Friday 31 December 2010

Looking backwards, looking forwards, trying not to get dizzy...

So that, pretty much, was 2010. A mixed bag, as with every other year I've experienced.

Hmm... I'm not sure I can sustain that level of insight. Okay, let's think in terms of landmarks. It's been a good year in many ways. Near the beginning, I won a big prize with a short story that I think is one of the best things I've ever written. I got another story into a national writing magazine. Other stories picked up shortlistings and second and third placings in various competitions. I made a reasonable amount of progress on my novel. This blog has been quite successful, in terms of the modest aims I had regarding it, and I've enjoyed writing it.

On the downside, I still haven't received all the cash from that big competition. Many stories in which I had a lot of faith sank without trace in competitions, or got knocked back from magazines that I dared to think were dead certs. Some of my successes have cast doubt on exactly what type of writer I am - for instance, I still haven't had a single science fiction story accepted, despite starting the year pretty much thinking of myself as a SF writer.

On the whole, though, the positives outweigh the negatives, which is good. Next year is already looking promising - I have a couple of stories coming out in printed magazines/anthologies, I'm running a short-story workshop as part of the first-ever Guernsey Literature Festival (I was planning to do a full post on this news, but I didn't get the opportunity), and there are a few interesting-looking competitions on their way. For me, the 2011 Bridport Prize is unmissable, as A L Kennedy is judging it and she's one of my favourite writers. Plus the Bristol Prize seems to be going from strength to strength - the prize money is doubled compared to last year, and from the sounds of things it's a very slick operation that deserves to do well. So, yes, onwards and upwards. Hopefully.

Considering the general competition-y focus of this blog, I'd like to announce the inaugural Lies, Ink Awards. This is a way for me to publicly applaud and recommend competitions of which I have personal experience and that have proved to be well run. I make no excuse for the fact that these are biased - after all, I'm not qualified to advise on how prizes are handled in competitions where I haven't actually won anything.

Gold Awards go to TxtLit and Catherine Howard. Linda Lewis (the writer behind the Catherine Howard competitions) gets the winners' cheques in the post within a couple of days and when I asked her to revise the synopsis of my ghost story that came third in her recent competition, she took care of it straight away. TxtLit cheques turn up within a month of the story going live on their website and when I queried a problem with the submission process the admin people there couldn't have been more helpful. Keep up the good work, folks!

Silver Awards go to Writers' Forum and The H.E. Bates competition. Writers' Forum is a great place to get published and the prize money is very good, but they just miss out on top honours because once I found out my story was shortlisted it fell into an odd two-month vacuum during which I had no idea whether or not it was likely to go any further. I didn't know which issue it was being considered for, or when they were going to make the decision. Although I didn't win anything in the H.E. Bates competition, the people running it were very helpful and I like the fact that despite it being a fairly 'small' competition they still have an awards ceremony.

Sadly, there's a Wooden Spoon to hand out as well. But I'll leave that for another time.

In the meantime, Happy New Year, everyone. See you in 2011!

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Mulled whine...

December's been an awkward month for writing. I haven't had anywhere near as much time to write as I'd hoped, and when I have actually managed to sit down at the computer with something close enough to enthusiasm to be confident of producing something, I've then found myself incapable of deciding exactly what it is I should be aiming my efforts towards.

Still, I've worked on a couple of new stories, one of which is pretty much finished and an edit or two away from being sent somewhere. I thought I'd missed the Sentinel deadline but looking at the website just now I see they've extended it and I've got until the 7th January (my birthday!) to enter. It's a sign! Hopefully a more accurate one than the previous 'sign'...

I was very pleased to find I've come joint third in the second Catherine Howard competition. My story 'Evergreen', was - surprisingly, I thought, given the time of year - the only Christmas-themed story entered. Having chalked up second place in her previous competition with 'Featherweight', and getting a second win at TxtLit recently, I suppose I am officially becoming one of those annoying people who keeps cropping up on the shortlist of the same competitions. It's a trend I'm happy to allow to develop, I must say.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Trying to Avoid Blogging About Not Blogging

I've been spending a disproportionate amount of time thinking about what my next blog post should be. I was treading dangerously close to the dreaded scenario of writing about how difficult it is to come up with something to put in your blog. But I'm resisting that, so far.

There are a few developments going on, kind of behind the scenes at the moment. I'm working on a couple of stories. One of them turned out quite well - it was one that I workshopped at the writing weekend I mentioned a while back. Just waiting to gather up some feedback, hopefully in time to send it off somewhere. Maybe here.

The other story is causing me concerns. I've worked out what happens, who the characters are, the main plot arc, a sort of subplot to fling in there as well. The problem is I can't 'get' the structure. I think it's going to work best if it's just linear, nothing fancy or complicated - and yet I still can't work through it in my head. This isn't something I've run into before, and it's proving very difficult to put it to one side and just get on with writing the damn thing, work out the details at the editing stage. It probably doesn't help that at the moment I'm only getting to write in short bursts, which isn't my preferred approach.

Ah, well. There are positive things on the horizon - I found out recently that the story that was accepted by The Battered Suitcase will appear in the Spring edition of the magazine. So, I'm guessing it'll be out around March/April. Also, the story that got shortlisted for the H.E. Bates is going to be in an anthology published by the Northampton Writers Group. It's reassuring to be heading into the new year (Yikes - that suddenly seems very close...) with a couple of pieces on their way to being in print already.

So, good news, mostly. I'm sure the story that's giving me grief will straighten itself out before long and I can build up enough momentum to get to the end of it. Then I can get on with the job of working out whether it's actually any good or not.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

An Incy Wincy Story

Just a quick note to brag about my most recent success - a second win over at TXTLIT. If you don't already know about TxtLit and you're a writer with a mobile phone, it's well worth having a look. The tiny word count (actually it's a character count, and you've got to fit all those spaces and commas, dashes and semi-colons into your limit of 154 characters) forces you to really scrutinise each and every word.

They've quoted me on the site saying how powerful a single word can be, and that's something that applies to fiction (or writing in general, actually) of any length, although it's amplified when you're trying to squeeze a whole story into 30 words or less - mine tips the scales at 28. For instance, the word "ripcord" in my story is not only a key element of the plot, but it saves me dozens of words of description - I don't need to mention parachutes, aeroplanes, gravity, etc: it's all implied by those 7 characters.

This is a way of thinking I'm trying to apply to my other writing. I know I have a tendency to over-write, and I think it's something that separates aspiring writers like me from the people who've already made it - that confidence in what they're writing that lets them just sit back and think, "Yeah, that's enough. The readers will work it out." It can be difficult to resist hammering the point home, just to make sure everyone knows exactly what you're saying. I'm starting to realise that's an impossible goal. Some people will never get it, others won't want to. The readers who are on your wavelength will tune in naturally, and they'll respect you for not spoon-feeding them.

It would be easy to be a bit sniffy about TxtLit, and question the literary merits of it and other formats that consist of so few words. But I'll defend my story as just that - a proper story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a point of realisation after which nothing will ever be the same. It has backstory. Whether or not it is written with flair is not really for me to comment, but I'm pleased with the way it turned out. I'm not going to claim it as one of the masterworks of modern fiction, but any writer who takes on a challenge like this has to spend time thinking carefully about words, about sentence structure, and about how readers interpret their work. That, I'm convinced, can only be a good thing.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Not a Trouser Press in Sight...

Knowing me Dan Purdue, knowing you Blog Readers. Ah-ha!

Er, yes. In my defence I've been feeling quite a lot like Alan Partridge  recently, living in hotels and rented accommodation for a couple of weeks. The tedium of living out of a suitcase and eating on my own in restaurants has made me feel a lot like Alan in the third (and in my opinion, the best) series of his show, although so far I've managed to resist begging the staff to make adult films appear on the TV, or dismantling the trouser press. The latter may only be because I haven't stayed anywhere that actually provides a trouser press yet.

The reason for this is that as of last week and for the next few months, I'll be working part of each week in Leeds and staying in a hotel/B&B while I'm there. Initially I thought that this would mean I'd have a lot of time on my hands in the evenings and could get a lot of writing done, but it hasn't worked out that way. I've found that by the time I've got back from work, changed into casual (i.e. scruffy) clothes, walked or driven into town, found somewhere to eat, eaten, paid, and walked back again, there's actually not that much of the evening left. I wrote a page of a short story and a few notes for other stuff, but not the huge chunks of progress I was anticipating. I think instead I'll try to do some editing while I'm away - that seems more realistic. I tend to edit longhand using a printed copy and a biro, which are a lot more portable than a laptop.

In the middle of my first two weeks in my new role was a writing weekend, of the extremely enjoyable variety. Some friends and I hired a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales and holed up for three days doing various writerly things. For me, the most interesting and useful was a tightly structured review circle, the type where you read a piece out and then sit anxiously chewing your fingernails while the group members make notes and then, one-by-one, tell you what they thought of it. The key thing is that you don't get the chance to respond to the comments until the end. This is quite hard (I resorted to literally biting my tongue at times), but it's worth it. If one person picks up on something that doesn't work, it's easy to get all defensive/indignant and assume they weren't paying attention. When the comment gets echoed by two or three others, it's somehow easier to take the criticism. Not that it's diluted, it's just that it becomes obvious that the bit they're talking about simply doesn't work. From that point on, you're not dealing with opinion but a matter of fact, and (for me, at least) that feels like something concrete, something that can be worked on and improved. We also wrote new things, ate and drank a lot and stayed up late talking nonsense. Good times.

But after all that it's good to be home again. Today I've painted what used to be the garage but will soon be my office / writing room / guest bedroom, listened to the five stories shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award (very good, all of them - hear them on Listen Again or get the podcasts, here), and admired my signed copy of Not So Perfect - which, I was pleased to see, Nik Perring had signed using his "dried blood" ink as per his interview on Teresa Stenson's "Tell Me How You Write" spot on her blog.

Oh, and having been shortlisted for the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition (one of the news items I hinted at in my last post), I found out I'd got no further than that, which is a shame. Still, nice to have made the shortlist.

Friday 12 November 2010

Updated Comps Page and Hints of Other News

I've updated my competition page, clearing out the ones that have passed their closing dates and adding a few more that I've found. There's a good mix there, something for everyone, I hope.

I haven't had a lot of time to attend to this blog since the end of October, and I'm just about to rush off into the Yorkshire Dales for a weekend of writing and, potentially, wine and Twiglets too. However, I will say that I've been lucky enough to win a signed copy of Nik Perring's "Not So Perfect" - which will go nicely with the not-so-signed copy I bought a couple of weeks ago (I wish I'd remembered I'd entered that competition before I ordered it!). Many thanks to the lovely people at The Lancashire Writing Hub for organising the prize draw.

The Hints of Other News I mention in the title of this post relate to a couple of things that for the moment I'm going to have to be a bit vague about. The first is because I don't want to jinx it, and the second is more certain but still needs to have several things confirmed before I start blabbing about it on here. You'll have to bear with me, and I'll let you know what's happening as soon as I can.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Godzilla Finds Home in Battered Suitcase

Don't worry, this blog hasn't been hijacked by a headline writer from the Sunday Sport. My story, A Night In with Zil, has been accepted by The Battered Suitcase, a magazine published by Vagabondage Press. They haven't given me a publishing date yet, but I'm very pleased to have placed this story as it's one I'm very fond of.

So I've been filling out the paperwork (contract, author profile, etc) to make it all official. I'm still at the stage where all this kind of stuff is quite exciting. I'm sure eventually it'll become a tedious chore, but for the moment I'm happy to enjoy it. The thing I like best is that they invite their contributors to answer a few questions about their writing - so I'm regarding it as my first writing-based interview. I've no idea if they'll use what I've sent them. I'm already a bit concerned that the things I've said will make me seem like a complete idiot with no idea what I'm doing. Ah, well...

Oh, and I didn't get anywhere in the Biscuit Publishing Flash Fiction Competition (results out today). Maybe next year.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Status Update

Having mentioned progress on my novel in my previous post, and finishing Chapter Ten today, it seemed like a good time to take stock. I've copy-&-pasted everything into one file (I tend to work with each chapter in a separate file, to try to make sure if any get corrupted it's merely annoying, rather than the end of the world).

Anyway, the rewrite currently weighs in at a respectable 23,000 words, spread over 82 double-spaced pages. I'm not sure if 2,500ish words per chapter is a bit on the short side. Originally the chapters were coming out at around 6,000 words - which seemed far too long. I'm hoping the shorter style suits the fact it's more of a thriller than a ponderous, philosophical musing on the human condition.

23K seems like a good chunk - it's enough to feel like the rewrite is actually happening now, it's not just something I'm tinkering about with. Having said that, it's early days yet. There's still another 60,000 words to go before I catch up with where I was before I decided to go back and switch it all to first-person. And then I can press on and write the end, which I'm starting to panic about already. There are going to be a lot of loose ends to tidy up.

The aim is to write somewhere between 90-100K in the first draft, and then trim it down by at least 10%. 85,000 words seems to be an industry-standard acceptable length for a first novel. It would be good to have the first draft finished before the end of the year. In fact, seeing as I've just written it, that is officially my goal. You're all witnesses, so now I have to do it. Thank you. I think.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Recent Acquisitions, Routine, Rejection...

I haven't blogged in a while. Don't think that I have reached a rather feeble milestone and settled back to rest on my laurels. Oh no.

The thing is, I haven't really had much to blog about. I've been plodding along with the novel re-write, adding about 800 words a day on average to the word count. Reasonable, steady progress I guess, but unremarkable. It feels good to have a routine of sorts, although in actual fact my daily output still varies from a couple of hundred words to a couple of thousand. I've just come out of a fairly heavy-going portion, which I've struggled with, and into a more exciting section that's got a lot more going on, some snappier dialogue and more movement. I definitely find this kind of thing easier to write. So, that's good.

I've had a couple of pieces turned down, most recently by Vestal Review. This is a nice-looking market that I'd like to get a story into, but their rejection (although very polite and encouraging) confirms some of the doubts I have about my ability to write flash fiction - a form I still haven't entirely separated in my head from 'regular' short stories. A lot seem frustratingly incomplete, some have characters so slight I'm left wondering why anybody cares what happens to them. Some are excellent, and have stayed with me as indelibly as my favourite novels. I'll keep trying to write decent flashes, and keep reading them, in an effort to understand more about the form.

And I've bought some books this weekend:

'All My Friends are Superheroes' by Andrew Kaufman - I bought this because I found it in a secondhand book shop near to where I live and thought the title rang a bell, although I can't remember where I'd heard about it. I've read it (it's very short) and it's one of the quirkiest, most charming stories I've read in a long time. It's basically a love story - Tom is a regular guy in a city where just about everybody else is a superhero. His new wife, The Perfectionist, has been hypnotised by her jealous ex, Hypno, into thinking that he is invisible. When he touches her, she flinches or hiccups, but she can't hear anything he says. Tom has the time it takes to fly to Vancouver to find a way of convincing her he is right next to her, as she is convinced he's left her. It's a clever idea and it's very well executed.

'The City & The City' by China Mieville - I've been meaning to read Mieville's work for a long time, and I decided that this would be a good place to start, seeing as it won this year's Arthur C Clarke award. That suggests it's a science fiction story, although I tracked it down in the Crime section of Waterstones. I get the impression it's the kind of story that's hard to classify, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

'The Space Merchants' by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth - I don't know a lot about this, only that a friend of mine was talking about it one night (I'd never heard of it before), and the very next day I found it in a secondhand bookshop - not just on the shelf, but actually perched on top of a row of books as though it had been left out specifically for me to see. I can't resist coincidences like that, so I bought it.

'Not So Perfect' by Nik Perring - This ties in nicely with my aim of getting a better grasp on flash fiction, as Nik's stories are regarded as fine examples of the form. Plus, he seems like a very nice bloke, and it's always good to support an up-and-coming authors whenever you can.

So, that's it for now. Back to the reading and writing...

Thursday 7 October 2010

A Bicentenary, of Sorts...

I've reached a milestone today. Hoorah! Well done, Lies, Ink, you're well on your way to being a proper blog or something. Perhaps.

Admittedly, it's all a bit arbitrary because it was more than a week after I'd set up the blog that I added the counter, and it was a good few days after that before I found out how to block my own IP address so I didn't artificially boost the viewing figures. But, still, I've always believed in celebrating the small things in life, and even a quasi-accurate blog counter hitting 200 views deserves an acknowledgement.

By the law of averages, at least half a dozen or so of those 200 visits are from real human beings rather than web-trawling robots, and there's a sliver of a chance that some of those are people I haven't actually met. If you're one of those, Welcome, it's great to have you aboard. I hope you're finding the blog to be interesting / helpful / a handy cure for insomnia.

***As you can probably tell, I've been at work all day and have nothing writing-related to comment upon. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.***

Monday 4 October 2010

Exciting New Content!

As you can see by my shiny new tab bar across the top of this blog page, I have added a section of the blog that I hope will be of interest to my fellow writers - a listing of short story competitions.

I've put this together after trying to get more organised about entering competitions and finding it difficult to navigate my way around other competition listing sites, which - understandably enough - don't tend to focus on short story competitions of the kind I like to enter. So, it's partly here for my own reference, but with a bit of luck it will also be helpful to other writers with a competitive streak.

Putting this list together has shown me a few things:
  • There are a lot of competitions out there. I found 45 closing before June 2011 in my first couple of searches. There were others that I missed out, for instance because they aren't yet accepting entries.
  • Competition organisers really need to make their webpages as straightforward as possible - on several occasions I had to navigate my way over three or more pages just to get all the information required to send an entry that complies with all their rules.
  • Blogger does really odd things with paragraph breaks once you start putting tables into a blog post.

Anyway, I hope it's of use / interest. Good luck!

Wednesday 29 September 2010

The Honeymoon Comes to an End...

Okay, I've pretty much got my feet back on the ground again after my story "Hotel Subterraneana" was printed in the November issue (available now from newsagents and online, here). The euphoria has worn off, mostly, although I do sometimes catch myself wondering what the people who aren't family and friends of mine (i.e. the ones who buy the magazine of their own free will rather than having me thrust it under their noses) think of it.

In the writing class I go to, last night, the tutor talked about editing and proof-reading and how it is, for some reason, virtually impossible to spot all the errors in a piece of your own writing. I guess the story is so familiar to you that your brain fills in any gaps, or skips over parts of it without actually taking full notice of what is physically there.

I employed all the tricks I know to try to make sure my story was as close to flawless as possible when I submitted it. I read it through on-screen, I printed out several copies, changed the font so it looked different to how it looked in Word, I read it out loud, I got other people to read it. I was pretty confident (if a little bored of the story) by the time I sent it in.

As Jonathan Pinnock described in his recent blog post about hearing one of his stories read out on Radio 4, there's nothing like a professional version of your work to make the flaws shine just as brightly as the good bits. Most of my story is fine, but when I read the final printed version, several niggles leap out at me. The first paragraph doesn't end the way I thought it did - the last line seems tacked-on, and I was sure there was a better bridge between the ideas in the last couple of sentences. The sentence, "He will be the library," is missing its "in". And I've got the word "straightened" at the start, which isn't a problem, but it then crops up again, twice in the same sentence later on. Jeez... how the hell did I miss that?

My first reaction was horror and shame, and wondering why the magazine editors hadn't asked me to sort it out, but I think I've reached a healthier point of view since then. I have to bear in mind that I'm still a developing writer, I'm not claiming to be anywhere near perfect. A judge or an editor can still decide a story is worth telling even if it does put an occasional foot wrong. Most importantly of all, readers are possibly more forgiving than your typical obsessive, over-critical writer.

Let's face it, if you waited for a story to be utterly perfect, with not a single word that couldn't be improved, or a comma that couldn't be left out / put in for better effect, you'd never submit anything.

Friday 24 September 2010

My "Writers' Forum" debut...

I've had a bizarrely invigorating day today. I got up feeling pretty switched-on, wrote 1000 words of my novel and went swimming (for the first time in well over a year) before lunch. I came home to find (a) a sparrow hawk murdering a wood-pigeon on the driveway - not particularly nice, but kind of majestic nonetheless, and (b) my contributor's copy of Writers' Forum pushed through my letter-box. Oh, and the cheque, which is worth mentioning - a couple of friends had stuff published in WF a couple of years ago, and they had a lot of trouble getting hold of their prize money. It seems like the new organisation over there is really on the ball, though, so I have no hesitation in recommending their monthly competition. Go on, give it a go...

Anyway, my first-ever magazine publication:

It's been quite a while since I've seen any of my stories in print, and this is the first time anything I've written has made it into something so widely available. It feels fantastic! Although I always get a bit of a rush when I see something of mine in a format other than bog-standard Word, there's something extra-special about seeing it on glossy paper, all laid out in twin columns, with a leader written by somebody from the magazine introducing the story (and saying very nice things about it, too).

As I mentioned earlier, the three winning stories get critiqued by the competition judge, Sue Moorcroft. This bit turned out to be the icing on the cake - Sue says some very encouraging things about the story, mentioning "lively writing", "admirable descriptive passages", and describing parts of the story as "a masterclass on how to make description leap from [my] imagination to that of the reader". I'm strutting like a peacock after all that.

It just goes to show, if you think you've got a decent story, it's worth sticking with it, even if it takes several attempts to get it right - the Writer's Forum competition wasn't my first attempt at getting this story published, but every time it came back I took another look at it, identified which bits worked and which didn't, cut some parts, expanded others, basically honed it little by little until it had developed into a publishable story. Sometimes the distance that a rejection puts between you and a story is exactly what you need to come back to it with a more critical, more discerning eye. Take knock-backs as a positive thing - they're a second chance to reach that little bit higher with your writing.

Writers' Forum is available in most large newsagents, or can be ordered online. Their website is here.

Thursday 16 September 2010

A Documentary About Sharks

I hadn't intended to make this a review blog, but having just finished reading this, and with Nik Perring's call-to-arms ringing in my ears, I decided that I'd make an exception. Just this once, mind. At least until next time...

I’ve been enthusiastically following Gavin Broom’s online output for several years, and this collection is a round-up of his stories (and a few poems) that were accepted for publication during 2009. The fact that all the works included here have already been given the green light by editors who know what they’re doing (many from well-established magazines like Jersey Devil Press and Menda City Review) should calm the nerves of anybody imagining this to be an indulgent vanity project.

A Documentary About Sharks, then, is a polished collection of works that serves as a demonstration of Broom’s impressive range. Fifteen stories and three poems fill 90-odd pages, covering such diverse themes as love, loss, and rampaging reanimated corpses. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the poems, so I’ll just say I enjoyed them, and thought they were worth including. Approximately one-third of the stories were new to me, and re-reading the ones I already knew was like getting a visit from an old friend.

There is common ground in many of the stories – Broom’s characters often inhabit a world tilted beyond their control by events or circumstances. They are isolated, disconnected, struggling to fit the role life has carved out for them. Although this sounds like a recipe for a tediously introspective gloomfest, Broom’s touch is light – he strikes a careful balance between hope and despair, often adding a rich vein of dark humour, so although the stories have their share of poignant moments, they’re never depressing.

I hadn’t read the title story before, in which two disaffected teenagers walk through a shopping mall, planning a Columbine-style massacre. This is a typical example of Broom’s skill – initially seeming like nothing more than two drop-outs hanging around, comparing people in the mall to different kinds of shark, the focus tightens to reveal their sinister motives, before pulling away again on a curiously redemptive note. The effect is unsettling, and it leaves you with plenty to think about.

One reason the writing is so effective is the characterisation. From the jaded commuter in The Boy Who Threw Rocks at Trains (a new one for me, and particularly good), to the unnamed and unnoticed high school girl quietly setting an emotional depth charge for a fellow student in On Your Birthday, Broom has created living, breathing people to populate his stories. The end of a good short story is always a beginning, of sorts, and the reader is left in no doubt that these characters will carry on well beyond the final full stop.

Although the majority of the stories are constructed in a straightforward and traditional way, Broom plays with structure with some of the shorter pieces. The stream-of-consciousness of Between the Lines results in one of the weaker stories, in my opinion, but the style suits the content perfectly. More effective is Everything Binary, a story of a tourist witnessing a murder on the Paris Metro. It’s told in fourteen bite-size ‘chapters’ of fifty words each. The choppy, edgy mood this introduces again complements the story itself brilliantly, and adds an extra level of authenticity that would be hard to achieve with a more conventional narrative.

The standout story, for me, is The Spirit of Shackleton, a master class in short-story writing that makes me jealous every time I read it. Other gems include the gloriously unhinged Poe-infused The Reading of Mr Edgar’s Will, and the book’s closer, a short sting of a piece called Emma’s Verruca.

Whether you buy this collection or simply make the effort to track down a few of Broom’s stories online, your reward will be fiction of a consistently high standard, in the form of unpredictable and intelligent stories that offer insights into the various tangles, pits, and peaks that life can throw at us. Highly recommended.

Monday 13 September 2010

I'm not superstitious, but...

This afternoon I walked down into town to buy some cereal and to get some exercise after being stuck in the house all day. It was raining, a bit. I noticed an A4 poster pinned to a telegraph pole - it was one of those 'Lost Cat' posters, with a photo of a black and white cat on it.

Artist's impression of Lost Cat poster

The Bridport Prize results are announced soon - at least the winners and shortlisted authors should be informed in the next couple of weeks. It is, of course, just about every writer's dream to get onto that shortlist. My entry is a story about a bloke who goes out in the rain to pin lost cat posters (for a black and white cat) to telegraph poles. So, the fact that I saw such a poster at this point in time can only mean one thing...

It's a sign!

...and I must have won the Bridport Prize. That's the only logical conclusion, which is exciting. Of course, I will be seriously disappointed if it turns out to be a false sign and I haven't actually won the Bridport Prize after all. Even more disappointed than usual.

P.S. I hope whoever put up the poster finds their cat soon. I also hope it's not quite as creepy a cat as the one I've used for my reconstruction above. That cat knows far too much; you can tell by the look on its face.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

"Drat!" and "Whoo-hoo!"

As the heading suggests, the last few days have brought both good and bad news.

To deal with the bad news first, Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens rejected the story I sent them. This was one of the quickest rejections I've ever had, and came in the form of a polite but firm No Thanks. It would have been good to get a bit more feedback, but I guess they're busy people. The sting of rejection always smarts, but in this case I'm more upset (too strong a word, but you know what I mean) about the fact that I misjudged the market. It's much easier to deal with a rejection if you sent your story in on a wing and a prayer, with no real insight into whether it might be what they're looking for. In fact, I'd say this is one of the big pluses of competitions - you just give it your best shot and hope it works out. When you (as I had, in this case) carefully research a number of different magazines and pick the one that seems like a really good fit, it's a real slap in the face when it comes straight back at you. Still, nothing ventured, and all that.

Okay, moving on to the good news... Writers' Forum have awarded my story, Hotel Subterraneana, second place in their monthly competition. This is very exciting news for me, as my work's never been published in a magazine before (well, when I was a kid I entered a competition to design a monster for a computer game. The magazine printed a photo of the hundreds of entries strewn across a desk, and you could just about make out my monster's legs in the top left corner). The fact that it's a writers' mag, too, is encouraging - sort of like having the teacher read out your work in class. I'm looking forward to seeing what the editor has to say about the story; one of the best aspects of WF's recent format change is the critique of the three stories chosen for that issue.

It'll be in the November issue of the magazine, which should be in the shops in about three weeks - just in time for, er, October.

Friday 3 September 2010

Interesting places to fling your thing

I've been scouring the web looking for unusual markets, having found that September is a bit of a sparse month for writing competitions. Two places caught my eye in particular:

  • Firstly, Do Not Look At The Sun - Not just sensible advice, this is also a quirky Paris-based magazine with an interesting approach - they print up their mag and then wander around Paris leaving copies in various cafés, bars, and bookshops for people to discover and take home, for free. It's also available through more conventional means, and you can view most (if not all) of the content of past issues on their website. What with giving their magazine away like happy little literary pixies, they don't have the cash to pay contributors, but they will send you a couple of copies of the issue your piece appears in. Very Bohemian, well worth checking out.

  • Secondly, the quite spectacularly named Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens - This one's an American print and online magazine with a strong taste for the bizarre and surreal. It's a gorgeous site and the magazine seems put together with a great deal of care (quite a few of the back issues are available for perusal on the site, for free). They pay ten dollars and send a contributor's copy.

I thought I'd give Bust Down the Door... a try, and I've sent them a story that I hope they'll think is bizarre and surreal enough to warrant a place in their next issue. Despite a rummage through my folders I couldn't find anything ready to send to Do Not Look At the Sun, but I'll definitely bear them in mind if I write something quirky and unplaceable in the future.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Shortlist announced for Seán Ó Faoláín Prize

Well, the results are in, and it looks like the story I submitted failed to catch the judge's eye. 'Tis a pity, as the SOF is quite an expensive competition to enter, and for some reason I felt the story I was putting forward was a good fit for the competition. I should learn to be more wary of these gut feelings.

The Seán Ó Faoláín Prize was judged this year entirely by one person, Tania Hershman, with no readers or sifters helping to filter the entries. This was a pretty mammoth undertaking, with almost 850 entries. She posted an interesting piece on the judging process a while back.

Having recently done well in one competition judged solely by one person, and disappeared without trace in another, I can't help wondering whether single-judge competitions really do find the 'best' writing out there, as opposed to ones that either go through some sort of filtering system or have more than one judge. Is a story that one person loves actually 'better' than one that two people both like? Which of these is closer to the definition of good writing?

As a writer, would you rather have a handful of people rave about your work, or a large group who enjoy it, but don't get terribly enthusiastic about it? I'm not sure which I'd prefer. Fortunately, at the moment, I'm not in any danger of having to choose...

Saturday 28 August 2010

Judge's Critique for Featherweight

In the interests of making this blog as informative as possible, Linda Lewis has kindly agreed to let me publish the critique she gave me for my story Featherweight. I've appended it to the story here on my blog.

In some ways, the critique is less helpful because the story did well in the competition - I suppose it would be a bit strange if Linda had presented me with a long list of suggestions to improve it! However, hopefully publishing her response here will be useful to anybody who is entering Linda's next competition and is considering paying for a critique (always a tough decision when you don't have a clue what you're getting for your money).

I found Linda's take on my story to be very encouraging and perceptive. It's good to see that she's picked up on just about everything I was hoping to get across in the story. And it sounds like I only missed out on the top spot by a whisker, which is good (if a little frustrating!).

Incidentally, the winning story is now posted on the Catherine Howard website.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Hard to Swallow?

My humorous story / restaurant review, "Xtcokpøt", has gone live today on Defenestration. They even let me cartoon myself for my biog pic:

I'm very pleased and proud that I've been able to place this piece. Firstly, although I try to make sure there's at least a sliver of humour in most of what I write, I don't tend to write a lot of stuff that's supposed to be out-and-out funny, so it's reassuring to know it's something I can 'do'. Secondly, humour is such a subjective thing that it's a real boost to have an editor take a look at something and say, "Yeah, that's funny." Hopefully their readers agree.

Thirdly, Defenestration is a great site. It doesn't pay, but when you look at it the site is obviously put together with a huge amount of care and attention. It's a good home for any piece of writing, and I'll certainly be sending them more stuff in the future. Plus, it's got great cartoons. I still think Sodabot is a work of genius, although in terms of titles alone, The Impending Ingestion of Mr. Snugglesbee takes some beating.

One thing that I found strange when I was looking for places to send Xtcokpot, was how little demand there seems to be for humorous prose. I mean, everyone likes a laugh, don't they? So why are there so few paying markets for chuckle-tastic writings? Very strange.

Sunday 15 August 2010

'Featherweight' Scoops Second Place in Catherine Howard Competition

Just a quick note to say that my story, "Featherweight", was awarded second prize in the inaugural Catherine Howard Short Story Competition.

I'm very pleased about this - it's a story I'm particularly attached to, but one that has been difficult to find a home for. It's an awkward, between-genres kind of subject, and at approximately 4,000 words is a tricky length, being too long for many competitions but not long enough to be a serial in a magazine. I've had a lot of faith in it, though, so it's great to finally get some recognition (especially as it was up against 128 other entries).

Due to space restrictions, Linda (who runs the C.H. competition) won't be putting the story on her website, so instead I have set it up as a separate page here: Featherweight. I appreciate 4,000 words is a bit of a stretch to read on-screen, so if you want it as a printable PDF, please get in touch and I'll be happy to oblige. I hope you enjoy the story.

Linda plans to run another competition this autumn/winter - details are on her site.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Momentum and research, but not necessarily in that order

I thought it was about time I actually wrote something about writing. This past week or so has been quite productive for me; I've finally swept aside the dust and cobwebs and got back to working on my novel. The reasons it has languished untouched for the last eight months are many, but as you can imagine going back to something after such a long time is not a task to be taken lightly. I was beginning to think that having taken more than half a year off, I would find it was no longer a story I was interested in telling, or that the characters were boring, or that I'd find so many inconsistencies in the style I'd get overwhelmed with it and just bin the whole thing.

Well, I did get a bit overwhelmed with it. It is, after all, 82,000 words I wrote between 2007 and 2009, in various bursts of activity and with various underlying aims and ideas regarding what the story was actually about. It is, in places, a tangled mess with more ideas than structure, and there are characters in key scenes early in the book who I replaced with other characters later on, and I'm not sure what to do about it. Plus it doesn't help that I didn't actually finish the first draft before I 'parked' it, so - having decided that the whole thing should have been written in first- rather than third-person perspective - as I start waaaaay back at the beginning, I don't even have the satisfaction of knowing I've already written "THE END".

But, despite having a small and temporary freak-out at the enormity of the task I'm inflicting upon myself, the important stuff (Do I still like the characters? Yes. Do I still "believe" in the story? Yes. Do I still feel a blast of excitement from imagining myself at the other end of the process, clutching a completed manuscript in my sweaty little paws and working my way through the Artist's & Writer's Handbook, sending it off to publishers? Hell, yes!) is all in place. So, it's good, and having had a couple of days where I've knocked out 2,000 words or so at a time - some new, some edited - it feels like I stand a decent chance of getting some momentum behind the project and, this time, getting all the way to the end.

One of the events that gave me a proverbial kick up the arse book-wise was a friend of mine inviting me on a tour of Birmingham airport. The relevance of this is that the opening scenes of my book take place in a teleport hub, which as far as my story is concerned is the futuristic equivalent of an airport. Looking around the place, without the stress and boredom involved of actually having to travel anywhere, helped me see elements that I had missed from my first draft - things that were not exactly crucial to the story but that help put meat on the bones of the idea. I hadn't considered at all, for instance, how a family with a young child would travel via this new technology. The result is that I have had to do a bit more thinking, and although the solution I came up with gets no more than a passing mention, I think it helps make the scene more authentic.

Authenticity is what good fiction is all about, I reckon - you have to convince your reader that all this stuff actually happened, no matter how strange and far-fetched it all gets. If you can throw in elements that make perfect sense but that the reader wouldn't necessarily have thought of, then that helps to prove that you know what you're talking about, and the reader is more willing to follow the trail of fictitious breadcrumbs you're leaving.

... And that's when you've got them right where you want them.

Saturday 31 July 2010

The start of something big...

Okay. I've been wanting to blog about this for a while. And now it's turned out all not-quite-the-way-I-planned and I'm not entirely sure how to go about it. It's exciting and disappointing and scary and hugely inspiring all at the same time (for me at least).

Right, so, from the beginning: a while back (I think we're talking late April / early May) I got a phone call out of the blue telling me I had won the Chapter One International Short Story Competition. It took a long time for that to sink in. I still consider myself a relative newbie when it comes to writing at a 'competitive' level, so to have won something was pretty astonishing. What pushed it beyond pretty astonishing into the realms of downright unbelievable was that the Chapter One competition has a serious prize fund. I'm not going to specify the amount here but I have to be realistic and say I'm going to be incredibly fortunate if I ever again make that much money in one go from my writing.

I sent the contract back straight away and have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of that nice fat cheque ever since. Last night I got a call from Chapter One telling me that due to a technical glitch (actually it's more complex than that, but I can't go into detail about it), they will be paying me electronically, and in instalments. The first one of these arrived today.

So, it's good news - but the joy of the win is now somewhat diluted by the fact that it'll be a couple of months at least before the whole amount has transferred over to me. On the positive side, though, the little chunks arriving on a regular basis will be a great boost when I'm dealing with rejections from other markets or getting bogged down with the novel. Maybe it's a good thing - after all, it's best to eat a cake one slice at a time than to wolf down the whole thing in one and end up feeling nauseous. Ah, cake metaphors are my favourite.

The important thing that this development has reminded me about is how fantastic a feeling it is to be paid for something you've written. I know that sounds incredibly mercenary, but the truth is my ambition is to 'make it' (whatever 'it' is) as a writer. I don't claim to write for the sake of art. I'm definitely not the kind of writer who writes "for themselves" - I can tell myself stories in my head all day long; there'd be no need to write them down if I was the only audience I cared about. I write mainly to find some kind of connection to other people, and the best test of whether I've succeeded in that is finding somebody who will publish the story. Being paid for achieving that is the icing on the cake (hooray, more cake), and is the closest you can get to performing magic - you start with nothing, a blank page or screen, and pull ideas and words out of your head until you've made your best attempt at whatever it is you're trying to say. Then (once you've got that elusive acceptance) - hey presto! - all those words and grammar and stuff you got for free has magically become a pint of lager, or a CD, or a new printer, or a holiday or whatever level you've managed to place it at.

Somehow it makes the story more tangible, more solid. It's gone out into the world and become a thing - whether printed or published online or wherever - and that thing carries a weight and a value and you can hold it in your hand. And you can look at that thing and think I made this, with my mind. Nobody but me could have written that exact story.  And you can be proud of yourself, and eat some cake.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Win a cottage in North Wales!

Well, okay, not quite...

July seems to be a favourite month for competition organisers. Other than the Catherine Howard one, the Hay-on-Wye one, and the Seán Ó Faoláin one, several others are ending at the end of this month. The ever-generous Teresa Stenson has rounded up a few of them on her blog. I'm rapidly running out of viable stories and am wondering whether to hurriedly write some more, or take this as a sign that I have enough pieces "out there" and get on with my novel.

This is one that seems to have slipped beneath the radar of most of the competition websites that I look at - it's the Cinnamon Press 5th Birthday Competition. The prize is not a cottage in North Wales, but a place on a residential writing course that's held in one. There's not a huge amount of detail on the site, but I went on an Arvon course a few years ago, which was one of the most inspirational writing things I've ever done, and this sounds like it's in a very similar vein.

They're looking for stories of 2000 words or less, or a bunch of micro-fictions, or some poetry. The entry fee is £12 and the course usually costs £490. There are bundles of books for the runners-up.

Monday 19 July 2010

A Disturbing Trend

"Write what you know" is an oft-quoted maxim amongst fiction writers. If I'm writing what I know, it turns out I'm a fairly despicable chap. Although maybe that came across in my last post.

Greed takes centre stage in my entry for the Hay-on-Wye Short Story Competition, while the story I've sent to the Seán Ó Faoláin Competition revolves around deception and the wilful destruction of public property. In my defence, the theme for the Hay-on-Wye competition is "Avarice", so I didn't have a lot of choice in the matter.

Themed competitions are not something I tend to enter very often.  Either I look at the theme and find it terribly uninspiring, or I come up with something that seems like a good idea, but won't fit the maximum word count. This time, the combination of an Avarice theme and a competition hosted by Britain's favourite book town both appealed and provided me with an idea for a story.

Both of these competitions close at the end of July, so if you've got a story lying around (and that just happens to be about greed if you fancy the Hay one), or have the muse flowing through your fingertips at the moment, there's still time to send it off.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Greed 1 - Selfishness 0

Should you let people know about a writing competition you've entered?

After all, the more entries the organisers receive, the smaller your odds of winning*. On the flip side, the better-supported a competition is, the more likely it is to happen again next year (or next month, quarter, etc).

Some competitions further complicate things by linking the prizes to the number of entries. Hence the dilemma - if your story is good enough to claim the top prize, you want that to be as big as possible, so you want it to have tonnes of entries. But, uh-oh, here come those pesky self-doubt gremlins... Is your story really good enough to see off a hundred other stories? What about two hundred? A thousand? Yikes. Maybe you should just keep your mouth shut and hope for the best.

The Catherine Howard competition is one such competition. So, More cash or a better chance of winning? Greed or Selfishness?

Obviously, in this instance, Greed won. Catherine Howard is the pen name of Linda Lewis, who has a regular column in Writer's Forum magazine. This is (as far as I can tell) the first competition of this type she's run, and I think it deserves support. Not least for the fact that the winner's prize is at least £100, increasing if there are sufficient entries, with an additional £50 donated to a charity of the winner's choice. The charity angle is a nice touch.

Check it out, see if you have something suitable to send. It's postal entry only - get yours in by 31 July 2010.

Good luck!

* Well, sort of - more on that later.

Friday 9 July 2010

"Counterfeit Confetti" goes live on Fiction at Work...

My first piece on Fiction at Work went live today. Well, it actually went live a couple of days ago but there was a slight hitch with two versions of the final paragraph being published one after the other, which was a bit confusing, so I didn't link to it before now.

It was the first thing I've ever subbed to them, so I was very pleased they took it. It's also the first time I've been asked to alter anything - the original final paragraph introduced a much more cynical note to the story, and the editor at F@W asked if was okay if they left it off. That kind of left the end flapping in the breeze, so I rejigged the new final couple of sentences, and it was those that got repeated.

I wasn't sure about the changes at first, but I've grown to like the new ending. It makes it a bit more ethereal.

Oh, yeah - the story directly after mine has some strong language and sex 'n' drugs references. Exactly, in fact, the kind of thing that might fall foul of a typical work-based internet filter (which is odd, considering the website's name). Just thought I'd mention that before anyone accuses me of leading them into murky waters.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Get in!

Some good news today - my spoof restaurant review "Xtcokpøt" has been accepted by Defenestration. I'm well pleased about this, as once I'd written the thing I had absolutely no idea where to send it and spent a lot of time searching through a lot of websites that claimed to be humorous but instead were, largely, pants.

Defenestration on the other hand, seems well put together, nice-looking, and most importantly, funny (with the caveat that humour is a very subjective thing, of course). I thought they were worth a shot, and - to my surprise - they liked the review.

I've spent some time browsing the site, and I particularly like the cartoons, which are drawn by the Editor-in-Chief, Andrew Kaye. Sodabot is genius.

No news on a publication date as yet, but stay tuned and I'll let you know when it's up and doing its thing.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Oh, yeah, right - about the name...

Why "Lies, Ink"?

Most people seem to use their own name as a title for their blog, and there's a lot of sense in that.

What kept me from using my name is the thought that - one day - I plan to have a couple of writing careers in parallel. See, I'm an awkward swine and like the idea of writing both mainstream/literary fiction and genre stuff. Publishers, apparently, aren't keen on this and if writers insist on hopping out of their pigeonholes every once in a while, they are expected to use a different name so that bookshops can put the different styles of books in the appropriate sections and nobody has to venture into a part of the bookshop that is unfamiliar and scary to them. So, I might end up publishing stuff under two (or more, I suppose) different names. Unless I did an Iain Banks / Iain M. Banks. I like his no-nonsense approach to this dual-name thing, but can't help thinking he's missed an opportunity. Why not really let his hair down and call himself Iain Banks for one category, and Zoot Freeblander or Spanky Huckerdime for the other? Just a thought, Iain, if you happen to drop by.

Er, anyway. So I wanted a blog name that meant something to me but wasn't actually my name. So I picked "Lies, Ink". It's based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Lies, Inc. - but cunningly altered so that it references two aspects of writing fiction. Lies, because fiction is essentially the art of telling massive lies, and ink, because - well, it's obvious, innit?

Click on the link for more details of the book, and plenty of information about Philip K. Dick's other work. There'll be more references to PKD in the future, I'm sure - I'm a big fan of his.

Friday 2 July 2010

An End to Procrastination?

I've put off starting a blog for quite a while. It seemed like something I probably should do, but I didn't think it was 'my sort of thing'. Several of the people I know who write also have a blog and I wondered how they ever find time to write and blog and do all the other stuff they have to do to avoid starving to death or having their house repossessed.

So why the change of heart? Well, I've been taking my writing more seriously for the past year or so. I'm not particularly prolific, so I haven't written all that much, but I have at least been a bit more focused and have sent more stories out (either to competitions or printed or online markets). As I result, I've begun to have some success with what I formerly considered a pleasant but largely directionless hobby.

Achieving this moderate level of success made me take more notice of what other writers were doing. So I began to pay attention to those little potted author biographies that publishers tend to put at the end of people's stories. Nearly all of these seemed to end by telling us all that so-and-so blogs at so-and-so'

Ha! I thought, what self-indulgent fools. Who on earth is going to want to read the unedited mental outpourings of some over-opinionated amateur writer? What a waste of time. Admittedly, I did read a few of these blogs and they were pretty good. But still. It seemed more effort than it was worth.

Recently, I've clocked up a couple of what I humbly consider to be impressive results in a couple of competitions. Impressive enough for me to have got over one of those mental hurdles - the lack of confidence in what I do that used to make me want to keep the fact that I write a secret, as though it's some grubby habit you don't mention in polite society. And I started thinking about what it means to be a writer in today's web-centric world, and how best to present myself as a writer.

Suddenly, it clicked. I realised that the bloggers are not just spouting self-congratulatory garbage (well, not all of them) - they are tying together their stories, sharing tips and advice with other writers, spreading the word about competitions, building a readership.

So, here it is, my blog. It won't change the world. It won't show you how to be a better person. But it might help you track down my stories, and it'll give me something extra to put in my bio.

Thanks for stopping by.