An occasional series looking at the genesis of a story, from the initial spark of inspiration, through conceptual development, the writing process, and what happens next. You'll find related writing tips at the end. In this blog, I’ll be looking at Blumelena, my Bridport Prize-shortlisted short story.
One of the questions you never quite manage to answer to anyone’s satisfaction, in my experience, is the question of where the ideas come from. Generally speaking, mine just turn up when they turn up, generally prompted by nothing at all, and the onus is on me to find something to scribble on before they disappear . Blumelena was no different.
In my free ebook short story collection, To The End of the World and Back, I talk about how the concept announced itself, more or less fully-formed, as I was walking to work one morning. It was a decent stretch - around half an hour from home - and there’s definitely something about walking, for me, that connects with the creative part of my brain. If I’m stuck with a piece of writing, I will tend to go for a walk and let the rhythm of my feet work out the narrative knots as I go. In this case, though, I wasn’t looking for inspiration, but inspiration found me just the same.
In fairness, the concept behind the initial spark of inspiration that became Blumelena had its origins in the reading that I’d been doing for my degree, completed three years earlier. It’s by no means a novel idea in science fiction - the arrival of artificial intelligence advanced enough to mimic human behaviour  - but what grabbed me initially, as always, was voice. I wanted to find Bloom’s, first and foremost, and, because our access to her is through Leo, I needed to find his. I needed to discover who he was: what did his life look like, that he was open to becoming so quickly and deeply invested in a woman he meets and only knows online (yes, I know, but bear with me: this was before internet dating was mainstream and widespread). Where was he, emotionally and practically, in his life, versus where he thought he would be by this point? And, finally, what subconscious need did Bloom answer for him that drew him into her story?
To be clear, none of these questions were consciously on my mind during the initial drafting stage, but they formed part of the backdrop of my understanding as he began to emerge on the page. I found Leo by writing him, but the story grew up around the sense of absence in his life, and I knew from the very first that this was what would drive his motivation. When I teach character development, I talk about character-driven plotting, which flows from two entwined and conflicting characterological starting points: a character’s articulated goal, and the hidden need that interacts with their efforts to achieve their goal . In this case, Leo’s goal is to solve the mystery of Bloom: to get to know her, to find out who she is and why she’s so unlike anyone else that shares his online world, and to build upon the connection that he feels with her from their first encounter. His hidden need, however, is to address the fact that he hasn’t lived up to his own expectations; that he’s coasting, because he’s afraid that if he tries to be the person he thought he’d be, he’s going to fail. Bloom represents what Leo imagined his life was going to look like, full of meaningful connection, full of being known. And I don’t believe the denouement undermines the connection that they have: if anything, it’s a vindication of sorts for Leo. The people he’s been hanging around with, with whom he feels no common bond - they aren’t his people after all. This was always the problem.
The screen remains regardless.
By May 2005, I had a draft of Blumelena that looks very much like the version that I eventually published. I then heroically did nothing with it for quite some time. This was for several reasons. The first was that I had absolutely no idea what I should do with it. In common with quite a lot of what I write, Blumelena did not fit neatly into a generic category, and the internet wasn’t quite as ubiquitous then as it is now: I had no idea how to find the sorts of venues that might be open to something that was neither one thing nor another . Secondly, chat rooms had sort of stopped being a thing, and I was worried that my near-future sci-fi musings had become dated rather more quickly than I might have hoped. And thirdly, all sorts of other things were going on in my life and I wasn’t yet ready to make writing a priority. I was still writing; I just wasn’t actively seeking publishing opportunities for short stories, instead passively waiting for publishing opportunities to find me. None of those that did were a good fit for Blumelena.
By 2011, the “thirdly” had changed. I’ll spare you the details of the existential crisis that arrived with my 33rd birthday (it involved both Julius Caesar and Captain Kirk, which says a lot about where my passions lie), but suffice it to say I was ready. I’d been submitting to the Bridport Prize for years with no success, but it’s the Bridport Prize. It’s the submitting that counts. Blumelena was not the sort of thing I thought they’d go for, but I was proud of it and they didn’t not accept sci-fi, so there was no reason to self-reject . And, no, it didn’t win, but, again: Bridport. You don’t need to win that competition to win. A shortlisting is more than enough to add credibility to your writing. It’s also a massive validation for a writer trying to find their feet.
I’d been involved in several online writing groups for a while and one of them, by early 2013, was mooting the possibility of putting together an anthology of original work. Finding myself on the Bridport shortlist a few months earlier had been wonderful, but I had no idea what to do next with Blumelena, so I offered it to the anthology. That became Vol. 1 of Tales From The Perseus Arm, and now I had a recent print credit to my name. So when the CS Lewis Festival were looking for writers to read for their Literary Lunchtime event that November, I had a tiny bit more visibility and found myself on their radar.
I cannot describe to you just how absolutely, categorically Blumelena does not adapt to the spoken word. If you take nothing away from this blog but the following, I will consider my work well done: make sure that any piece you’re reading aloud does not involve vast quantities of text speak. There’s no way to perform that. None. And it’s a terrible thing to discover this in front of a paying audience at your very first reading.
Still. I survived. And I got better at choosing excerpts for public events.
Almost twenty years on from that first spark of inspiration, the world is a very different place. Interestingly, we seem to be swinging back around to chatrooms again - or, at least, a format similar to the chatrooms I remember from the early years of the century - but that’s just about the only thing that Leo would recognise, I think. The internet in 2003 was often dial-up, not always easy to navigate, messy, anarchic and exciting. There was no Facebook, no YouTube - even Myspace had only just arrived that year. I think the internet of Blumelena is a much more optimistic place than the one we have today, for all that it brings out Leo’s nihilism: it’s a place of possibility. A place where an artificial intelligence programme can be set loose on humanity and not start tweeting racist tirades within sixteen hours, for example. But for all that, I like to imagine Leo and Bloom, two decades on, still tucked up quietly together in their little corner of cyberspace, contentedly viewing the vast accumulation of human knowledge spread out before them and understanding that there is, after all, a place for them in our brave new world. A place that probably didn’t exist back then, and will only become ever more accepted as we venture into our uplinked future.
I bet they’re as mystified as I am by TikTok, though.
Blumelena is one of the short stories available in my ebook, To The End of the World And Back, which is free to download when you subscribe to my newsletter.
Tips & Tricks
 Always have something to scribble on. In the past, that would have meant an actual notebook and a working pen; these days, a mobile phone app works just as well. I find that, although I have a note-taking app on mine, I hate it and tend to email myself instead when inspiration strikes. This is a terrible method of keeping track of notes because idea emails get buried very quickly. Don’t do what I do.
 Christopher Booker famously argued that there are only seven basic stories in existence, from which all narratives flow. Don’t be discouraged if you feel that your work is derivative, or the basic plot has been done before. Focus on voice: yours and your characters’. Tell your story as only you and they can.
 Goal plus hidden need is a powerful tool for working out what your character’s arc might look like. It’s also a great way for the author to get right underneath their character’s skin. In Blumelena, Leo’s hidden need is never openly articulated, and it’s unlikely that you’ll want to state your character’s hidden need overtly either. It becomes part of the rich fabric that underpins your understanding of your protagonist and quietly informs their every action in your story.
 I’m delighted to report that there are venues for just about every form of writing imaginable these days. If at first you don’t find the appropriate home, try and try again. The Submission Grinder is a fantastic resource for connecting you to the publications waiting to read your oddball, misfit, between-genres gem. And everything else besides.
 Don’t self-reject! The temptation is huge, I know, but if it’s within the boundaries of what a competition or journal says it wants, don’t pre-decide that it’s a bit too weird for them. (Or, conversely, not weird enough.) My greatest successes have come from not overthinking a submission decision. If it fits, submit.
Tips, tricks & advice to help your writing shine
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