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...