I released my latest short story ebook, ‘Harpy Blinks’ on the 18th December. It is most certainly not a Christmas story but December is when it just happened to be finished and I wasn’t going to wait around.
The story centres on a forty-six year old man who appears to be unhappy with the way his life has turned out even though by all markers he seems to be doing quite well. While taking his department out for a drink (there is a section before this happens that you can read part of on the preview below) to celebrate a new promotion he meets a young woman. This young woman turns out to have a connection to him and as such they begin a conversation. It is evident she is drunker than he is. As the night progresses he stays drinking with the young woman and the story follows the conclusion of the night from his point of view.
The preview above is for the US Amazon site but to buy in UK you can visit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Harpy-Blinks-R-G-Rankine-ebook/dp/B01MU2717J
I had a story like this in mind for quite a while, and as I have mentioned before most of my short stories have been drafted years ago, and it was just a case of getting around to it. (All of my new ideas are being channelled into the novels I want to write over the next five years.) However it did change quite a lot in the writing. My original idea was to present a dilemma to the reader. I wanted to set out an ambiguous tutor/student relationship whereby your instinct is to presume there is something awry or unsettling in the relationship but upon examination you can find no evidence to suggest this. Therefore the whole story plays upon societal norms and expectations, and depending on your personal point of view, asks more questions of you than it does the characters. But as I started writing I found that I wanted to present a much more explicit and defined situation. I felt this gave the reader more of a problem because it wasn’t the case that they would have to dig to find something unsettling and balance their own sense of proprietary, rather they would be presented with an uncomfortable and unsettling situation and then have to confront themselves with how they judge the characters. It became a much more fulfilling exercise in writing although there were some uncomfortable moments for me too. For starters, it contains sexually explicit material. Not of the erotica kind, or the steamy-beach-holiday kind, but more of the everyday lustful, unsentimental animalism described in everyday crude language. I was reminded of all the interviews I’ve seen where an actor describes being in a sex scene and all they could think about was that their mum would be seeing this…
Without giving the story away it wasn’t just the language that was difficult. It was the portrayal of abuse. I won’t say any more than that as I want the story to stand for itself and allow for many interpretations, I don’t want to give concrete explanations that may change a reader’s perception of the piece. All that I shall say is that it was not a nice place to put your mind and I hope that transfers to the reader.
The problem with writing drama is that despite what the word ‘drama’ means you risk normalising situations. As I was writing, I was thinking how many people could or would see themselves in the characters I am creating. One on hand that is what I am hoping for, to reflect modern life and let people associate with situations they may find themselves in, or have found themselves in, but on the other hand, I’m not writing an essay. It is meant to be enjoyable, readable fiction (well, enjoyable in the language not necessarily in the subject matter) and I don’t want to make it so every day that it reads more like a newspaper article. So some aspects are heightened and some ignored, some described in detail, some overlooked, and so on. As I wrote, re-wrote and edited, I found myself naturally gravitating towards a certain kind of focus as that is where I felt it had the most impact. Writing in that way is very joyful because there is quite a lot of freedom, I didn’t feel constrained to fit into a preconceived idea. Although, yes, it is very hard to delete lots of work because it doesn’t ‘feel right’ or doesn’t ‘fit in’, there are moments when you feel days and weeks of work are totally wasted.
This was a totally fictitious story, not based on anyone I know or a personal experience of mine. That’s the first thing people ask of course but I was prepared for that and will quite happily repeat that I am not Harpy, I am not the young woman, and there are not two people out there that are. But of course, yes, you cannot help but draw upon people and experiences to create characters, it is just they are comprised of dozens, hundreds if not thousands of people you come across during a lifetime, some for brief moments, some part of your life forever. As I built these characters up I both became them, and also distanced myself from them. I wanted to make both characters identifiable but not necessarily likeable. It’s a natural thing to do when starting to read a story, to ‘side with’ the main character as in most cases they are the traditional protagonist hero. However I didn’t want that. I wanted the reader to be doubtful, to be concerned, to worry about the way things are going and of course then you feel like you are betraying the people you have just created because you are intentionally making them look bad. It’s a strange feeling to have to write badly of people but again, quite joyful because it makes you think: if this character is effecting me and I know them inside and out because I created them (and by inside and out, I mean I know the characters information to a far higher level than I could ever fit into a single story, in fact a lot of the time spent developing a character can feel wasteful because you know you are never going to include this information in the story itself, yet that’s the only way to make them believable) then what will a reader think about them when it is the first time they will have encountered them!
As I have said many times, I am a novice writer and I know I have a long way ahead of me but I feel this story was a good lesson for me. I learnt and developed a lot during this process and I feel a better writer for it. I guess you should feel that way after every story but I don’t. This time however I was a lot stricter on the editing and a lot more focussed on making it ‘readable’. I tried to be as brave as possible in my descriptions while still not being too exacting, the whole show-don’t-tell thing not being my strength. I feel I stuck to my aim of describing something in a thematic way without overtly expressing my personal opinion or being too didactic. I want all of my stories to be things people can associate with even if in a general ‘this is society’ way and this may be an uncomfortable but not by any means unusual example.
The cover image is pretty straightforward symbolism. The beginning of the story describes a single afternoon in a local park or field and I thought I would use that. I visited a field I know and took lots of different photographs all of the same place but at different angles, heights and lengths. I then applied different colour saturations to each of them, playing with hues, tones, brightness, and so on before placing them in a haphazard order. Very simply this is meant to imply that a memory, no matter how strong, can be fragmented, incorrect, changed over time, not in the right order and certain elements emphasised whilst others minimised. Therefore the cover shows that although it is the same place you are looking at (or rather memory, or even, future ideal) it appears very differently and not in the way you would expect.
I feel happy with the story although I do have to be truthful and say that I didn’t want to take up any time over Christmas so I made sure I finished it for a 2016 release. It may well have been better to have waited a while and done one more round of re-reading and editing but I had to make a decision. I have two more short story ebooks ready for 2017 (although this time back to collections, three in each, of much shorter length) that will be Collection Four and Collection Five. They need some work done but are more or less there. And I have one more short story that will be of similar length to this one that I would like to finish by the end of spring. Those aside, I will be returning to my novel in 2017 as I need to get that finished. I am glad I took time out and entered competitions this year as I feel I learnt and got a lot from it but I won’t be doing anywhere near the same amount in 2017, instead making sure I get a decent draft ready of the novel. Wish me luck as I am doubting myself before I even finish this sentence…
Have wonderful Christmas and New Year celebrations.
The best to you all,