A little while ago I was fortunate enough to be asked if I wanted to contribute a story to a forthcoming anthology, to be entitled The Book of Witches, by its curator A.J Dalton.
So, as well as a gentle bit of pre-advertising, I thought I’d take you on the journey of what it takes me to write eight thousand words of (and I use the term loosely) good quality prose and form it into a story.
The Dalton got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to work with him again. You see, I contributed a story called Forefront, to a previous collection he curated, The Book of Dragons. It is an okay story. I was glad to have written it and even gladder to have obtained my first published credit in a book. However, when I read it back now, I cringe somewhat. Partly because it’s the nature of the beast, releasing your work into the wild and partly because it really needed more polishing to be better. That said, it was ‘good enough’ and made the cut. I’d certainly recommend the book, especially for the other authors work in there.
AJ Dalton is an accomplished author, lecturer, Dr, and the many other things that I cannot write about here. He is also at least partly responsible for kicking my arse into gear and getting serious about writing. He has a website here. Bah.
Back to Dr Daltons proposition. (Yes, he really is a Dr, but more like hirsute Dr Who, rather than Dolittle or McCoy. The picture above proves it). Of course, I said yes. I’d be an idiot not to. The terms were quickly disclosed and agreed upon.
In case you were wondering the going rate is for a story in a book? £15 and a copy of the book, with 2% cut of the royalties, if there is ever any.
We really don’t do this to get rich.
So, with the agreement in place, I needed a story. Hmmmm witches.
My first idea was about a witch who used to be a man and who ran a magic shop. I tried to write that and realised I had no idea of the character whatsoever and I didn’t have a story to back up the premise, which I maintain is sound. One day I’ll find that story.
Next, I ran with was a story about a bunch of paranormal investigators who planned to spend the night a cabin in a wood which, unbeknownst to them, wasn’t haunted. It was actually inhabited by a particularly evil witch. Who then goes on to brutalise them all. I wrote two or three thousand words of various parts of that story to find it fell flat and I ran out of ideas to raise it back up. I did write a really good section about the witch peeling one of the investigators with a knife made of silver. I don’t even know if silver can get that sharp. It probably can. I’ll use that somewhere else I’m sure. But that story also ran out of magic. I could have forced my way through it and finished it but I knew it wasn’t quite right.
Back to the drawing board I went. The next idea out of my brain was a Tales From the Crypt style campfire story linking a load of urban legends to a witch. The big reveal at the end being that one of the storytellers was actually the witch. Shock! Horror! I know. I liked that story a lot. It had good characters, especially the witch but once I started writing it, I promptly lost interest in it.
At this point I thought I was going to have to withdraw from the collection. The deadline was creeping closer and closer and I got seriously close to sending that email.
In an act of desperation, I went back to, what is for many, the first witch story they heard of, The Pendle Witches. Within 30 seconds of reading the Wikipedia page, I’d had an idea. Another 30 secs or so for a tiny bit of research and the bones of story appeared. The witch, her motivations and her actions revealed themselves really quickly to me. I had found myself the story. I was saved. Though let’s be honest, I really had nothing but an idea. What I did have was my enthusiasm for the project back. I felt renewed and ready to knuckle down and write.
But first, research.
I had a fair but to do. I read around the Pendle Witches and the people they crossed, and those who crossed them. The story was written during the Covid lockdown, so I couldn’t go out and look at where the story was going to happen (Pendle is fairly close to where I live), so I relied on google maps and asking people I know who live in the area.
One of the main characters is a policeman so I asked a person I know in the police for some procedural guidelines, to try and give the story an extra level of authenticity. Although I can’t promise I stuck to them.
I wrote the beginning first. Then the end. Then the middle. In that order. Because that’s how it came out. Don’t ask me why. It seems to just be my process. Oddly enough, when I got drafts back from my reader-helpers, where were all the errors? The beginning and the end. By the time I got to the middle I was flying. But that’s jumping ahead of ourselves.
When I finished, I went back and corrected all the spelling errors and obvious things. I read it out loud. I cannot emphasise this enough. READ YOUR STUFF OUT LOUD. Then I cut the opening paragraph. That there is some more good advice. Often your first paragraph is just for you. It places you in the world you are making up as you go along. Once it’s got you there, you can cut it. It’s done its job and rarely, if at all, does it serve the story the way you think it does. From there I did more tinkering and fixing, adding things in I thought were needed and then it got sent off to reader number one.
Thanks to lockdown, I had it back in less than 24 hours with around 50 or so points of order including corrections, advice and questions. I set to work on those and when I completed them. I re-read it again. OUT LOUD. I fixed more stuff, found an extra little bit the story needed. Which added it in and then sent it off to reader number two. Who sent it back to me with another twenty-five of so points of order for me to address. Which I did.
Then I stopped looking at it altogether for a few days to let it settle. Or let my brain settle and gain some distance from it. Then I read it out LOUD again and sent it off to The Dalton for his read through and edit. More importantly this was the stage were the final nod was given, or not. A week or so later, I get my reply.
The story is a go.
That news gave a tangible sense of relief and if I’m honest, a real boost to my confidence. My faith in myself and my storytelling was living somewhere between the floor and the gutter. As to why, that’s another tale that maybe I’ll share that here one day.
What I will share is the first line of the feedback I was given, as it is important. For every thousand or so rejection letters, there’s one that starts like this…
‘I really appreciate the quality of ‘Your Wonderful Witch Story’. It perfectly suits the ethos we’re looking for with regard to the collection.’
No need to read between the lines there eh? Most of the feedback given was on grammar, I’m not the best at it. To be perfectly honest I was never taught it, I just make it up as I go. It’s got me through so far. More of the feedback was my punctuation of speech. Bit of a head scratcher for me that one, but I’ll defer to the editor there. The most troubling feedback note was on the title. Now it’s obviously not called ‘My Wonderful Witch Story’. The original title was that it didn’t have a title and I just threw something on at the last minute. That was a mistake. Think about titles. They are important. The title that I hastily added was rightly pointed out for being a bit revelatory and thinking about it now, generic.
It’s taken a bit of time and a lot of brainstorming to find a title that does what I want it to do. However ,after much rumination and consideration, I finally got it.
I can announce my story is called … In the Shadow of Pendle.
Sounds ominous doesn’t it?
The Book of Witches by AJ Dalton, featuring my story In the Shadow of Pendle will be in available sometime in August. Don’t worry, I won’t let you miss it 🙂