Thursday, 28 April 2016

Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

One of the reasons it's been so quiet here over the last few weeks is because I entered my novel for the Bath Novel Award. It was perhaps a little premature as I'm still editing parts of it, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss as the judge - Susan Armstrong of Conville & Walsh - genuinely seemed to be open to any genre. I've found that to be quite a rare thing in novel competitions. Often the contest organisers will say they don't have any particular theme or genre preferences, but when you look at the judge's profile (they're typically a literary agent) it's often the case that they'll say they're not interested in crime, or romance, or - in the case of my book - science fiction. So I thought it was worth a go, even if it resulted in some frantic last-minute editing and proofreading (the full manuscript is only called in if you make the longlist).

The longlist went up yesterday, and A Man Repeated was not among those chosen titles. By that point I was almost hoping it wouldn't be, as I was beginning to doubt I could deliver the finished book in time, but it was still very disappointing to discover my opening chapters hadn't caught the readers' eye. From the sounds of things, literary, historical, and Young Adult fiction reign supreme this year - or at least, those appear to be the type of book favoured by the initial readers who've compiled the longlist. Still, I'm in good company - over a thousand other writers also fell short at this stage of the contest. (Which makes me realise this competition has taken in well over £22,000 in entry fees - wow)

So, slightly relieved, mostly gutted, I took to Twitter to see how other people were responding to the longlist's publication. I was pleased that one of the first tweets I saw on the subject was this one:

Because that's exactly what I was planning on making myself do (after a small amount of sulking and a cup of tea). It's easy to convince yourself, when you get a knockback like failing to make the longlist of a competition, that you're wasting your time and you'll never get over all the various hurdles between not having a book deal and being a published author. But, as so many people have said, the only way to fail is to stop trying. Instead, you need to embrace the Galaxy Quest-sourced title of this post, and just plough on regardless.

While I had this in mind, I spotted that my friend Karen had posted the video below on Facebook. I thought it worked as a great metaphor for this whole business of trying to get your writing published/accepted/noticed. As the clip shows, no matter whether you're a small dog hoping to get onto a comfy sofa, or a hopeful author striving to get your book into Waterstones, the only thing to do is to keep trying...

... because, eventually, you'll get where you want to be. And all that effort will be worthwhile.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

One Street Corner Too Soon at The Berko Speakeasy

Real life and the day job have got in the way of writing and blogging lately; I started this post about three weeks ago and am only now getting the chance to finish it off. Still, last month proved that in the world of writing what you have done often has more of an impact than what you are doing.

In fact, so far 2016 seems to be The Year of the Old Stories - with The Boatman (originally written in 2012 for a ghost story competition in The Times) finding a home at 101 Words, Last of the Sand Dragons (the first draft of which was completed in, I think, 2010) winning second place in the HE Bates Competition, and then One Street Corner Too Soon (published in The Guardian in 2009) getting another go in the spotlight courtesy of the Berko Speakeasy.

The secret life of stories fascinates me. Once something's published, it's entirely out of your hands, and although you can help raise its profile for a little while, all too soon it tends to sink out of sight. But it's never entirely gone and, occasionally, a story will unexpectedly bob back up again, and this was the case with One Street Corner Too Soon.

One of the organisers of the Berko Speakeasy, the novelist and performer Julie Mayhew, contacted me on Twitter at the start of the year, asking whether I would give permission for the story to be read out at their next event, which was to be "a short story antidote to the schmaltz of Valentine's Day". I'd never heard of the Berko Speakeasy, so I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, but it didn't seem like a huge risk. So I said yes. As soon as I saw the other authors on the list - Graham Greene, Lucia Berlin, Lorrie Moore, Mark Haddon - I thought there'd been some dreadful mistake and I'd been mixed up with a properly famous writer. But no, it really was my story they wanted. Needless to say, I was honoured to be lining up alongside such well respected writers, and slightly terrified that One Street Corner would end up looking very much like the runt of the litter.

Inside the Greene Room, ready for some short fiction

I was surprised at how busy it was - the Speakeasy has been going a while and has a dedicated following. In fact, the tickets for this one had sold out before the promotional posters had even been printed. It's not hard to see why. The actors who do the readings are excellent, the stories are very well curated, the venue is ideal, and the attention to detail with the decorations and other touches really make it a special event.

One Street Corner was in the capable hands of the actor Alex Wingfield. He did a great job with the story, despite some of the awkwardly constructed sentences that I'd edit out if I needed to read it aloud. I deliberately didn't read it again before going along to the Speakeasy, to experience it as close to "fresh" as possible. I was pleased with how well it was received (lots of credit to Alex for his timing and the clarity of his reading) - the bits that were meant to be funny got laughs, the bits that weren't didn't, and it didn't stick out like a sore thumb amongst the other stories, much to my relief.

What struck me was that the story seemed quite dated. It's always been set in the late 1990s, i.e. my student days, which when I first wrote it didn't seem all that long ago. Now, with its references to mix tapes and import singles, and not even a passing mention of social media, it really seems like something from another age. It made me feel old but, still, I enjoyed the sense of nostalgia it left me with.

The next Berko Speakeasy will run on 8th June 2016.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Second Place at the H E Bates Short Story Competition

I'm very pleased to announce I've been awarded second prize in the H. E. Bates Short Story Competition for my story Last of the Sand Dragons.

If you'd like to read the story, it's online over on the competition site, here, alongside the winning entry by Louise G Cole.

I've entered the H.E. Bates competition a few times, and I've been pretty lucky - the first time I entered I was shortlisted, the second time (in 2013, when it was themed rather than open) I bagged the top spot, and now I have a second prize to add to the trophy cabinet. I may be biased, but it seems like a pretty good competition - well organised, reasonably priced, and the top prize is a not-to-be-sniffed-at £500. 2015 was the eleventh consecutive year of the competition, although it was originally established in the 1970s.

This year the judge was the prolific writer and blogger Morgen Bailey. In her introductory speech, Morgen said she'd had a tough job deciding between the top two stories. As the eventual runner-up, I'm never sure whether this is a good thing to know or not! I guess it's good to be in contention for the main prize rather than being completely outclassed, but missing out by a whisker still feels a bit gutting.

Either way, I'm very happy to have finally scored a hit with Last of the Sand Dragons. It's a story I wrote quite a long time ago and it's been out to probably more than its fair share of competitions. It made it onto several shortlists and was highly commended in at least one, but never quite made it onto the winners' podium. In between each attempt, I'd always find something to change about the story - sometimes fairly big changes like taking it from first- to third-person perspective, or going from past to present tense, sometimes just minor tweaks to wording. I'm glad I persevered with it, as it's always been a story I thought was worth telling, although with effectively only one character and no dialogue, it was never going to be an easy sell.

There's always a feeling that you can over-edit a story, and I've had a few that have definitely started to come apart at the seams when I've tried to cut too much or restructure too radically. But sometimes, it's worth giving it just one last go...

Monday, 1 February 2016

When Anonymity Backfires

or The Curious Case of the Costa Short Story Award

Anyone who's followed this blog for a while will know I'm a staunch supporter of anonymity in writing competitions, especially the big ones. If a judge or a reader knows nothing about the author, then the decision of whether or not it's a good story can only be down to, well, how good a story it is. And that's how it should be, by my reckoning at least.

This is one reason I particularly like the Costa Short Story Award. They take anonymity very seriously, with any possible 'leaks' as to the identity of the writers on the shortlist investigated and "dealt with" quickly (I've spoken to one of the shortlisted authors from the 2013 award and the level of scrutiny you're under during the public vote sounds vaguely terrifying). The organisers seem to go to impressive lengths to ensure that when the public votes on the shortlist, the stories are arranged on as level a playing field as possible.

But I didn't vote for any of the stories this time around. I've voted in all the previous years, and encouraged other people to read the shortlist and pick their favourite. Generally, the stories are pretty good, and I think the CSSA's ethos of letting the writing do the talking should be supported and encouraged. So what was different this year?

The problem was that as soon as I started reading the first entry on the list, I knew who'd written it. Not because I had any kind of special insight into the judging process or privileged insider knowledge, but because the story pretty much picked up from where one of the shortlisted entries from 2013 ended. The writing style was exactly the same, the (distinctive) location was the same, even the same characters were involved.

Now, the CSSA has had the same authors appear on successive shortlists before. In 2014, both Sheila Llewellyn and Angela Readman made it into the top six for the second year in a row. But that was for entirely different stories about different things told in very different styles (particularly in the case of Angela Readman). So that didn't seem like an issue, because I doubt anybody could have guessed who these writers were and there was no easy way to find out.

This time around, things were different. All the previous shortlisted stories are available on the Costa website, so it only took a couple of clicks to go back to the 2013 result and confirm my suspicions. The two stories were like different episodes of the same TV show, and it was clear they had been written by the same person.

I kept quiet, although the urge to find out whether anybody else had noticed was strong. What annoyed me was that having such a readily identifiable author on the list undermined the concept of anonymity. I felt I couldn't be objective or fair about the competition, so I decided I wouldn't vote. I try not to put my conspiracy theory hat on too regularly, but I started to wonder at what had gone on behind the scenes at Costa. Had an exception been made for this author? Was some kind of favouritism at work? I hoped not, but there was no way of knowing, and to me the competition seemed a little tainted by the whole thing.

So after the results were announced last week everything was out in the open, and I could finally ask about what had gone on. It quickly became clear I wasn't the only person who'd noticed. Via Twitter, I got in touch with the Costa and pointed out that for anyone with a decent enough memory, one of the writers hadn't been anonymous at all. They were pretty helpful, and via an exchange of tweets, the following became clear:
  1. The admin team who processed the entries saw the authors' names but they didn't read the stories.
  2. The filter readers and the judges who did read the stories didn't see the authors' names but because they hadn't read / didn't remember the 2013 shortlist, they didn't spot the issue.
  3. When the (anonymous) shortlist was announced, the problem may have been revealed to the organisers, but by then it would be unfair to exclude the story as it had earned its place on the shortlist via the blind judging stage.
I think I trust the Costa organisers on this, and that the episode has demonstrated a potential pitfall of their strict anonymity rule. They say they're changing the rules for the 2016 prize to avoid this situation cropping up again, so it'll be interesting to see how they word that.

In the end, then, it comes down to the author choosing to submit a story strikingly related to one that had already been published under her name and was still readily accessible online. When you consider she'd previously experienced the anonymity controls Costa require, it seems a strange decision to submit something that effectively undermines all that. It doesn't appear to have done her any harm, as this time around she won a prize, but to me it doesn't feel entirely in the spirit of the competition, and I can't help wondering whether some of the people who voted for the story knew exactly who they were supporting. There's no way of knowing, of course, and I'm not suggesting any underhand tactics by the author herself. I'm just curious.

What do you think? Should competitions with a policy of anonymity discourage or even ban writers from submitting work that can reasonably be traced back to them? What should happen if this issue turns up again?

Thursday, 10 December 2015

"The Boatman" published at 101 Words

101 Words is a website I found out about via a post on Twitter, when a writer I follow posted a link to a story she'd had published there ["And So" by Marie Gethins - worth a look]. It was one of those moments that crop up every once in a while where I find out about a market just as I'm looking for somewhere new to send a particular piece.

I had a 100-word ghost story that had started off as a 50-word story intended for a competition in (I think) The Telegraph. It was a bit too brief at 50 words, and I'd increased the word count with the thought that it might fit a 'drabble' competition.

101 Words insist that the word count of anything submitted must be exactly 101 words. Despite the temptation to take the easy route and just throw in an adjective somewhere to bump up the word count, I actually ended up restructuring about half of the story so it's now quite difficult to define exactly what I changed. This is one of the challenges of writing to a specific limit - it can be hard to convince yourself it's worth unpicking a story when you could hit the target by simply popping in a word or two. When it comes to editing I try to have the attitude that there's always a better way of saying something, even if it involves several iterations, bouncing back and forth over the word limit.

Anyway, I got there in the end and the editors at 101 Words accepted "The Boatman" as submitted, and it went live a couple of weeks ago (I'm still not back in the habit of blogging regularly, so apologies that it's fairly old news now). 101 Words don't pay for the stories they accept, but there's a monthly prize for the best story submitted. If you like to write flash or fancy giving it a try, it's worth checking out their site.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Quantum Shorts

What do you get if you combine creative writing with quantum mechanics? That's what the organisers of the Quantum Shorts short story competition are trying to find out with their biennial contest (it alternates each year between a prose competition and one for short films). The idea is that the genuinely weird world of quantum physics provides fertile ground for stories and, considering the number of entries they tend to get and the wide range of interpretations of the theme, it's hard to argue otherwise.

My story, The Physics of Falling (in Love), was inspired by the unpredictable behaviour of particles at the quantum (for anyone not up to speed on the terminology, for the purposes of this post you can just take that to mean very, very small) scale. The way quantum particles interact means it's very hard to accurately predict how one will influence another, and scientists can usually only work to establish the likelihood that Outcome X will happen, as opposed to Outcome Y. Although I did GCSE physics at school and several of the engineering topics I studied at university were heavily dependent on the subject, the quantum realm was never something I was required to learn about. I've read about bits of it since then, but I'm a long way from being any kind of expert.

The example I use in the story, of photons hitting a pane of glass, was something I heard on a radio programme during a long drive several years ago. I hope I've remembered it correctly, otherwise it's a really bad choice of metaphor! I actually wrote the first draft of the story for the 2013 competition, but I'd only heard about the contest very close to the deadline, and my initial attempt was way over the 1,000-word limit. In the end I couldn't edit it down in time, so I missed my chance. I refined it, send it out a couple of times - it was shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition in 2014 - but after that I decided it was probably worth waiting for the Quantum Shorts contest to come around again.

Anyway, the story is up on the website if you fancy having a read. Chances are it'll be the only love story powered by quantum physics you'll read today, but you never know. There's the option of rating the story if you feel so inclined, although I don't think it makes any difference at this point in time. If it makes the shortlist, though, I will be asking people to vote, as there's a "People's Choice" prize for the most popular/highest-rated tale.

If you feel suitably inspired to write a quantum-themed story, get cracking. It's free to enter, the prizes are pretty good, and submissions are open until 01 December 2015.