Saturday 26 November 2011

Competition Time!

Just a quick post this time, to let everyone know about the exciting "Somewhere to Start From" Treasure Hunt  I've set up to help promote the anthology. One lucky entrant will win £50 to spend at, with a runner-up getting a £10 voucher. Free entry, with a closing date of 31st January 2012.

All you need to do to find out more is view the dedicated page on this blog, by selecting the tab above, or clicking THIS LINK.

Good luck!

Thursday 24 November 2011

In Praise of the Little Guys (and Girls)

We live in the Age of Complaint. Recently it seems that everywhere I turn, whether real-world or online, I run into somebody have a good old moan. I'm sure it's all very cathartic, but I can't help thinking that it's not healthy to spend too much time obsessing over the things in life that get you down.

With that in mind, I'd like to take a moment to applaud the efforts of two of the smaller fixtures on the short fiction competition calendar. The Brighton CoW CD turned up a few months ago, and I've been meaning to mention it ever since. The the anthology of the winning and shortlisted entries of the  H. E. Bates Competition arrived last week. It's prompted me into highlighting that, despite the grim times we keep being told we're living in, there are plenty of people out there doing a damn fine job.

The Brighton CoW comps and the HE Bates competition (run by the Northampton Writers' Group) don't have the clout of the Bristol Prize or the near-mythical status of Bridport, but from my experience (a couple of placings at Brighton, a shortlisting at HE Bates), they have something equally important - organisers with a real enthusiasm for writing, and the respect for writers that comes with it.

There's nothing flashy about their websites and the prize funds aren't going to have your local Ferrari dealer beating a path to your door. But what they do have is the right attitude. I've contacted both organisations, either to ask a question or confirm something about my story, and in both cases I've received a polite and speedy response. The HE Bates competition has an awards ceremony where the results are announced, and when the organisers heard I was considering making a round trip of several hundred miles to attend, they were kind enough to let me know that I hadn't actually won anything. I still would have gone along though, if I hadn't been working so far away at the time.

The Brighton CoW bunch in particular seem to go all-out with their 'winners' packs'. In addition to the cheque they sent a certificate, a postcard with future competitions on the front and a hand-written 'Congratulations!' message on the back, and - odd, though possibly handy - a credit-card sized calendar. It's all a bit homespun but to be honest I was rather charmed by the attention to detail and the enthusiasm for their contests all this conveys. When the CD turned up (I wasn't expecting it, although I note they do say something on the website about recording the stories for possible broadcast on hospital radio - I assume, with the amount of swearing in "A Night In with Zil", they'd have to broadcast mine very late at night), it was put together with more enthusiasm than polish, but I really like it. The guy who reads mine sounds a bit like Andy Hamilton of Radio Four fame, and he does an admirable job of bringing the characters to life.

The HE Bates Competition Anthology is again put together in a straightforward way. It's spiral bound and laid out clearly  and while it won't win any design awards it still shows the kind of effort going on behind the scenes. Okay, so it's not the ready-for-Waterstones paperback of the Bristol Prize or the slick small-press effort from the Willesden Herald, but even so, the cost of printing and binding, plus postage, is probably more than I paid in entry fees. I'm guessing both these organisations are run on very limited resources, or more likely a voluntary basis, fuelled by the desire to encourage writers and promote their respective writing groups, rather than to make shedloads of money.

The timing of this post isn't ideal, because both current competitions end in the next few days, but if you have something of a suitable length and content, it's worth giving them a go. They're shining stars in a sometimes murky world, and they deserve to do well.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Embracing Your Inner Pedant

Hello. How are you feeling? Calm and relaxed? Good.

How about now?

If that picture’s got you grinding your teeth, welcome to the club. This little tag is, I guess, hanging on every towel rail in every Travelodge in the country. I see it each week (my day job involves working away from home for three days most weeks) and it annoys the hell out of me. It’s probably worth pointing out that I have nothing against the Travelodge itself – the one I stay in is very pleasant indeed. But still, they’ve given me a great example of clumsy grammar to blog about.

Grammar’s one of those subjects that can turn a perfectly convivial discussion about writing instantly frosty. I wasn’t taught grammar in any significant sense when I was at school, but I’ve always had a fascination with the way sentences are constructed, and I suppose I’ve picked up a lot through just keeping my eyes open, and asking questions when there’s something I don’t understand.

However, some people seem to regard it as a kind of puzzle, as difficult to crack as the Enigma Code. They get annoyed by the jargon involved – Oxford commas, semicolons, run-on sentences, clauses and sub clauses, verb agreement, passive and active voices (even when nobody’s talking!). There's resentment at what they appear to regard as an in-joke for the self-appointed elite.

It’s a common spectacle on writing websites for a beginner to post a piece and then lash out at anybody who highlights grammatical lapses in their work. Accusations of snobbishness fly about; the well-meaning reviewers get told that it’s obvious what the writer meant, and that by concentrating on the way they said it, the people giving the feedback are just showing off and being picky, deliberately ignoring the story. The writing’s the important thing, the beginner will protest, not how it’s written.

Thing is, the two are inseparable. It doesn’t matter how great your story is if the reader is lagging behind thinking, “Now, when he said, ‘We went to the zoo and saw a monkey eating a banana and a penguin,’ did he mean the monkey actually ate the penguin, or were those two separate things – the monkey eating the banana, and the penguin, happily minding its own business?”

Mister Sleep, the Travelodge bear, has a different problem. It’s clear what the sign means, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s badly written. Trying something and doing something are different. They might have the same outcome – the thing gets done – or they might not. The ‘right’ way of phrasing it depends on the intent, and which aspect is more important. Trying to do something is different again. It’s an attempt, an aim, a target. We always try to do our bit for the planet. We may not get it right all the time, but we give it our best shot.

If you try and do something, you’ve done it, end of story – the trying part is redundant. We always do our bit for the planet. That’s a much bolder claim, isn’t it?

Another way to check, if you’re not sure of a phrase, is to experiment with changing the tense. Shifted to past tense, “try and do” becomes “tried and did”: I tried and did my tax return last weekend. See what I mean?

Of course, no rule is unbendable. “Try and do” is a common if lazy turn of phrase in spoken English, and that may be the effect the Travelodge people were going for. Mister Sleep is, of course, a no-nonsense cockney bear with an inappropriate fondness for spending all day in his dressing gown. “Try and do” is probably just the kind of thing he’d say.

When it comes to grammar, I don’t think there’s a substitute for learning the rules (I recommend the Penguin Writers' Manual). Understand those rules, experiment with them, master them. Don’t let them catch you out, but above all make sure your grammar does your bidding. It doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’, because some things just ain’t, but make sure it’s achieving the effect you want. Because what you say and the way you say it are, ultimately, the same thing.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 5

Okay, first things first: I didn’t pay for this anthology. I was lucky enough to win it, my name having been pulled out of a hat over on Jonathan Pinnock’s blog. The book was up for grabs as part of Jonathan’s interview with Stephen Moran – among other things, the organiser of the WillesdenHerald Short Story Competition and editor of this anthology. So I can’t really answer the question of whether it’s worth its asking price (RRP £10), but I’ll try to be as objective as possible.

Starting from the outside in, I’ll just mention the book’s cover. Sure, it’s not the most exciting image you’ll ever see, but there’s an element of it I thought was particularly apt. It shows an extreme close-up of a road or pavement, with the bright lights of town off in the blurry distance. The focus is on a few tiny stones, promoted to monoliths by the photographer’s zoom lens. This, in essence, is the basis of a successful short story – the writer must home in on some small aspect of a life, a relationship, whatever they are presenting to the reader, and make it a thing of consequence. These little black stones are part of the city, the way the look across the breakfast table is part of the marriage, or the fleeting lapse of concentration is part of the disaster.

I read the stories without knowing which had won the prize. It was an interesting game to try to predict which one the judge (Maggie Gee) had chosen, and I was pleased to find out later that one of my ‘top three’ had indeed bagged the prize.

It’s clear that the Willesden Herald takes itself, and its goal of delivering quality fiction, seriously. The writing throughout the book is consistently good, and the themes tackled are weighty, literary ones. Loss, old age, and regret all feature prominently. Death is never far away. It has to be said it can make the process of reading through this collection quite heavy-going at times. I’m not a reader who demands fluffy kittens and butterflies at every turn, but the cumulative effect of hearing about all these dying or dead loved ones did tend to mean I looked more favourably on the stories where the writer used a light touch, and managed to work in a (usually subdued, but credible) note of optimism towards the end. Perhaps the best example of this is the winning entry - Mary O’Shea’s story, “Out of Season”, in which a man with an undefined but terminal illness and his wife take a seaside holiday. Neither of them quite know how to cope, the illness has become a barrier between them, and both the weather and resort are pretty dismal. The story switches viewpoint between the two of them as they start to adjust to their new roles, and in facing up to the future they remember the past that brought them together in the first place. The close of the story is a long way from a Hollywood ending, but Mary leaves her protagonists with a note of hope – an optimistic lift, perfectly delivered.

I also enjoyed (although that’s possibly not quite the right word) Nemone Thomas’s “Dancing with the Flag Man”, an unflinching coming-of-age tale in which a teenage girl learns the dangers of judging people by their appearance. That makes it sound like a fable – which I suppose it is, in a roundabout way – but it comes across as a gritty and absorbing story of broken dreams and lost innocence. I’m in danger of cramming yet more clichés into this review, so I’ll just say it was one of those rare short stories where the characters are so vivid I found myself worrying what was going to happen to them.

The two stories that close the book are particular highlights, too. Angela Sherlock’s “Set Dance” – a story of two brothers vying for the attentions of a pretty girl – and Emma Martin’s “Victor” – in which an anti-abortion protester tries to help a teenager – are both great examples of writers taking their stories in unexpected and rewarding directions. It was also good to see Teresa Stenson’s “Blue Raincoat” again (I’m a member of the same online writing site as Teresa and had a sneak preview a while ago). The shortest story in the book, it’s a poignant study of grief, filled with beautiful poetic language and keen insights into human behaviour.

It’s not a perfect collection. I wasn’t keen on David Frankel’s “The Place” (although I liked the underlying premise), and I’m still undecided about the oddly supernatural “Overnight Miracles” by A. J. Ashworth. A couple of the other stories could easily have been improved by being made a little shorter, a little tighter.

On the whole, though, this is an impressive anthology of writing and a fantastic illustration of the storyteller’s art. The Willesden Herald competition has established itself as a bastion of contemporary literary fiction, and judging by “New Short Stories 5” there’s no reason to think that’ll be changing any time soon.