I don’t believe in ghosts. Unless I’m talking to someone who says they’ve seen one, or thought they saw one, or knows someone who thought they saw one – and then I one hundred per cent do.
It’s the same with writing. I know it’s all about technique and, ultimately, trickery. Language. Structure. Editing. More editing. I’ve read the billion “advice for writers” articles, done courses, exchanged work with other writers for feedback. But if I read an incredible story online or in one of the many fantastic lit magazines out there, I’m like, holy shit. It’s haunted.
I do think it’s possible for a short story – fiction of any kind – to contain something supernatural. A ghost that’s crept into the machine. I’ve read things that just stick. Characters whose names and authors I can no longer remember, but who come back and whisper to me in the night about why they did what they did.
For me, that’s the thing. I want to be haunted by fiction. I want something more than the sum of its parts to have slipped inside. The whole reason I write is because I want to be able to do that for other people too. For my story to stick. To haunt them.
How is that actually done, though? I have no idea. Someone probably knows – or thinks they do. But it’s about as much of a mystery to me as whether it really was a ghost caught on camera in series whatever of Most Haunted, or just one of Yvette Fielding’s stray hairs.
I just write, rewrite, edit, tinker, over and over, and I hope for the best. Some people swear by having a special space – like a desk – which they can slink off to. With a toddler around I just write whenever and wherever I can. I did some of my better stuff in bed in the middle of the night when he was new and sleep deprivation had broken me. (Or it could be that my “inner critic” had just fucked off to bed).
I don’t think there’s a formula, and I’m glad of that. To be honest, even if there is one, I’d rather not know it. It means I can keep experimenting.
This is also what’s great about magazines like Open Pen. They proffer emerging writers the space to experiment. The good ones say bollocks to formula. They welcome in the misfits: characters whose stories aren’t often told. Most don’t care about writing credentials – at least I hope not – and to get in one actually provides the credentials.
Importantly, to be featured in a lit magazine like Open Pen can really boost your confidence. (I don’t know about you, but mine can always do with boosting). They give voice to the many Frankenstein’s monsters out there too: stories that are strange and beautiful in their unique ways – and haunting because of that.
As for ghosts? Honestly, I don’t care whether they exist. Not really. Likewise, I don’t mind if truly haunting stories simply come down to a case of smoke and mirrors, as long as I can still feel something because of them – both in the reading, and the writing.