Tag: Submissions

Kirk

Characterisation Part I

We’re into weird here at Headland. We like the oddball characters, the ones that you wouldn’t want to meet in real life, but that you’re grateful to have run into fictionally, so to speak. We like the characters that you’d want to be on a long car ride from Wellington to Auckland with, as well. Nice ones, that have interesting conversation. We like old ones, little ones, mean ones, and all of them in between.  We like them when they ring true, and get in your head. Short stories offer a challenge to writers to flesh out memorable characters with a limited word count. We’re really interested in the process that writers go through to create the people/things that drive their stories. We asked three Issue 9 authors to share their characterisation process with us.

We kick off with Craig Burnett,  author of ‘Seeds’, sharing his thoughts on his main character, real estate agent Kirk. Craig’s story is very topical, reflecting some of the themes currently playing out in New Zealand’s rental market.

Craig is a former journalist, who now works for a global politics think tank. He was born in Dundee and lives in south London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He has stories forthcoming in Noble Gas Quarterly, Flexible Persona, Fictive Dream and the Glasgow Review of Books. He tweets as @cburnettwriter.

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Kirk

My story is about a young and desperate flat-hunter, who meets an estate agent with a unique, efficient but very morbid business model. Kirk, the estate agent, is a grotesque figure, but hopefully not cartoonish. The whole story springs from the frustrations of trying to rent in a big city, and Kirk has a lot of the traits you might recognise from estate agents you meet in that situation – a sort of bouncy, vacant enthusiasm, and an unsettling tendency to babble well-rehearsed phrases (or even whole speeches). There’s some frustration beneath his patter though, which comes out later in the story.

There is one specific estate agent that came to mind when I was creating Kirk, who I met five or so years ago. He wasn’t terrible, but there was some low-level deception/obfuscation/pressuring. Standard London flat-hunting stuff. He was showing me and my girlfriend round a flat, and said he used to work in finance – but that he quit because he “didn’t want to do a job where people hated him”. If it was a joke it was delivered absolutely deadpan, so hats off to him, but I actually think it was a bit of a defiance thing – daring us to say how much we hate estate agents. I’ve met a few people who work in less popular jobs who do that – “I know what you’re thinking,” kind of thing. We rented the flat, for a year, and just before we moved out he came back with another couple to try to get them to move in. It was weird, watching him show them around. He didn’t say anything awful, but I still felt a bit like I was witnessing a mugging.

 

 

I like characters who’ve been shaped by their past and their environment, had it seep into them. With Kirk, you see it in his grandiosity – he spends so much time exaggerating things to his customers, making wild claims and stressing the positives, that he’s lost touch with reality a little. When he says he’s like a counsellor, or a social worker, he genuinely believes that. There’s not much self-awareness, but that doesn’t really hold him back, he just barrels along. He’s Trumpian, in a way – an odd combination of sharp and oblivious that turns out to be very successful, for him at least. Like Trump, he’s always got an excuse in his back pocket, and a way of abandoning responsibility when it benefits him. And of course he’s got the power in the relationship with the flat-hunter too. That’s one of the creepy thing about the story – she knows Kirk’s a bit of a dirtbag, but she also knows that he’s holding all the cards, so she just has to let him say what he wants, however obnoxious or crazy. If you picture a person enjoying that unchallenged position day after day, year after year, you can see how they might get warped a little bit. 

Kirk is almost constantly active – saying banal things, turning the hob on and off, opening and closing the fridge. That’s how he dominates the exchange with the flat-hunter. Neither of them have been in the flat before, so it’s sort of neutral ground, but he quickly fills it with his noise, so she’s on the defensive and a bit bewildered. A writer once told me about the importance of establishing status in your work, and I think that can be really useful.

I work most of my stories from a key moment in the narrative, which could be at the beginning of the action, at the end, or somewhere in the middle. So I picture a moment, then ask myself who would be there, why, how they might have got there, where they’d be going next etc. And hopefully the elements of the story – characters, plot, tone – sprawl out from that one moment, in steps that feels logical or even inevitable. So when I’m writing, I try to let different element story push the process forward at different times, latching onto the most promising aspects – in any given moment that could be some nice dialogue, an image, whatever. My background is in writing and editing nonfiction, and I think that’s given me a flexibility and pragmatism that can be incredibly useful. If you’ll forgive a little preachiness, I get annoyed when writers make the writing process seem overly mystical or inexplicable. I think a lot of people would love to try writing, but don’t see themselves as innately creative. Or they worry it’s a club you need to be invited into.

 

 

Kirk came together quite quickly, and immediately felt very solid – picturing him at different points in the story, I knew exactly what he would be doing or saying. Lots of my characters aren’t like that at all. But it’s a relief when they are. Kirk definitely felt like the right man for the moment I’d imagined. He fitted.

I realise I’ve made Kirk sound a bit of a monster. And he probably is. But the flat-hunter’s underlying desperation comes from the fact that there’s a housing shortage – something she, as a middle-class person moving to the city, is partly responsible for, just like I am in London. When pressed, Kirk presents himself as an unavoidable side-effect of these huge socio-economic forces. Of course that’s convenient for him, but just because something’s convenient doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I write about a lot of slightly macabre stuff, but I think bad people – inherently bad – are very rare indeed. But I also think the world we live in and the choices we make come with a cost, whoever we are. I like uncomfortable connections in fiction, and I think we’re all closer to Kirk than we’d like to admit. 

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Submissions close on 16 June for our Issue 10 deadline. Send us your short fiction and creative nonfiction. As you can see, we like interesting characters, so don’t hold back. See our submission guidelines for details.

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

 

Headland Co-Founding Editor Liesl Nunns

We love getting creative nonfiction submissions at Headland. We’d love to get more. We’d love to publish more. It’s not a well-known form in New Zealand, with ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ perhaps seeming contradictory. It’s a many-headed beast to characterise, as the genre can encompass so many hybrid forms of journalism, opinion, memoir, travel writing, and review.

Too often at Headland we read a creative nonfiction submission and think, “I would have assumed this was a short story.” Presumably these pieces stem from memoir, but ‘fact’ is not the sole marker of creative nonfiction. That’s just a starting point.

Cliché though this may be as an observation, I shall dare to say that creative nonfiction should speak to ‘the human experience’. It is a fantastic vehicle for taking “here is what I think” or “here is what happened to me” and making connections to those larger ideas, thoughts, and concerns that make up the soup we’re all swimming in. A short story does this well by conjuring up scenarios or characters that leave us as readers with ‘homework’, drawing our own questions and conclusions and making our own cognitive leaps as the story ticks on in our minds. Creative nonfiction is like reading someone else’s homework. It is sitting down for coffee with that brainy, witty, or insightful friend you’ve got, and hearing them talk about something they’ve been thinking a lot about. They’ve actually done a bit of reading on it, done some real research, so they know what they’re talking about; but they’re telling you all about it with that special voice that is uniquely theirs. Yes, interesting isn’t it?

When I think of creative nonfiction I have loved, I think of Eva Saulitis’ ‘Wild Darkness’, as published in 2014 in the American environmentalism journal Orion. A marine biologist and essayist, Saulitis places her own experience of terminal cancer against her observations of death in the natural world. It is a thoughtful and understated piece, with a scope beyond Saulitis’ personal experience: she references and quotes writers and scholars, draws on religious and cultural practices, and includes personal anecdotes from others. She widens the context. She questions herself, “So what?” The heart talks to the brain, as creative nonfiction should.

For the student of creative nonfiction, I would further point to two particular accomplishments of Saulitis’ piece. Firstly, there is a specific timeline, a sense of ‘now’ and ‘the next day’, but it doesn’t march forward relentlessly without deviation or relief. She moves the piece along thematically rather than strictly chronologically, unrolling specific incidents with her wider thoughts then circling back. Most importantly, this temporal structure takes the reader with it effortlessly. Secondly, her use of language leaves you in no doubt as to what kind of writing you are reading. She marries the ‘creative’ and the ‘nonfiction’ seamlessly. Sentences and paragraphs rise and fall on a spectrum from academic to poetic, guiding you between memoir and research. She links the personal and the theoretical, eyes each in the light of the other, to reach conclusions that have the unmistakably earthy growl of our common human experience. You’re there having coffee with Eva Saulitis, and she breaks your heart:

Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies—our whole selves—know exactly how it’s done. All I know right now is that something has stepped toward me, some invisible presence in the woods, one I’ve always sensed and feared and backed away from, called out to in a tentative voice (hello?), trying to scare it off, but which I now must approach. I stumble toward it in dusky conifer light: my own predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel.

Your topic of choice need not have the weightiness of cancer, and you need not be a highly respected marine biologist to talk salmon in the wild. Perhaps you’ve been ruminating on public transport etiquette or reflecting on the formative role that Jim Hickey’s weather reports played in your later romantic relationships. I’d like to read those pieces. I’d love to read those pieces if, in the process, I might learn something or feel something bigger. I’d love to see the “So what?”

That predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel came for Eva Saulitis in January 2016. In ‘Wild Darkness’ she says of her coming death, The salmon dying in their stream tell me I am not alone…For this you were born, writes Stanley Kunitz. For this you were born, say the salmon.

Good short fiction makes us wonder about, or realise, those things for which we were born, both big and trivial. Creative nonfiction does that too, but it arms our imagination as well as spurring it. It gives you the salmon and the Stanley Kunitz as well as the woman standing on the shore.

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Inspired? Our submission deadline for Issue 10 is open until 16 June. Send us your creative nonfiction (and short fiction too!) up to 5000 words. Every submission is eligible for our annual Headland prizes, and we love getting work from New Zealand authors. See our submission guidelines for details.

How Do We Select Stories?

 

Amanda Newth, from our Editorial Team, talks about our selection process.

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It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: this is a love project. I have been lucky enough to be a member of Headland’s volunteer editorial team since its inception in early 2014. This has always been a labour of love for everyone involved, and we have always been open about how subjective our story selection process is. Put simply, we publish what we love—but with five members of varying personalities and opinions on the editorial team, we’re not always crazy about the same thing. For me, this is one of the most rewarding and interesting aspects of the role.

Headland accepts submissions year-round, aiming to publish approximately ten stories every three months. The initial selection process is undertaken by three team members, including Founding Editors Liesl Nunns and Laura McNeur. This usually results in around thirty stories, which are then distributed to the rest of the team. We judge each submission on its own merits, so on first reading we don’t know the author’s name, nor anything about them. It’s amazing how many assumptions are made—many of them inaccurate—as a result. I love discovering those misjudgments; finding out that a vivid, complex, beautifully crafted story has been written by a first-time author, or that another has been written by someone twenty years younger (or older) than expected.

After we’ve had sufficient time to read and digest the submissions, the five of us meet for lunch— thank you, Liesl and Laura, for your killer baking—to decide which stories we’re going to publish. We discuss our thoughts and opinions on each submission. Biases are confessed to, along with sentimental attachments, minor outrages and, sometimes, weird misunderstandings. Often our opinions are reconsidered, but sometimes they are unwavering.

We then take a vote on whichever stories we are unable to agree on. Arguments are put forth, but the majority rules. We’re quite a well-mannered bunch (book nerds usually are): to date, there have been no fist fights. But we’re only up to Issue Two.

It’s often difficult—and sometimes impossible—for many of us to put aside our personal experiences and perspectives when reading a story. I’ve tried, and failed, more than once. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to appreciate and value the experiences and perspectives of others. Without them, Headland wouldn’t even exist. There would be no point.

It can be argued that our subjective selection process is unfair, but I think it’s honest. We don’t claim that every submission we don’t publish isn’t a good story—it’s just one that, for any number of reasons, is not quite right for us. There are stories I have loved that haven’t made the final cut; there are stories we have published that I’ve had to re-evaluate my opinion on, and rightly so. In the end, is there any truly objective way to make such a decision?

Everyone on the editorial team is an avid reader, some of us are writers, and all of us are human. It’s not easy to tell someone who has devoted hours of their life to crafting a story which potentially contains a small chunk of their soul that you’re not going to publish it. So, writers of the world, if we ever do that—please, please, please do not be discouraged. There is every chance that your story made it to the vote, but then someone annoying like me decided they liked another story just a little bit more. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times before publication, then became a bestseller. Metaphysical odysseys aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but who cares? Write what you love, because nothing else matters.

One last thing. One of the benefits of publishing what you love is not having to pander to the so-called market. There’s no worrying about what’s “hot” right now, or profit margins, or Key Performance Indicators, or other tedious jargon. Our lives are already too dominated by the dollar, whether spending it or making it, and it’s a relief to not have to think about that for once. It’s good for the soul. Much like a great story.

 

A Brand New Page to Write on

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It’s here! In these early days of January 2015 we get to open a pristine clean notebook, figuratively speaking, and enjoy the empty lines and blank pages. How the spine is unbroken, and the edges of the pages are not yet turned up. There is something about the unlimited possibility that it holds. You can contemplate that wide-open space ahead, and potential stretching out across the coming months.

Maybe you’ll fill this ‘notebook’ with the best ideas you’ve ever had. You might learn something about yourself that you didn’t know – perhaps discover that your spine and heart are stronger than you think, and your notebook will say so. You might record some extraordinary milestones, and moments created in amazing places, or with people who will change your life in ways big and small.

Most notebooks though, end up containing the everyday of our lives: ideas, lists, appointments, recipes, and snippets of a thought or a dream. And the little moments with the people you care about. It turns out that the everyday, in it’s simplicity, routine, and its rise and fall, is the real joy of life.

A New Year is by definition, according to the Oxford Dictionary: the calendar year just begun or about to begin. Like the stories we are taught to write at primary school, the calendar year gives us a beginning, middle, and an end. The months and days give our lives structure and memory. We can mark time and measure our lives by the dates and times. In other words, a frame to hang your moments upon: the extraordinary, and the quiet and not-so-quiet everyday. And a pause at the end to farewell a collection of memories, and welcome a new one.

We’d love to share in your year – it might be a milestone for you, submitting your first story to Headland, possibly seeing your story published. It might be downloading our issues as they come out. It might be a quiet moment reading a Headland story while you wait for your coffee or the bus, that lingers long after. You might chat to us on Facebook or Twitter about your reading and writing, and keep up with our news. As you think about you’d like to read and write in 2015, keep us in mind.

We have some heart and mind-expanding, enjoyable reading coming your way. We will be launching our first issue of Headland in less than a month (stay tuned!), and we are currently calling for submissions for our April issue. If you’d like to submit your story for consideration you’ve got until 20 February. We’d love to hear from you, readers, and writers, all.

Happy New Year, and happy writing and reading to you. We hope you enjoy your brand new notebook. Here’s to making new moments and memories.

What we’ve been up to lately

It’s been a busy two months behind the scenes for us since we wrapped our successful Boosted crowdfunding campaign. The Headland team has been focusing on logistics, reading submissions, and planning for the very first edition. On the 1st of September we opened for submissions, and we’re thrilled to be receiving your stories from New Zealand, and all around the world!

It is our mission to showcase the best of New Zealand writing (send us your stories, Kiwis!), and to include some great international submissions too. We’ve been so happy to receive work from unpublished writers – one of our aims is to provide a place for aspiring writers to see their stories in print, and share their talents. If you have submitted a story, thank you! As we state on our guidelines, we aim to accept or decline submissions within two months, so we appreciate your patience as we read, read and read!

Don’t forget, if you’ve been meaning to submit a story for consideration for our first edition, our deadline is the end of the day this Friday, 17th October! We are looking forward to hearing from you. See our submission guidelines for more information.

 

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