writer’s review: Analysing Seanan McGuire’s ‘Each to Each’

In a 2009 interview, Ira Glass talked about what has come to be known as the taste gap: the difficult period early in anyone’s creative life when they know good fiction (or art, or whatever) when they see it, but they don’t yet know how to produce it, so everything they create disappoints them. “A lot of people never get past that phase,” Glass said. “They quit.”

Occasionally, I will read someone else’s short story and it will be so much the kind of thing I want to write but am not yet capable of that I have to spend a day or so talking myself out of quitting (hello there, anxiety). The latest of these is Seanan McGuire’s Little Mermaid-inspired story, Each to Each (recommended to me by a friend because I’ve been thinking about writing my own take on that particular problematic fairytale).

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Section of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Ellesmere manuscript)

Grammar, politics, and sexism – how do you choose a generic pronoun?

If other writers are anything like me, I’m sure they get frustrated by prescriptive articles on grammatical “rules” and “mistakes” (never use adverbs/second person/passive voice!). In general, I will argue passionately for any writer’s right to experiment with and use whatever grammatical structures best suit their voice and the voices of their characters (within the bounds of readability and not promoting racist stereotypes).

But at the same time, language is a powerful tool. As storytellers, we help inform how other people see the world. So when questions of grammar intersect with deeper issues (such as the aforementioned problem of writing dialogue that promotes stereotypes), then it’s time to think harder about the grammatical choices we make.

And that’s why I find myself writing a blog post about generic pronouns (that is, what do you use to describe a person of unknown or irrelevant gender?). Hang on to your hats – it may be grammar, but it’s also a ride through history, politics, and sexism that’s likely to upturn a few things you thought you knew about the English language.

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