A Year in Review
yes, it’s one of those reflect-on-last-year-now-the-new-one-has-begun articles, I’m afraid
A year ago my friend Brent asked me to proofread his story for this crazy contest he was entering. “Five thousand dollars for a short story,” he said, frothing, “and you get published. That’s a good deal.”
I encouraged him to climb down from the signpost he had scaled and put on a shirt. I calmed the gathered crowd by informing them that my friend was a writer; they nodded sagely and went about their business.
My friend was a writer, but — alas! — I was not. I have always harboured the dream of writing. I think a lot of people do. It’s one of the popular points on the Look-At-Me-I’m-Special spectrum: pretty but dumb wants to be an actor, smart* but ugly wants to be a writer.**
Problem is, I’m extremely lazy. In my life up to the end of 2021 I’d started a few very bad novels that went nowhere, and finished exactly two very bad short stories. That was it. I’d fallen for one of the classic wannabe-writer blunders: not actually writing anything.
After hearing about the V+ Fiction Awards, though, when a story idea popped into my head on Christmas day I actually sat down and wrote the bloody thing instead of ruminating and procrastinating.
And we were off to the races.
Year of the Tiger
It turns out that the Vocal challenge format perfectly fits the motivation structures of my own personal brain. The carrot of a fat cash prize joined with the stick of a deadline and prompt limitations work really well in getting me writing. More importantly, they work really well in getting me to actually finish something.
Since joining Vocal I’ve written 14 stories for this website, placed in a couple of challenges, joined some writing groups, and read a lot of work done by others. I feel I’ve learned a lot about writing in general, and myself as a writer specifically.
I’m not as productive as many, but averaging more than one piece per month is something I’m satisfied with. I didn’t keep a steady pace, however — one thing I learned is that my motivation and enthusiasm to write comes in waves. I’ll generally have a couple of months where I write a lot, then three-ish months where I don’t write anything at all.
For the purposes of this article that’s quite a boon: we can neatly divvy up the year into the three writing phases I had; a comfy and familiar structure of beginning, middle, and end (more on that later)!
The Beginning is the End is the Beginning (Jan-Feb)
Fake Meat was the story that got me started, and going back and reading it now I’m still very pleased with how it turned out. I set out to capture the frustration and fear you’d experience if meaning bled out of the world, and I flatter myself but I think I did a pretty good job.
Funny story: the inspiration for this one came from starting a new career in web development. Coding is a great way to experience existential crises regularly.
Fake Meat made it into the 25 finalists of the V+ Fiction Awards. Getting told you will be published in a real-life, actual book was a great way to start the year!
Unfortunately its success filled me with a rush of misplaced confidence. My "hey, I’m a real writer now" mentality led to what I consider my two worst stories, Bathtimes of the Rich and Famous and Owl Pellets. Going back to read them for this article I think that actually their prose isn’t too bad, but they’re both very ‘meh’.
I have considered deleting Bathtimes, but I left it up to keep me humble. It was my least-read story for a very long time, but due to it starting with ‘B’ it comes up first in searches and so has kept ticking up reads (one of the reasons the title of this article is A Year in Review and not the much cooler Year of the Tiger, as a matter of fact) and now lies somewhere in the middle. I mention this because my partner (who features in the story) periodically comes in to ask how it’s doing stat-wise, and when she sees it’s not at the bottom she prods me in the shoulder.
“See,” she says, grinning like a cheshire cat, “I'm very wise. People want to hear about me, not your weird stories.”
Her name has been entered into the book of grudges.
What I learned:
- Yes, I CAN write something good.
- No, that doesn’t mean I automatically will.
- Non-fiction isn’t really my bag.
Stuck in the Middle With You (Jun-Aug)
- I didn’t think The Hobbit needed defending but here we are
- The Thief of Reason
- The Third Ingredient
- The Fight in the Dog
This was my most productive period, and also when I wrote my best work. I think that all of these stories are at least pretty good.
Logos is the best story I’ve written, I think. The Thief of Reason has arguably my best prose. Lots of people liked Engine — it’s my most-read story that didn’t place in a challenge. I wrote two non-fiction pieces: the lighthearted I didn’t think The Hobbit needed defending but here we are, and the bit-too-sappy-really The Third Ingredient. I experimented with different styles in The Fight in the Dog and Eigengrau.
I didn’t just experiment with different styles, but also with different approaches to writing. Fake Meat and The Thief of Reason were both very flash-of-inspiration type of affairs, where the idea for the story arrived fully formed. Logos and Engine, however, went through lots of iterations and revisions. Logos actually started life as a story about cowboy banditos meeting in a cabin after a heist. It took some wranglin' to git that one squared away, yessir. I found that I quite enjoy this kind of iterative process. It's very satisfying when it comes together.
I fell into a really good writing groove over this three-month period. Work was going well but not too busy, giving me a positive outlook but affording me lots of time. I found a wonderful writing group in Great Incantations, which offered both encouragement and feedback. I found a writing setup that works well for me — a camping chair near an unused window, a thermos of gin and tonic, and the hours of 8-10pm on weeknights, 4-6 on weekends.
I won a challenge with Logos and came second in another with The Thief of Reason. I'm proud of both of them. From the stories which didn’t win I also got an idea of what Vocal looks for in a challenge-winning entry: developed characters and a strong plot† with a beginning, middle, and end (told you we’d come back to these).
My underdog (no pun intended… or was it) of the year was The Fight in the Dog, written for the sci-fi prologue challenge. I wanted to make a careening, frenetic story which put the punk back in cyberpunk, and while it didn’t place I was enormously pleased with how it turned out. It netted me my favourite comment of the year, too, from the incomparable Morgana Miller:
What I learned:
- Vocal challenge judges look for a story with strong plot structure.
- My weak point is plot, especially characters.
- Vocal really likes non-fiction for Top Stories.
In the End (Nov-Dec)
I of course dropped the ball on trying to be more plot-focused immediately. Three out of four of the stories in this section don’t really have a plot, and two of the protagonists don’t have names. Oh well.
I struggled a lot in this period. My job had gotten a lot more busy, I had a family emergency, and I got rather discouraged after utterly flumphing my inaugural attempt at NaNoWriMo.
The structure of challenges changed as well. Vocal started experimenting with different deadlines, from almost two months for Christopher Paolini’s Fantasy Challenge to a mere week for the Aquarium one. I found the shorter deadlines very tough, personally.
I got a runner-up spot in the Paolini challenge — it was the one-in-four which had a plot, go figure — with In the Shadow of His Wings. I was thrilled for a couple of reasons: first, I had actually given up on the challenge due to the prompt (I could not for the life of me figure out what to do with a toddler meeting a dragon) when I had an inspiration-strikes moment two days before the deadline. I was able to get it written and reasonably-polished with just a few hours to spare.
Secondly, I might be wrong but I think mine was the only non-YA story which made the cut. People say to write for the judges. I definitely went against the grain here, by presenting the author of Eragon with my gloomy allegory — but it makes me happy to imagine Christopher Paolini reading my story and thinking, “well, it’s not my usual cup of tea but I like it.” Thanks, Christopher, if you read this!
Then I closed out the end of the year by getting really weird with it.
With the very short deadlines of the new challenges I steered into the skid with the basically plotless single-scene High-Pressure Deep Sea Environment Tank, the (deliberately?) confusing neo-noir mystery of The Liminal Man, and the ergodic puzzlebox of Test Subject (according to my stats, only nine people have reached the real ending of this odd little thing). Do they work as well-structured short stories? No. But do they have artistic merit? Probably also no. But I had fun writing them.
What I learned:
- My ideal deadline is 3-4 weeks (longer and it loses urgency, sooner and it is too much of a pinch).
- As an amateur writer I don’t have any expectations to live up to, so I can experiment.
- Don’t expect your experiments to be of any worth though, James Joyce.
And that was it! Auld Lang Syne played, we all got really drunk, and 2022 was over. I missed my resolution of reading a book a week by a frustrating two, I gained far too much weight, and the year seemed to be roughly six weeks long... but I made some wonderful new friends and my writing has improved by leaps and bounds.
Overall: very good year.
But enough about me…
I’ve talked about myself a hell of a lot, but I want to finish by putting forward my personal top three stories on Vocal in 2022:
1: Destination by Kallista Kusumanegara
I am both humbled and proud that one of my stories will be included in the same anthology as this piece. It’s not a short story, it’s honest-to-god literature. Absolutely incredible.
2: Until the Rain Stops by E.J. Ferguson
A truly wonderful story, perfectly told.
This is the only challenge winner that I've seen no sour grapes over whatsoever. Everyone read it and was like, “oh, yeah. Well obviously.” How do you silence comment trolls and deluded Dunning-Krugerites? On the internet? The answer is that you have to write this well.
E.J. Ferguson has several other excellent stories on their profile. Bluebottle Express is another favourite.
3: The Song of Tomorrow by Eric Dovigi
I’ll be honest, this one gets off to a bit of a slow start but holy hell before you know it it’s got its claws into you (ha!) and then you realise you're missing twenty minutes and your coffee's gone cold. This is a wonderful story to simply enjoy, but it’s also a masterclass in structure. The way the cheerfully-simple tone not only obfuscates the narrative complexity, but adds to it? *chef's kiss*
Eric is an extremely talented writer on a technical level especially; he makes it look effortless but there is so much going on under the hood in every one of his stories.
Honourable Mentions: Ghost Game by Morgana Miller and Things that Fall Between by Ally North
Morgana Miller won the train challenge and Ally North won the sci-fi challenge. I find this pretty funny, because I would have bet on it being the other way around.
I would have lost that bet, but if you missed these entries because they didn’t end up winning then you’re doing yourself a disservice. They're both top-notch.
Thanks all if you made it this far! This article ended up being much longer than expected. I hope that 2023 ends up being a great year for all of your writing endeavours.
*: or, more likely: 'thinks they're smart'
**: dumb and ugly is on twitter, smart and pretty is Taika Waititi
†: As an avid reader, I have always thought that the three pillars of good fiction are prose, plot, and theme. Plot includes characters and the mechanical throughline of the story itself.
I can triangulate what I find important in fiction by what I like and what I don’t. One of my favourite books is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and it’s excellent precisely because it utterly dominates all three pillars in a way you rarely see.
David Foster Wallace has excellent prose and profound themes, but his plots are meandering and often a bit… floaty? Same with Haruki Murakami. These are both writers I enjoy very much. So plot is my least-required of the three pillars.
Compare that with a category of fiction I’ve never liked: the fretful rich ladies of the Austens and their ilk. Prose? Check. Plot? It's all plot, babe. Theme? …why do we need theme? Did you miss the plot bit? Where the rich lady was talking to the other rich lady about how she wanted to marry but not really but actually kinda? And the man was at the party but will he be at the next party oh boy I sure do hope he’s at the next party. Man is much better than other man. But mother wants me to marry other man, not man. Oh nooooooo it’s so hard let’s go sit in the garden and have servants bring us tea. GET A JOB YOU SPOILED CLOWNS
What was I saying? Oh right, yes: theme is very important to me in fiction. Plot not so much.
This has become readily apparent in my own writing, where a common compliment I receive is that my story has ‘big ideas,' while a common criticism is ’your main character doesn’t even have a name, for fuck's sake’.
Not sure how i missed this, but hey, here now. Your analysis is spot on. I am surprised this was not a top story.. or did i miss it? Possible! Got to say I have been wallowing in poor man's pseudo-floaty-wallace-theme camp.. Trying to plot up a bit more now with my fiction. (Ahem... trying!) Cracking year for you. Can't wait to see what you bring in 2023! 😁 Well done. Inspirational stuff. ❤️
I was one of the nine who reached the end of that mind-bending journey you called Test Subject. You had me: 1) wishing I could read both faster (to see how it ended) and slower (to absorb the story into my skin) 2) googling how to add weird text to Vocal stories 3) ranting to my wife about "this buckwild story I just read" 4) looking you up like three weeks later to leave this comment Thanks for the fun, jealousy-inducing reads! I hope to write stuff as compelling as yours one day.
I’ve been subscribed and reading your stories since Fake Meat was a winner, but I’m not big on commenting. I’m not great at plot as a writer, and it is the least important thing to me as a reader. I agree prose is important. This was fun for me to read as a “writer who doesn’t write.” I love that you were able to find what works, and I look forward to reading more of your stories.
Madoka!! 🥰🥰 I was so excited to read this and get some insight into how you work your wizardry and was NOT expecting to see my face or my story. I’m so giddy now, thank you! I can’t believe you just took the plunge into writing regularly this year! I thought for sure you were one of the lit grads of vocal. Also the three pillars makes a lot of sense… if I have to choose, I’m plot and prose, sacrificing theme, although when I have a theme in mind the story comes out more easily. Also LOL @ smart and pretty is Taika Waititi 😂
BALLZ! Good stuff, as always.
I would have never guessed you only recently got into writing, your prose and storytelling had me fooled into thinking you've been at this your whole life! I love the music that you included in this and was really interested reading your thoughts on your own writing/stories. I also think it's really cool that you included your top 3 Vocal stories of the year from other creators. This is a nicely put-together article.
I liked your breakdown of your writing in a honest manner!! Well done and you’re a well modern, intense and detailed writer that I greatly respect