Sunday 13 March 2011

Cow News, Seven Things, and Seven Other Things

My flash story, The Deconstructed Woman, has gone live on The Brighton COW website. My fellow winners and the highly commended stories provide an broad range of styles and approaches. It's always interesting having a look at other entrant's stories and putting yourself in the judges' position, trying to work out why they put the stories in the order they did. Ultimately, more often than not, you just end up shrugging and thinking, "Oh well, each to their own." Because it all comes down to personal taste, in the end.

Bridport Prize queen Teresa Stenson very generously passed a Stylish Blogger Award my way. Thanks, Teresa! Everybody seems to interpret it in a slightly different way, but the general idea is that it's a treat for list fans, as you reveal a number of things about yourself, and give people a few links to other places (usually other blogs). I don't read a great number of blogs, and pretty much all the ones that I do regularly look at are listed down the right-hand side of this page. If you haven't already, please do check them out - there's something there for everyone, I think. So, instead, here are seven things about me, and seven links to online places that I like. They may or may not be writing-related. I don't know yet; I'm winging this.

Seven Things:

  1. If my bookcase caught fire, and I could only save one book, I'd go for my (UK) first edition of A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick. Indispensable.
  2. My earliest experience of my writing being unleashed on the 'public' was a poem I wrote about snow in my third year of primary school. My teacher declared it 'lovely' and posted a copy of it up for everyone to see. It began, "Snow is soft, snow is nice / Underneath it there is ice". Ahem. In my defence, I was very young...
  3. Most of the time I write directly onto my laptop, but when I take a break from that, my writing implement of choice is the Bic four-colour biro (pictured below). It's not an expensive, fancy pen, but it's dependable, chunky and comfortable to hang on to. Four colours are useful, too - Blue for notes, black for first drafts, red for editing. I save the green for writing abusive letters to prominent public figures.
  4. After many years of writing nothing creative at all, instead getting some A levels and an Engineering degree, I got back into it via an attempt to put something together for a Radio 4 travel writing competition. I never actually managed to edit down the piece I wrote enough to fit the competition word count, but it was academic by that point, as I'd realised how much I enjoyed writing and haven't stopped since.
  5. I don't have any particular writing rituals, although I find it very hard to concentrate without background music. It has to be something I know well or it ends up being too distracting. Although if it's something I've heard too often that's just plain annoying. It's a delicate balancing act.
  6. My approach to the early stages of my work varies enormously. If I'm writing on the computer, I tend to be very organised and meticulously save each version of the draft all the way to the final one. If I'm hand-writing it, I regard it as entirely disposable and, once it's typed up or rewritten, I get a weird sense of satisfaction from feeding it into the shredder. It might just be that hand-written drafts always look pretty shoddy, with bits crossed out and arrows scrawled all over it, as I've moved chunks around. Or perhaps I'm just odd.
  7. I get the feeling this is fairly common, but I have a kind of mental block when it comes to writing in a new notebook. This probably has a lot to do with Number 6 above. Like a lot of writers I have a love of stationery, and have a number of entirely blank, pristine notebooks all awaiting that first stroke of the pen. Because when it comes down to it I seem to end up writing on scraps of paper or junk mail or the inside of old cereal boxes, anything that can be thrown away easily. I think the problem is that I see the first draft, or the notes that go into a story, as being so transient that I don't like to set them down in too permanent a way, in case I get too attached to them and can't bring myself to 'murder my darlings' as they say.
Fig. 1 - A precision-engineered writing machine

Seven Other Things

  1. Green Metropolis is a great website for readers, where you can buy and sell secondhand books. You won't get rich (a typical book sale nets you £3, from which you need to pay the postage), but it's a hassle-free way of selling your spare books and every sale raises money for the Woodland Trust.
  2. Every Click is a search engine that raises money for charity. You can set up an account (really simple to do), and specify which charity you want to contribute to. It's not as all-singing, all-dancing as Google, but if you're prepared to be a little more specific when you search, it's a way of raising money for good causes with the minimum of effort.
  3. Chapter Seventy-Nine - the writing forum I'm a member of. There are a lot of writers' sites out there, but this one is well-run and friendly and caters for all levels of ability and confidence.
  4. Duotrope is about the best listing site for writers find markets. It's straightforward to use, although there's so much on there it can be a little overwhelming if you just plunge into it. Focus, and be specific, and it should direct you to useful, interesting places.
  5. Defenestration - one of my favorite websites. They published something of mine, I love the Ben & Winslow cartoons, there's always something worth reading on there.
  6. Guernsey Literary Festival. Surely this doesn't need any explanation?
  7. And finally, some music... I've been entranced by James Mudriczki's  voice since the Puressence track "Standing in Your Shadow" appeared on the soundtrack of British crime flick "Face". Puressence make elegant, articulate indie-rock, of a similar ilk to Elbow. Despite being generally well-received critically, the band haven't managed to break through into commercial success, which is a shame. Anyway, have a listen to Don't Know Any Better and see what you think.

Saturday 5 March 2011

A Flash of Success, and Motivation: The Missing Ingredient

Yesterday, after a week of loitering nervously around the Brighton C.o.W. website, I discovered that my story, The Deconstructed Woman, was one of the winning entries of their Winter 2010 Flash Fiction Competition. I'm very pleased about this - mainly because it's so short (a word count limit in this case of 250), which is something I'm concentrating on at the moment, and because they had "a great many entries", so I must have got something right for my story to stand out.

I don't know if they plan to publish the stories on the website - if not, I'll probably put it on here. What might be interesting is to post the first draft as well, which I workshopped over at Chapter 79. What's great about online peer-review sites is that they're a great way to gauge reaction to your work (plus, I strongly believe that you learn just as much critiquing somebody else's work as you do from getting your own stuff reviewed). The first draft of The Deconstructed Woman, which at that point was entitled somewhat inelegantly as The Unreconstructed Woman, was generally well-received. People liked the concept, and they thought the style worked. Two or three readers commented they thought it lacked something, which confirmed my own concerns that the piece wasn't complete.

After about a week, I came back to it with a more detached view. Most writers will agree it's almost impossible to do this when you've just finished a piece. If you're anything like me, from the instant you hit that last full stop, you're convinced it's the finest writing the world has ever seen. Until you re-read it, that is, and cringe at the discovery that you've written such dismal and appalling guff. The process of re-writing is trying to reconcile these opposing viewpoints, and one of the most important skills is to dismantle the story and look at it in terms of its component parts.

I looked at what was there: a plot, a protagonist, an antagonist, a turning point, a satisfying conclusion. Yep, all those were present and correct. Then it hit me - the central character wasn't sufficiently motivated for her actions to make sense. This is something of a schoolboy error, and I think I'd let myself get carried away with some of the other story elements to notice at first. Essentially, mine was one of those novice-writer mistakes where a character suddenly gets fed up with the way their life is going and makes a drastic change. In real life, people sometimes do just reach breaking point and 'snap', but in fiction you're probably best off having a trigger event - no matter how small - a straw, if you like, to break that camel's back. Particularly in flash fiction, where you don't have the luxury of showing the stresses/demands/problems piling up for your hapless character.

So I went back to my story and thought, Why would this character react so strongly to her circumstances, when the day before she was prepared to put up with them? What might have changed? What, in this case, had she discovered about her marriage, about the things her husband expected of her?

Once I'd started thinking along those lines, I knew exactly what the story needed. My character's motivation slotted neatly into the story - and, almost as a side-effect, so did that of her husband, the villain of the piece. In fact, her motivation relied on his - her reaction to what he was trying to do made her actions understandable and appropriate. After I'd re-jigged the story (that 250 word limit called for some judicious word-pruning), it immediately seemed fully complete, the internal logic worked, it made sense. And, it seems, the judges agreed.

So, character motivation - ignore it at your peril!