Our esteemed guest judge, Sunday Times bestselling author Tim Weaver, has selected his winners and runners up for the second and final phase of the GKBC International Short Story Competition of 2013-14.
He chose Matty Millard’s superb story ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ as the winner, which you can read here, and Matty kindly answered some questions for us.
Sum up everything about you in no more than 50 words.
I’m just a regular bloke, with a vivid imagination and a weird sense of humour. I’m a rocker, a football fan, I love to travel and I like beer. I do maths for work, which is probably why I enjoy writing. I wear odd socks, because they look better
What is your earliest writing memory?
My earliest writing memory is writing the number 6 on a blackboard in reception class when being taught letters and numbers. I got told off because mine didn’t join up, the circle bit spiralled into the middle for ever. My earliest story writing memory is writing a Cowboys and Indians story in a Transformers exercise book when I was about 7!
How would you describe your writing style?
My friends tell me I write like I speak. I hope this means it’s easy to read, not that I am silly, sarcastic and weird all of the time! I write off-the-wall humour in the fantasy/sci-fi genres, and I’m not afraid to mix it with visions of childhood, unusual plot twists and epic fantasy themes.
Which authors have most inspired you to write in this way?
I spent most of my teenage life reading nothing but Terry Pratchett, and my sense of humour has been heavily influenced by him. My zany and somewhat bizarre imagination has definitely come from Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams. I guess my mixture of childish themes in teen/adult humour is probably more reminiscent of Roald Dahl. I remember loving ‘Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts’ as a kid, and the wicked streak I have surely comes from that.
How do you take criticism of your work?
Well, I’m fairly new to putting my writing in front of the world, so the world hasn’t really had much chance to criticise me yet! (Long may it stay that way!) I can only really talk of criticism when I’m asking people to proof-read something – and that I love, as long as it’s polite!
Yes it can be deflating at times, but the only way that you improve as a writer is from friends, fellow writers or proof readers to tell you what they think could be better. Sometimes you can learn some really random things – I asked for some feedback on the beginning of my novel a while ago, and someone told me that a) velociraptors are chicken-sized so couldn’t devour a lot of people very easily and b) unicorns don’t have kneecaps. Both are brilliant observations, and these errors could have severely dented the credibility of an otherwise “completely sensible and factually correct” piece of work. But seriously, I’ve learned a lot from others reading my stuff and criticising it (nicely), and I really do appreciate it.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging when writing?
Lot’s of things! But that’s why it’s so satisfying when you make it work. The things I find hardest are writing local dialects, not making the ending too fast (always happens in the first draft!), remembering what colour hair characters had, or where they came from. Continuity is really confusing sometimes! I also struggle to remember to get off the train sometimes, as I often write on my commute to work.
What’s the greatest piece of advice anyone has given you?
Write every day. Lots of people have told me to do this, and if I’m honest, I don’t. But the whole point is to get into a regular routine that suits you. I try to write every weekday, even if it’s only a sentence or two. This helps me to keep my writing fresh in my mind, so it’s easier to settle down with some ideas when I do get that rare couple of hours in an evening. I also find that writing is like sport. If I don’t play tennis for a month or so, I’m really rusty the next time I play and I serve millions of double faults. It seems strange, but you get out of practice with writing too if you don’t keep your hand in.
What’s the worst piece of advice anyone has given you?
“Show, don’t tell.” I hear this a lot, used to criticise sections of narrative. Yes, I agree it is better to have characters doing something to portray an emotion, and it is essential to have action in a story rather than just someone telling you what happened once. But this is one of the easiest bits of criticism to give out, and it is not always given in the right capacity.
Sometimes narrative is good, and written well, a nice flowing description or a spiel about a past memory can “show” just as vividly as being someone being punched in the face and bleeding everywhere in the present tense. It’s really important to pace a story well, and using narrative properly is an extremely effective way of ensuring that your readers don’t get overwhelmed by too much action.
Do you hold a lot of importance to the names of your characters and the title of your stories?
Yes, and no! You may have read my submission to this competition by now, and you can see how the title fits to the story (if not, read it before the rest of this answer!) It has two meanings – an innocent one which relates to the game of conkers and the other one which gets revealed at the end of the story.
I like to have a roundness to my short stories, and I find it really satisfying when titles and character names drop clues without completely giving the story away. I’m not always so picky though – my first novel had a half-hearted working title which I used while I wrote it on my blog. I was unsure about the name to start with, but by the time it was finished I loved it. So little thought went into that one, but if it hadn’t sounded right then it wouldn’t have been used. Every title or character name I use must have a feel to it – if I’m doubtful then it must be changed!
Have you always wanted to become a writer?
No – not at all! I’ve always written, but only in the last couple of years have I actually started to write fairly seriously. At school I always wrote crazy stories, and showed my English teacher poems and stories I’d written whilst bored in other lessons. At university I wrote songs on my guitar (they were just as silly as my writing is now). After uni I wrote a bit of poetry, and eventually I decided to have a go at writing a novel. I’ve now released one, written a first draft of a second and I’m well under way with my third. I love it, and I will without doubt carry on doing it.
Do you prefer to remove yourself completely from your stories or to draw on your own memories for your characters?
I don’t base whole characters or plots on things I have experienced, but there’s definitely bits of me and my friends strewn throughout my writing, whether it’s a character trait, a little bit of language or a reference to an interest. You will regularly find mentions of heavy metal, football, cake and other hobbies in my stories, although it can be real fun to write about something that you really don’t know too.
What’s your long term goal with your writing?
It’s to continue to enjoy writing, and hope that people enjoy reading it. My first novel ,“In That Other Dimension,” has been published recently, and I’m working on a couple more at the moment. I’m still new to the game, and every time someone likes my work, I’m happy. Having said that though, I would love to be able to write for a living, so I’ll continue to work at it and see how it goes!