An Uncertain Year
At the top of 2021 I was facing one of my most uncertain but also most exciting years of recent times. My PhD was coming to its end but was taking with it a certain amount of stability and freedom I'd grown used to over the preceding three and a bit years. I was staring down at a forking pathway a little unsure as to which direction to take, but pretty certain that whichever meandering direction I headed in, it would always involve writing of some form or another. And I have meandered, and I have been writing, but we've reached the end of 2021 and I'm still find myself clouded with uncertainty. I'm Dr Dave now, which feels pretty incredible, but the PhD hasn't transformed into an instant magic ticket to further research (partly due to my own inertia, but also due to the breakneck demands of academia which have really put me off), to a teaching job (although not from want of trying), or a contract to publish a novel (most frustratingly for me as a Creative Writing graduate). Instead I've had to patchwork together a number of bits and pieces, some more fulfilling than others, and I end the year like the proverbial plate-spinner, or juggler, or the man with fingers in various pies who can't decide which tastes best. If anything, 2022 feels even vaguer, but one thing I've decided is that I can't wait for an epiphany to strike, I have to go out and epiphanize it myself. So I'll be going back to some drawing-boards during January to try and recalibrate things a little.
But it's not as if 2021 has been bad. Quite the opposite - its been something of a creative milestone year for me. I successfully and joyfully defended my PhD in February, I had not one, not two, but three books published (one of which is also an audiobook), and I started co-hosting a podcast. I also managed to write some new short stories, had a few of those accepted for publication, and I've got some tasty bits and pieces lined-up for the year ahead already. So while there have been some rough rejections this year - most comprehensively towards the PhD novel which was met with a wall of silence from agents and publishers - there have been a veritable feast of wonderful highlights for which I am incredibly grateful. In particular, its been so lovely to work with Fly on the Wall Press, Arachne Press, the Autism Through Cinema gang, and the Narratives of Neurodiversity Network this year on various overlapping bits of creative and academic chaos.
In anticipation of a complicated year, and as a way of keeping myself motivated, I took up my colourful Sharpies and some blank paper and created a submissions tracker. On the top lay the 'Aims and Aspirations' flyer which I created on January 1st 2021. I wanted 10 acceptances, some work in some 'dream journals', a request from an agent or publisher to see the whole of my PhD novel, two shortlistings or longlistings for competitions, to write enough short stories to cobble together another collection, and to get accepted for three academic journals.
These are hugely ambitious, but you need big aims if you want to land on any targets. I did meet some of this. I (just about) achieved 10 acceptances, including one for an academic journal (the Science Fiction Film and Television Journal for their summer 2022 issue), and I've managed to write enough new short stories to be able to scrape together the first draft of a new collection. I got longlisted for the Cranked Anvil Flash Fiction competition and shortlisted, most delightfully, the Oxford Flash Fiction Competition for a new tale called 'Our Transformations'. This latter will be printed very soon in their end-of-year anthology. I didn't get close to one of the big 'dream journals' despite subs to both Granta and Interzone (and some comparable others) but this is always a big ask. Most galling was the comprehensive rejection of the novel I wrote for the PhD, which is still languishing and beginning to gather dust. It continues to be an albatross, getting in the way of everything. Its'll soon be time to revisit and rethink. I can't give up on it just yet.
I also started a 'Money Tracker' to keep an eye on my competition submission spends and other costs, as well as any income made, but I soon lost patience with this as I neared £100 of spends. I'm not sure of the final amount but it is quite dispiriting to watch chunks of money dissipate on increasingly expensive competition fees with no return. I might try and be more accurate with this in 2022. Start a proper budget, perhaps.
The 'Ideas Flypaper' was a fun thing - a way of catching those flitting fragments of story ideas that can disappear when the chores of the day take over. I didn't do much doodling, but I was too fond of the UFO snowman to throw him away. In terms of submissions, my tally tells me I submitted 85 times, but a significant chunk of these (around 25-30) were the novel. Still, that amounts to around 66 rejections (with 9 still pending) and 10 acceptances. Not a bad hit rate really, but it certainly shows that if you want to get your work out there, you've got to throw it in as many directions as possible and thicken your skin for the barrage of blow-back. The image at the top of this post shows the paper spreadsheet used to keep track of the actual submissions, complete with lots of crosses and the occasional tick.
These papers will now be filed away and fresh ones created for 2022. It's actually rather exciting. This time last year I had no idea what would be created and where some of it would end up. I wonder what the year ahead holds? Those 2021 acceptances in full:
The Thrower and the Catcher in The Lancashire Post
Our Transformations in Oxford Flash Fiction Prize Anthology
Sample Number 1 in SF Shorts Anthology 1
The Face on Paragraph Planet
Mind How You Go in Sein und Werden
Like Many on Sledgehammer Lit
The Signmaker in The Lancashire Post
How to Play in Superlative Magazine
'Is This to Be an Empathy Test?': Autism and the Neuroqueer Screen in Blade Runner for Science Fiction Film and Television Journal (to be released in 2022)
Nobody Will Hear Them in Janus Literary (publishing in 2022)
Watching, Reading, Playing
I used the same method for tracking my cultural consumption for this year. I very much enjoyed doing this. Above are all the 159 films I watched this year (162 if you count the double-ups - I watched the following films twice: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Temple Grandin, and Hunger). There might yet be time to watch a film this evening, so that might hit 160/163 (if it happens, it'll likely be Another Round or Don't Look Up). I've also kept track of these on Letterboxd with star ratings if you're interested in a deeper dive. I must also say that while I always watch a lot of films, this year was exceptionally cinematic as I was teaching on two film-based course modules which required at least two film viewings a week while they ran. And, ever the teacher's pet, I often watched a third.
So, let's have a top 5 shall we? Well: there are a number of films on here that are among my favourites of all time, including Alien, Chungking Express, Citizen Kane, Psycho, Punch-Drunk Love, and Hunger, so I'll set those aside and focus on the top 5 that were new to me this year:
The Green Knight - directed by David Lowery, this astonishing slice of Arthurian cinema was utterly stunning, beguiling and transcendent and I loved every frame.
Gunda - directed by Viktor Kossakovsky, is a one-of-a-kind nature documentary showing an intimate portrayal of farm animals, with a particular focus on a mother pig and her piglets. The closest cinema has got to removing humans from the picture and letting animals be animals. But there is narrative here too, and a moral, and devastation. Incredible, but take care.
A Field in England - directed by Ben Wheatley, this bizarre civil war tale of trippy activities in a random field with Reece Shearsmith was hypnotic, hilarious, terrifying and brilliantly weird.
Ida - directed by Pawel Pawilkowski, a tour-de-force of B&W cinematography, this is a beautiful and deeply affecting film about a post-war Polish nun discovering her family's tragic past.
American Graffiti - directed by George Lucas pre-Star Wars, I was totally hooked into the hazy, wayward atmosphere and rock n' roll score of this coming-of-age classic.
What with COVID reluctance and a taste for catching up on films from previous years, I didn't watch all that many new films released in the UK in 2021. The five favourites I did catch were: The Green Knight, Gunda, Dune, The Mitchells vs the Machines, and Encounter. The worst films watched this year? Urgh: The Night Clerk, Kong: Skull Island, Breach, and Crimson Peak. No further comments on those messes.
Look at the books I read! That's 76 books BUT many of those are very small quick reads - single story pamphlets, poetry collections, novellas and the like. But hey, wow, there are some brilliant reads among these and, what with everything else going on, I'm very glad I haven't lost my bug for being buried in a good book. So here comes my top 5 books of the year, but I'll just highlight and set aside a few: I read two brilliant novels by my Dad (Will at the Tower, about Shakespeare when he was a teenager, and Jyn and Tonic, a brutal post-apocalyptic sequel to his first novel Ice and Lemon) and one book (Starve Acre - compelling, terrifying, weirdly wonderful) by my lovely and talented cousin Andrew Michael Hurley. So let's just accept that those books are excellent and you should read them. Aside from those, my top five reads from this year are:
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner
Letters to my Weird Sisters by Joanne Limburg
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
But oof, that was tough. It was hard to muscle out Writing the Uncanny edited by Dan Coxon, Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, Moby Dick (of course), Muscle and Mouth by Louise Finnigan, and Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth from that top five, and I haven't even mentioned NK Jemisin's brilliant Broken Earth trilogy (although I've only read two of them so far). There really aren't any duds in here, although I was left a bit disappointed by A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke, which was quite dry considering the subject matter, and I found Ling Ma's Severance a bit uncompelling and derivative. All the others are pretty darn good.
Finally, here's a few games I've played this year. Across the middle are the games I completed (or, at least, reached the ends of the narratives, I've little patience for 100%ing), in the bottom left is the game I'm currently playing, and boxed off on the top right are games I've sunk time into but aren't necessarily ones that you can 'complete' as such. Hey, there are some superb games in here - among some of the most innovative narratives I've encountered this year and I was frequently bowled away by their inventiveness. Favourites:
Control - seriously; a game for the ages
The Return of the Obra Dinn - like nothing else, with some real surprises
Hades - so much fun, so sexy
The Last of Us: Part II - masterful, with a rich and compelling story
Ori and the Will of the Wisps - gorgeous with a fantastic flow and brilliant level design
But hey, shout-out to Unpacking, the surprise hit of the year and proof that games can be gentle, simple, and meditative.
The Blank Pages
So that's it for this wayward and weird year. I've managed to pack a lot in and much of it has been really wonderful - but it has also been rather tiring and trying at times. I have this tendency to be constantly on the go - always reading, watching, playing, or writing, which is not always the best way of approaching things. So, I'm going to try and calm down a little for 2022. Relax the aims, ease back the ambitions, and try to put together a better and clearer focus. 2021 was a burst of light, so let's make 2022 a year of soothing shadows. I'm not sure what that means or looks like yet, but I've a stack of blank pages and there's plenty of ink in these pens.