'Male Artists’ Dressing Room (Clock)' from 'STILL' by Roelof Bakker

How interesting projects come about


'Male Artists’ Dressing Room (Clock)' from 'STILL' by Roelof Bakker
‘Male Artists’ Dressing Room (Clock)’ from ‘STILL’ by Roelof Bakker

As a writer, you spend hours scouring the listings in The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, signing up for newsletters to hear of the latest story contests and magazine markets, sending off your official submission packages to anonymous editors, getting rejections and tweaking the story or the cover letter or the synopsis and sending it all out again.

Sometimes, of course, this pays off. Winning the Luke Bitmead Award and getting my first novel published was the result of just such an official submission. So were other breaks, like short story publications or, looking further back, my job at The Wall Street Journal.

Often, however, the opportunities seem to come from unexpected sources. Here’s an example of how it can work.

One grimy November evening back in 2010 I went to a local photography exhibition near my home in north London. I liked the images a lot and intended to blog about the event, but only remembered about a month later, when it seemed too late to be worth bothering. Besides, I don’t really do art reviews on here. I almost canned the whole idea. In the end, in a bit of a rush, I posted a short article, more to cement it in my memory than for any other reason.

A few days later I got an email from the photographer, Roelof Bakker, thanking me for the post and wondering if I’d like to meet for a coffee in Crouch End, where we both lived. When we met, over a couple of strong, strong coffees at the fabulous Coffee Circus, he told me about an idea he had to do a photography book featuring short stories inspired by his images. It sounded fascinating, a combination of words and text that I hadn’t seen before. I told him I’d be happy to contribute a story, and also put him in touch with a few writers I know who I thought might also be interested.

Roelof then went into overdrive, contacting a whole load of great writers from around the world, and now he has managed to collect 26 stories, each inspired by one of his images. We met a few more times for coffee last year, and each time I watched the book edging closer to reality. It’s now so real that it has a publication date, 10 September 2012, and a couple of top-notch editors in Nicholas Royle and Ros Sales. More details nearer the time.

Update: you can now get more information from the publisher, Negative Press.

The image I chose to write about was this clock, the one I included in my original blog post a little over a year ago. It really resonated with me, as the rust or whatever that is streaming down the wall reminded me of blood, and so I decided to write a story based on the themes of time and blood, and it ended up involving a criminal trying to invoke the ancient right of sanctuary in a modern-day church on the Kilburn High Road.

It’s interesting how these things work – for all the necessary hard work of researching markets and going through the right channels, sometimes the opportunities come about through a process as apparently random as the creative process itself, the sort of process that starts out with a clock on an office wall and ends up with a criminal claiming sanctuary in a church. You can’t explain things like that, only be grateful for them when they come about. And still keep putting in the more conventional hard work.

For a list of other projects I’m involved in, click here.

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There are 22 comments

  1. Serendipity! Or perhaps it’s more like the way that, after pedalling hard for a bit, you can coast on a bike and travel far without effort. Either way, this does sound very interesting and a wonderful project to be involved with!

    1. Hi litlove! Yes, I believe in serendipity. Love your biking metaphor though – means I can take more credit 🙂 I remember a writing book I read once put it this way – you have to go out and shake the trees to make things happen, but sometimes you go out shaking apple trees and get oranges instead. Or something like that… I should look things up before I misquote them, but all my books are in another country at the moment!

  2. Sounds like a perfect moment. I often find that the best things come out unexpected and it’s wonderful when that happens. And you are right, we should take these moments and make the best of them. I’m glad this worked out for you, looking forward to seeing that book in the book stores.

    P.S. I finally found a paperback copy of “The Sense of and Ending” by Julian Barnes and bought it! Your review has stayed with me and when I saw the book…it was my perfect moment.

    1. Hi Delia,
      Yes, it’s great when things happen unexpectedly. Sometimes I think when I go the more traditional route, I put too much pressure on myself and try too hard. When I’m relaxed and not expecting to get anything out of a situation, sometimes things work out better.
      Glad you remember that review – it was a while ago now! Hope you enjoy the book, and please let me know what you make of it – I’d be interested to hear!

  3. I love this story. I like the idea of writing triggered by a photo. That only works when the photo tells a story. I wonder what it feels like for the photographer, to see his photo turned into a story. How often will it match his inner world?

    1. Hi Caroline,
      That’s a wonderful point about the photographer’s inner world! The interesting thing about these photos is that they were of a long-abandoned town hall building, and they all suggested a human presence but left it out of the frame. So you’d see, for example, a desk with personal effects on it, or files, or a telephone left off the hook, and you could imagine the people who’d worked in that building even though they hadn’t been there for decades. It was great for story-telling. The photographer specified that he wanted the writers to be imaginative and use the photo as a starting point but not feel they had to write about that specific scene. The stories I’ve seen have all been wildly different, so I doubt many of them matched his inner world! He seems happy with the results though 🙂

  4. Mr. Blackman – I’m so thrilled for you and how this all came about. I’ve been in the process of doing something similar myself. My mother is quite a talented photographer and I write flash fiction. I’ve been holding on to the idea for months and I’m actually quite pleased to see isn’t as crazy as I thought it might be. Here’s to your great success and my attempt to complete my own tiny effort 🙂

    1. Hi Sheila
      Your project sounds great! A mother-daughter photography-fiction book. I think it’s a wonderful idea. But I hate to hear you call it a tiny effort. I tend to talk down my own work as well, but I think it’s a bad habit. So here’s to your wonderful project! I look forward to hearing more about it 🙂 Thanks for visiting, and please call again soon 😉

        1. Thanks Sheila, look forward to seeing you here again! I’ll also check out your blog regularly – I liked the first post I read, on Assmericans 🙂

  5. Hi Andrew

    This sounds like a great project, but I don’t think it’s ‘random’. If you have a general idea of what you want to do (write / be published etc) and pursue that and are open to possibilities you are in a sense creating the synchronicity. You didn’t just look at the picture and think – I like that’. You wrote about it, you posted it online, you agreed to meet the guy and gave him encouragement and practical help… not so ‘random’… and a lesson for us all!

    1. Hi Clare,
      Thanks for visiting, and for linking to this post from your own blog. I like your way of looking at it! I described it as random because I had no intention of getting a writing gig out of going to the exhibition or mentioning his photographs. The result was completely unexpected. However, I do agree that in a larger sense I did participate in the synchronicity. When I first read about synchronicity I was skeptical, but since then I have noticed that when I give up and don’t try, nothing happens, but when I really go for it and say yes to things, unexpected things can happen. Thanks for stopping by, and hope to see you here again!

  6. Coming back here via Third Sunday Blog Carnival, where I’ll have a post next month. This story chimes, love it. I used to work as photographer in my other life. Now I write. I often thought about combining poetry with images, but poetry publishers seem to not like the idea.
    I forwarded the link to Coffee Circus to my son and his girlfriend who are just in the process of moving to Crouch End. They’ll be pleased to look up a place where things happen 🙂

    1. Hi Ashen, thanks! Glad it chimes with you. Poetry and images seem made for each other, so I’m not sure why that wouldn’t work — maybe it’s an economic decision, which is a shame. Hey, that’s a coincidence about your son and his girlfriend moving to Crouch End! It’s a great place to live, so I’m sure they’ll be happy, especially now they know about Coffee Circus 🙂 I used to live in a building called Highgate Spinney, on Crescent Road – please give it my regards if you happen to pass by while visiting them!

  7. Hello Andrew,
    thanks so much for putting my name forward, it’s great to be included in the collection and I can’t wait for the launch. Speaking of which, don’t suppose you’ll be over in September..?

    1. Hey, no worries Mark – I liked your story a lot, so am glad you took part. I don’t think I’ll be back for the launch unfortunately, probably won’t be back in London until October…

  8. This is so wonderful, Andrew! Your meeting with Roelof and how things happened after that looks like total magic! I will look forward to reading this short story collection. It is wonderful that Nicholas Royle is one of the editors – I read a book by him on Shakespeare sometime back and it was wonderful.

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