|Slumping in my chair, I gazed at the monitor through half-closed eyes. The flashing cursor irritated me with its impatience, so I roused myself just enough to select the slowest blink rate. I couldn't bring myself to continue typing. What did it matter when I finished the report? I was still stuck here till six, till Friday, till the long grey years faded to black. The office was a prison, with no time off for good behaviour. Every time I closed the blinds to stop the sun dazzling the screen, I felt I cut myself off from nature, from life.|
In 1997 I decided I wanted to become a writer, and in those early days I experimented with various "writerly" activities such as keeping a diary and composing free-form narratives — I'd try anything that involved getting words down on the page. One evening, I went for a walk to admire a particularly fine sunset. The sky was full of colour, but the clutter of suburban buildings obscured the most vivid display toward the horizon. I kept walking, trying to see a gap in the skyline, but no matter where I headed, I couldn't find the sun.
Back home, I jotted down an account of this walk, principally as an exercise in description — not only of the sunset, but all the streets and neighbourhoods I'd visited, the little things I'd spotted on the way. But because my ultimate goal was to write fiction, I shaped the narrative as a quest for the setting sun, which metaphorically represented magic disappearing from the world (since modern buildings and TV aerials were blotting out the colour in the sky). This snippet went into my file, alongside other miscellaneous scribblings.
One morning several years later, I was at work when suddenly all the computers in the office started exploding and catching fire. It was an extraordinary moment, like a scene from a film. The fire alarm went off, and as we hurried to the exit, I wondered what I might find outside. Was civilisation collapsing, like the prelude to a post-apocalyptic novel? And what could possibly be causing the destruction?
Inevitably, there was a mundane explanation. But I remembered how I'd felt when I didn't know what was going on, and the incident seemed too exciting not to use in a story. Yet what could the story be?
I looked through my "Fragments" file to see if I had anything else that might be relevant, and I found my old piece about the sunset. The connection was the disappearance of magic — the exploding computers could be seen as a final doomed rebellion by the fading powers.
Because the emerging story already used two incidents from life, I decided to keep a consistent approach and use as much from life as possible. Hence the protagonist became a version of myself, the setting became a version of Leeds, and the secondary characters became versions of my friends.
This approach has risks and rewards. One benefit is that the story acquires an "aura of authenticity" due to the accumulation of real observed details. However, one pitfall is that attempting to glue together fact and fiction can be like attempting to mix oil and water: if the elements are too different, they just won't cohere. (I say this in retrospect with the benefit of experience; but I had to experiment and make mistakes to discover what worked for me.)
In this case, the fictional element required the story's narrator to hate the modern world, and pursue a fading wisp of magic. However, that's not my own outlook. So the protagonist was based on me, but with completely different motivation. Similarly, my friends appeared as themselves, but with different personalities.
This disjunction contributed to the resulting story's lack of spark. It was frustrating, because on a line-by-line level some of the writing worked very well. But as a whole, the story didn't quite hit the mark.
Why then did I submit it for publication? Well, it's only my opinion that the story failed, and writers are notoriously poor judges of their own work. I've written stories that I thought were excellent, but were rejected by all the top markets; I've also written stories that I considered mediocre, yet sold at pro level. I finish every story I start, and I submit every story I finish. It's the editor's job, not mine, to decide whether it's worthy of publication. If someone thinks my story is good enough to buy, then who am I to disagree?
The title "A Sordid Boon" is taken from Wordsworth's sonnet "The world is too much with us", which I considered thematically appropriate — the text alludes to the poem in various places. The story appeared in the British magazine Here & Now, but on the contents page the title was misprinted as "A Sordid Boom"... not so far off, since the narrative begins with the bang! of exploding computers.
"A Sordid Boon" is a story about the disappearance of magic from the modern world. I later used a similar theme in my story "The Edge of the Map", which is about the disappearance of weirdness (in the Fortean sense) from the modern world. That story was much more successful, partly because I didn't attempt to draw too much from life, and also because I was simply a better and more experienced writer. But as a nod to my earlier effort, the character of Ivo in "The Edge of the Map" was named after the protagonist of "A Sordid Boon". The story isn't a sequel, but they are in a sense the same character, both pursuing the vanishing ineffable.