Phil Collins released Both Sides of the Story in October 1993. It was a catchy song, but I remember it more for the music video. Scenes of homelessness, domestic violence, military patrols on streets and a ghetto kid mugging a white man, juxtaposed with Collins crooning, “We need to hear both sides of the story.”
In February 1994, I started working on a short story for the Ian St James Awards. It was my third submission to the annual awards, the UK’s biggest fiction prize for unpublished writers (Thanks, Ian St James Awards – Tall And True, June 2018). The deadline for my 5,000-plus-word was the end of the shortest month of the year, 28th February.
Yes, I know, I should have started sooner, but I had the good fortune of my wife being away for two weeks in February on work trips. And, we were childless back then. I had no responsibilities outside of my nine-five job, and I spent every other waking hour writing.
The First Draft
The idea for my story came to me while working out in a gym. The news at the time was full of stories about people for whom the public (including me) had little sympathy. I watched Collins sing his song on MTV in the gym, and it set me thinking: Could I show both sides in a short story?
My 1994 diary records I finally began writing on Sunday 13th February:
Set up computer downstairs to write my Ian St James story, but only managed to jot down an outline. Had an early night and sought inspiration in a short story about a Jewish matchmaker. Great characterisation.
Obviously, I was going to have to work harder on my writing. And I did over the next week while juggling my nine-to-five job, as I noted in my diary (Monday 14th to Friday 18th February):
Home from work as soon as possible to spend late nights banging words into my computer. Kept up a good pace, writing a scene a night, each averaging 1,000 words. Amazed how some scenes developed. They seemed create their own twists and turns, guiding my fingers over the keyboard. And somehow the endings fell into place, generally when I needed them, as I neared my midnight time limit. Felt great to be writing again. And to be alone, so I could devote myself totally to the task.
By the weekend I was exhausted. However, I still had a final scene to write, the one that would pull together and make sense of the four vignettes I had written. And then I had to print and edit the first draft.
Edits and More Edits
My wife returned home from her first week of work travels and left the next day for another week away. It sounds mean, but I was grateful for the quick turnaround. I needed another week on my own for edits and revisions, as I wrote in my diary (Monday 21st to Friday 25th February):
More late nights working on the story, including a ridiculous 2 AM on Thursday. Editing not as much fun as banging in words, though of course, necessary. Focused on weekend deadline and the thought that all the time I’d spent on the story would be wasted if I didn’t polish and post it by midday Sunday.
These were the glory days of the British Royal Mail, where post collected on a Sunday would be delivered the next day. In my case, that was the deadline date, Monday 28th February. Which meant I still had the whole of Saturday and some of Sunday to finish the short story. But it proved a tough task:
Struggling with ending of the story. Pivotal last scene is in danger of sounding trite. Printed off penultimate draft for proofreading and opinion [from my wife]. Nervous wait for comments. And another late night making last minute changes.
The next day I was even more on edge, but thankfully my trusty dot matrix printer didn’t let me down:
Noon deadline loomed as the printer chugged out letter quality copy of Both Sides of the Story. Posted it with less than thirty minutes to spare. Celebrated with a pub lunch.
The following Wednesday 2nd March, I received confirmation in the post from the Ian St James Awards that my short story had arrived. (Bless the Royal Mail!) Now I just had to wait for the first round judge’s critique. When it arrived, his feedback was mixed:
A well written, ambitious and impressive piece of writing. The author’s flair for language is considerable. But I think, plot-wise, this entertaining story exceeds both the limits and rules of the genre. This, I feel, would be better suited for a novel and as a short story, it isn’t quite self-contained enough.
My “well written, ambitious and impressive piece of writing” had failed to progress past the first round of judging. And so I filed it away with my other failed writing from that period.
Both Sides of the Story 25 Years On
I re-read the short story recently, and I’m still proud of it. The protagonists in the four vignettes remain unsympathetic, as they would have been portrayed on the news. And the fifth piece links and resolves the story as I had planned, as well as paying homage to Collins’ song.
So, twenty-five-plus years after I wrote it, I decided to share and showcase my Both Sides of the Story on the writers’ website, Tall And True, as a five-part series. Westminster, Bosnia, A Council Flat, and The Gym are the vignettes. And Bad News is the fifth and final part.
Interestingly, the vignettes required fewer edits in the transcription. Whereas, the fifth piece, Bad News, with which I’d struggled twenty-five years ago, once again proved the most difficult to transcribe. And in the end, it required more edits and structural changes than the other four parts combined!
I should also stress, my intention in writing this short story in 1994 was not to be an apologist for my characters or their actions. Then, as now, my goal was to follow Collins’ lead and try to imagine both sides of the story.
In October 2019, Phil Collins completed the last leg of a three-year, worldwide Not Dead Yet Tour, twenty-five years after releasing his Both Sides of the Story. I should have gone to the Sydney concert, to say thanks for the inspiration to write my short story.
© 2019 Robert Fairhead
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a middle-aged dad and dog owner. Among other things, Robert is an editor and writer at Tall And True, an online magazine, blog and forum for writers, readers and publishers. Share and showcase your writing — fiction, nonfiction and reviews — on TallAndTrue.com.