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.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Not NaNoWriMo-ing?

November brings with it dark nights and a sense of escalating panic as Christmas and the end of the year loom ever closer. This is, of course, fertile ground for NaNoWriMo. It's hard to imagine anybody reading this blog and not knowing what that is, but for the avoidance of doubt, it's the (inter)National Novel Writing Month - when participants are encouraged to write 50,000 words over the course of the month.

I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I tried it a couple of years ago, with limited success, and I wholeheartedly support anything that encourages passion and commitment in writing. However, my reservations come from the way the thing seems set up as a flash in the pan - a month of concentrated effort and then you're left on your own. There's also a tendency for people (at least quite a few of those whose tweets and Facebook posts I read) to focus squarely on the word count for each day, and cheerfully talk about writing rubbish to fill that day's bar on the graph. Of course, the intention is to go back and edit it when it's all over, but I never hear about that actually happening.

There are some high-profile novels that have come out of NaNoWriMo, but I get the feeling these are the (extremely rare, considering how many people take part each year) exceptions. I worry that without the support and camaraderie of the NaNo site, the enthusiasm dries up and many participants file their 50,000 words away. And then start the process all over again when the next November 1st rolls around.

Writing is rewriting. It's an old cliché, but it's been around for so long because it's true. And I think that's what my main objection to (some of) NaNoWriMo comes from - it's all about the relatively easy process of first-drafting. And - in my opinion - writing a lot of first draft in a short time doesn't make you a better writer. At least, not in the same way that revising, editing, and all those other less exciting (and harder to measure) aspects of "the craft" do.

I think all I'm saying is by all means do NaNoWriMo if it appeals, just find a way to fit it into a broader habit of writing than just that one month-long splurge. If you genuinely only have 30 days where you can find the couple of hours required to write your 1667 words, there may be things you can do that will have a bigger and more beneficial effect on you as a writer.

For instance:

Finish that NaNo novel you started last year. If you made it to 50,000 words then congratulations, that's a terrific achievement. But you don't need me to tell you that's not a novel. Be a NaNo Rebel and get the rest of it written. Ignore the shiny new idea(s) bouncing about in your head and press on. Finishing things is difficult, a real slog. If it wasn't so hard there would be far more actual NaNo-written novels in the bookshops. But getting all the way through and writing "The End" is way more of an achievement than filling up those progress bars.

Write, edit, and submit one complete short story. This is perhaps more for novice writers than established ones, and admittedly there are significant differences between writing novels and short stories. But there is a lot to be learned from the short form. It's more manageable to work with something a couple of thousand words long, but even that can take as much time and effort as a first draft ten times longer. Additionally, as well as finishing and editing the story, you should aim to send it off somewhere. A competition is one possibility, but why not be brave and fire it off to a literary journal of some kind? It gets your writing out into the world, and whether it results in an acceptance (Yay!) or a rejection (Boo! Revise it and get it back out there!), that's something you can learn from too.

If you are already writing and submitting regularly, you could always write your 50K words in the form of short stories. Della Galton did exactly that last year, and her publication rate and financial results are impressive. Much better than half a novel lying untouched in a digital drawer somewhere, right?

Read, read, and read some more. I don't know if there's a NaNoReMo. There should be. I've never heard a published author saying they wish they hadn't spent so much time reading, and in any list of writing tips, reading will pop up. So put down that pen/laptop and pick up a book. Read stuff you like, stuff you've never heard of, something you enjoyed years ago (Is it still any good?), read the classics, read trash. Learn from it all.

Personally, I'm going to be doing a mix of all of it. Trying to tackle my to-read pile, working on at least one short story, and ploughing on with the novel. How about you?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Three Months Later...

With Halloween just a few days away I know it's really not the right time to be getting rid of cobwebs, but I thought I'd neglected my blog for long enough. To me, it seems like a lot longer than three months since I last had the time to put together even a quick round-up of what I'd been doing. So why haven't I posted anything since mid-July? It's partly because life in general got pretty hectic, and is only just starting to calm down, and partly because not a lot has happened to me writing-wise since the Cornbury Festival in my last post.
Admittedly, I'm writing this so post to try to get back in the habit of blogging, so its contents may well be of interest to no-one but myself. I'll return to material with a broader appeal as soon as I can, I promise!

Anyway, without further ado, here's a brief summary of the most significant things that have happened to me in the last few months:

I got married. Okay, so this is a pretty big deal, and anybody who's got hitched in recent years will know how much time and effort goes into organising even the smallest of Big Days. Beth and I tried to do away with a lot of the stuff that exists for tradition's sake and tried to focus on the details that meant the most to us, but it still involved a lot of work. We tried to do as much of it ourselves (with loads of help from family and friends, too, of course). And we'd made things hard for ourselves by only deciding we were, after all, the marrying type in mid-April and then finding the perfect venue that turned out to availability at the end of August. All the build-up was enjoyable, in a stressful kind of way, and the day itself was wonderful.

We had a literary theme, and it was fun thinking up ways to incorporate this into the various decorations and phases of the day.

Book Centrepieces

Book Cocktails!

I got a bit carried away with the wedding programme, and essentially ended up putting together a small magazine - it tipped the scales at 16 pages, including the covers. It was very rewarding, though, and was a nice excuse to employ skills I don't often get to use in combination - writing, photography, and graphic design. The result, in my opinion, was well worth the effort, and our guests seemed to enjoy it too.

I went on honeymoon(s). My wife had a business trip booked a couple of weeks into September, so we couldn't go away straight after the wedding. Also, with the rush to get everything sorted for the wedding, we hadn't actually had a chance to work out where we wanted to go. To mark the start of our new lives together, we had a weekend break in the Cotswolds, then set about deciding where our 'proper' honeymoon would be. In the end, we went for Costa Rica, which was fantastic. I might go into more detail in a later post, but suffice to say it's an amazing country with wonderfully friendly people, great food, and some astonishing wildlife.

I hardly did any writing. Something had to give. The day-job and wedding organisation seemed to expand to fill every available moment, and even when I did get a free minute or two, my brain was too fried to come up with anything useful in the way of fiction. It's good to take a break, I guess, and probably healthy too. I did feel a bit anxious about not getting any more novel editing done, or working on a short story, but it's left me excited about picking it back up again.

I got published. My story, The Four Funerals of Augustus Black, was published in issue 166 (the August edition, approximately) of Writers' Forum, after scooping 3rd prize in their monthly competition. With so much else going on at the time I didn't really take the time to register it, but I'm very pleased to get another story into the magazine (the last time was in January). I've now won two 2nds and a 3rd - I'm tempted to give the top spot another go, maybe in the New Year.

I've been shortlisted. One of my flash pieces is currently on the shortlist at Flash 500. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

So, that's you up to date. Hopefully my blogging will be a little less erratic from now on, although real life isn't settling down quite as quickly as I thought it might after the wedding.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Cornbury: How it Went

I got home late last night after a great weekend at Cornbury. It's a lovely little festival, really laid-back and friendly with a good mix of acts. Of course, I didn't really take much in on the Saturday until after I'd done my reading - my nerves weren't too bad but it was certainly a relief to get to the end of my set and feel that I could relax with a well-earned pint and take more of an interest in what was going on.

Me, on the Other Stage
I think my reading went well - at least, I had an audience for the entire time, which was a pleasant surprise as I'm sure none of them were there because they'd heard of me. People came and went, which I got used to fairly quickly, although it was distracting at first. A few people stayed throughout, and that was hugely encouraging, although I was so wrapped up in trying to get through my stories without making any major mistakes that I completely forgot about doing the obligatory sales pitch. Whether that was the reason or not, I didn't sell any of the books I'd taken along. But that wasn't a huge disappointment.

I'm really glad this opportunity came along, and I gave it a go. It was a useful experience of public performance in a less forgiving environment than a writer's circle or even a workshop. It's boosted my confidence and I hope I'll get the chance to do something similar again before too long.

There were a few things I learned from the reading. Firstly, I think I should have stood up - for all the practice I'd done at home I had been on my feet, and although it doesn't seem like a big change it felt a bit strange to be sitting down. It meant I had to hold the book / printout differently, and it made it harder to look up and engage with the audience. I got it worked out soon enough, but it felt awkward.

Secondly, and possibly the most important thing I got wrong was that although I practised my readings I didn't give much thought in advance to how I was going to introduce myself or to what I was going to say in-between the stories. As a result I only gave a rushed and very brief introduction to each story, off the top of my head. This left me feeling like I was rushing from one story to the next without giving the audience any breathing space.

Thirdly, I should have taken into account the nature of the festival environment - people would stop by the tent to see what was going on, either on their way to see another act, or just as a way of filling time. Consequently I should have kept everything bite-sized and, probably, on the lighter side. But I was concerned about whether I'd be able to fill the time just with flash fiction, so I put in a couple of more weighty pieces too. The longest was just under 3,000 words, and I think this is way too long for people who might just have wandered in to see what was going on. The rules might be different for a literary festival, or if you are a big name with a bit of a following, but it's something I'll do differently if I get the chance again.

Overall I'm really pleased to have been a (very) small part of such a fantastic festival, and I hope the people who heard me read enjoyed themselves. Thank you again for your attention and support!