Saturday, 13 August 2011

Hard-Sell Story? Don't Despair...

I first wrote Hand That Feeds about ten years ago, maybe a little more.  This was back in the days when my head was still full of all the insecurity-inducing craziness drummed into me by two back-to-back degrees in English Literature, so I was mostly trying to write serious and meaningful fiction about serious and meaningful things, with perhaps the occasional guiltily pleasurable genre story on the side.

Hand That Feeds fell hard in the first camp.  It was about art and politics and big things like that.  In fact, it's only two real characters were an artist and a politician.  And needless to say, they didn't see eye to eye.  It was also, in fairness to it and with the endless benefits of hindsight, not so bad.  Probably wordy and riddled with run-on sentences, certainly less than subtle, but not what you'd actually call bad.

My then-girlfriend was less than impressed, however.  She felt the fact that I'd set it in what appeared to be Communist Russia and presented the politician character less than favourably was an unjust dig against Russian Communism.  Looking back, it's hard to say just where the "unjust" part came in, but this was back in the days when all criticism was gospel, however bewildering or unfair.  I rewrote Hand That Feeds, replacing Russian names with French names, (rationalising this with some kind of off-page, alternate-history French Communist revolution), and heavily toning down the badness of the politician character.  Slowly, what had originally been more or less a tirade transformed into something approaching a rational debate.

Lo and behold, Hand That Feeds became a slightly better story.

It's from this point, incidentally, that I trace my habit of writing fence-sitting fiction about big issues, a tendency I've grown rather fond and even proud of.  It took me a long time to realise that didacticism wasn't for me, that there's much fun to be had in writing opinions and viewpoints you don't necessarily hold with (or even fervently despise) and seeing where it takes you.  But I'm glad I did.  Seriously, if you've never written a story on a subject you feel passionately about and then forced yourself into the head of the character you least agree with, give it a try.  If you're anything at all like me, you might find you've hit one of the mother-lodes of what fiction writing's all about.

Anyway.  Hand That Feeds kept living.  Sometimes I'd give up on it for months at a time.  Every few months, or even years, I'd pick at it.  It got better - enough that I didn't want to give up on it.  It got stranger, too.  It had always been a little Kafkaesque, and the switch to an imaginary Communist France coupled with its flat refusal to take sides only heightened the strangeness.  It got rejected.  A lot.  That was sort of okay, it was a very old, very odd story, after all.  Sometimes it made me think that maybe I should just let it go.  Sometimes - and always, in the end - it made me all the more determined to tidy it a little more and kick it out the door again.

Now, long story far from short, here we are and someone has finally agreed - ten years after I first conceived it - to pay me money for Hand That Feeds.  That someone is Jim Phillips, producer of literary podcast Nil Desperandum, whose stated mission is to publish fiction that elucidates "Truth, Life, and the Human Condition."  Whether or not that's what Hand That Feeds does it open to question, but I'm happy that to admit that I've spent way too long with this particular tale, so probably Jim gets it a heck of a lot better than I can do.  After listening to a couple of the excellent episodes he's already put out, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what he makes of my almost-oldest published story.

Had common sense prevailed, I'd have written off Hand That Feeds a long, long time ago.  But isn't it sort of poetic that a story about art versus society should get to survive in defiance of all the usual logics of time versus profit?  And then, after five years of rejection, end up in a 'zine called, of all things, Nil Desperandum?  I mean, in that really silly sense of the word poetic that doesn't actually mean anything?  Yeah ... I think it is.

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