Tuesday 31 January 2012

Last Chance to Win!

Just a quick note to say there are only a few hours left before the end of my treasure hunt competition. Get your entry to me before midnight tonight to be in with a chance of winning a great prize.

It doesn’t take much time to take part, it’s free, it’s easy, and there is a £50 Amazon voucher up for grabs. You don’t need to buy the book as the contents page (where all the answers are lurking) is available to view on the Amazon page for my anthology. Full details are HERE.

Good luck!

Thursday 26 January 2012

Judging – and Being Judged

I'm in the middle of judging the entries for the Malvern Writers' Circle Young Writer of the Year competition. It's the first time I've been asked to do anything like this, and I was very honoured to be invited to choose the winners. I'm determined to do a good job of it: to be an open-minded, fair and objective reader, and make the 'right' decision.

The youngest age category is 13-15 years. I can't help wondering about the kind of stories I would have been writing at the time I did my GCSEs. I also think how difficult it would have been at that age to pluck up the courage to enter a competition, to brave the scrutiny of a judge and hope that my work makes the grade. I think that's why I feel a responsibility to pick a story that works as the best example of what I think makes a good story, an example from which the other entrants can learn something about 'the craft'. It will only ever be my own interpretation, of course, but in the judge's report I write I will aim to make it clear why one succeeds and the others fall short of the mark. I want to encourage these young writers to try again, and keep trying, not make them feel like failures because their story didn't win.

Maybe I'm more sensitive to this kind of thing at the moment due to my story, "Just Jeff", going live on Every Day Fiction recently. EDF are one of a handful of markets that leave the stories they publish open to comment from their readers. It's a great feature... as long as people like your story. Just Jeff seems to have gone down pretty well - there are some fairly mild criticisms, but most people seem to 'get' the idea behind the story, and say they enjoyed reading it. But, the readers aren't always so docile, and I've seen some harsh criticism that was in some cases warranted, in others not. Either way, there's a level of tact and diplomacy that should be applied when responding to an author's work, particularly considering these are stories that have already been approved by EDF's slush readers and editors. They've already cleared the most significant hurdles, so in some ways it seems odd to then invite further criticism.

It's interesting to get a glimpse into the 'other side' of a competition. I have already learned the absolute necessity of numbering your pages - and not just putting the numbers on, but using the format Page X of Y. Seriously. Even if you take nothing else from this post, adopt this habit, pronto! It's something I've got into the habit of doing, but now I understand how much hassle it can avoid I will never send a competition entry without it.

Sometimes, though, you can get too much of an insight. A couple of days ago, the Willesden Herald posted a photo on their Facebook page of the folders used for the stories rejected from their competition. You can see it for yourself, HERE. Depending on the size of your screen, you might struggle to read some of the folder titles but, basically, there are thirty or so of them, titled with descriptions such as "boring", "cliched", "hopeless science fiction", "nauseating", and so on.

I'm not sure if this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and it's entertaining for a while thinking of all the dross the poor Willesden readers are having to wade through - but then it dawns on me that if the story I submitted to the competition doesn't make the shortlist, then it's because it's in one of those folders. It doesn't do much for your confidence to try to work out whether your story might be languishing in "dull", or "mawkish" or whether you really missed the mark and ended up in "hopeless in every way". Or, for that matter, "laughably horrendous" - I'm not sure which is worse.

The problem is that pigeonholing stories in this way gives the impression the categories are indisputable, when most of them are deeply subjective and personal. What's boring for one reader might be fascinating for another; what one finds mawkish, another may find charming. There are no folders entitled "just not my cup of tea", "I've read three like this today already", or "the main character is called Mildred and that's my awful ex-wife's name". With the current arrangement, it seems if your story doesn't make the shortlist, the best you can hope for is that you accidentally broke one of the rules and joined the ranks of the "disqualified".

Whether or not this really is how the WH team filter their entries, it isn't a system I'm planning to adopt. I'm working towards having two piles of manuscripts - "prizewinners" and "not prizewinners this time". Because those are the only truly indisputable categories there can possibly be.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Superheroes... and Self-Doubt

As of yesterday, I have a new story up on Every DayFiction. I’m really pleased to have another story up there, as I like the site and try to visit as frequently as possible. They’re not at all snobbish about fiction, which leads to an interesting mix of styles, subjects, and genres.

This story, Just Jeff, is one I wrote a year or so ago. Long-term followers of this blog may remember that, at the time, I had some doubts about whether I was subconsciously stealing ideas from another author. Although I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s just a case of me being more directly influenced by something I’ve enjoyed than is usually the case, seeing it on the site has made me wonder whether somebody out there is about to shout “Cheat!” at me. But I think I’m worrying unnecessarily. It’s not the same story, none of the characters are the same, and the events have nothing in common. But, still, I’d be interested to hear from anybody who’s read Andrew Kaufman’s “All MyFriends Are Superheroes” and thinks I’ve crossed a line.

Actually, thinking about it, Just Jeff is probably more influenced by the film Mystery Men than anything else.

The story went to a few competitions but didn’t bring home any awards. Every Day Fiction was the first regular ‘market’ I tried, and from their comments, the editors clearly ‘got’ it. In some ways it’s an awkward story – what actually went on is revealed via descriptions of events that didn’t happen, there’s no real way of telling whether Jeff is a superhero or not, and the list of the other superheroes may be too much for some readers (at the time of writing, that seems to be the only criticism coming through in the comments section). I like stories that play around with convention, take a few risks, etc, but it does mean they can be hard to place.

... Like the story of mine that just got rejected from Smokelong. Again, there are elements to this one that perhaps limit its chances of publication. The narrative isn’t straightforward, with a lot of it written in future tense. Parts of it may or may not be written from the protagonist’s point of view, or it may be the narrative voice speaking directly to her. The events described in the story might not actually happen, depending on how you interpret the last line. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making life unnecessarily hard for myself.

But I think it’s important to challenge yourself. As a writer, you can slip into a groove and just churn out pretty much the same story in various different guises over and over again, or you can force yourself to tackle stories that seem like a bit of a long shot, styles that stretch you, make you rethink things you “know” for certain. Staying in your comfort zone may help make you a competent writer, but how will you ever get better?

Monday 16 January 2012


I’ve just come back from a week-long Arvon course. To briefly explain, for anybody who hasn't heard of Arvon, it's an organisation set up to promote and encourage writing in all its many forms, mainly in the form of residential courses hosted at one of four centres around the UK. The courses are tutored by published or otherwise established writers working in a relevant field. I don't know whether they're the best courses of this kind – I've now done two different Arvon courses, but no other residential ones to compare them to – but it's hard to see how they could be improved. There's something about the type of people they attract, the tutors who come to share their knowledge and experience (that sounds a bit airy-fairy, but they're very deliberately not there to “teach” anybody “how” to write), and even the centres themselves, that adds up to a kind of synergy, filling everyone involved with boundless enthusiasm for their work.

The course I was on this time was entitled “Starting to Write a Novel”. It took place at the John Osborne Centre, under the guidance of Sarah Salway and Jim Friel. We also had a mid-week visit from Kate Long, who gave us a remarkably generous insight into the planning and research that goes into her books, read us an extract from her latest novel, Before She was Mine, and even passed around a work-in-progress (something I can’t imagine many authors being brave enough to do!) to show how she goes about refining her drafts.

I had an idea of what Sarah was like from her blog and from having read a couple of her stories (I think the first of hers I read was this one from Defenestration (of particular interest to me because they also published one of mine). I’d also read “Something Beginning With...” – her first (I think), unconventionally structured novel (and which is well worth a look). Jim was a bit of an enigma. I’d managed to get hold of one of his books via the excellent Books & Ink in Banbury, but I hadn’t had a chance to read any of it in advance. All I had to go on was the fact he is a lecturer at Liverpool University, and a photo I'd found online, in which he looked rather stern. I half-expected him to be a curmudgeonly, slightly dusty academic type, who would look down on any of us not slaving over some impenetrable work of highbrow fiction. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Although Jim and Sarah had not taught together before, they are good friends and such warm, funny people it was hard to imagine a better pairing. Both really know what they're talking about, being astonishingly well-read. The writing exercises they set were fun, challenging and really got the creative juices flowing. I came up with at least three viable ideas for short stories, and a whole host of other ‘stuff’ (good lines, neat bits of description, interesting scenes) that I don't have an immediate use for, but might well come in handy later.

The icing on the cake was the group of people I was learning with. Everybody was keen and enthusiastic, regardless of where they were in their own writing ‘journey’ – a couple of us were published, in some form or other; most had a novel started or the beginnings of one in early stages of planning; a few were trying to get back into prose writing after a few years working on other things. The unspoken rule seemed to be that egos were left on the doorstep – nobody tried to dominate the workshops or monopolise the tutors’ time. It’s always daunting signing up for anything that basically means you’ll be stuck with a bunch of strangers for a week with no easy means of escape, but thankfully this was a group that made the whole experience a joy. Incidentally, this was the case with the previous Arvon course I attended, too. I’m not sure how they attract such great people but, whatever it is, I hope they keep doing it.

I set off at the start of the week with the hope that I would come out the other side with a clear idea of what I’d be working on over the coming months. I am closer to that goal, but the main benefit of the course has been the realisation that, actually, it doesn’t matter if I have more than one project on the go at once, and that it possibly wouldn’t suit my general approach to writing to try to fixate on a single idea anyway. I know that keeping more than one plate spinning means I’ll have to work harder at organising my time, but with renewed faith in my work and the determination that 2012 will be a year of real productivity, I feel ready to face the challenge.

Oh, and when it was time to leave, this cat decided it was going to come home with me:

Friday 6 January 2012

Getting Noticed by The Guardian - Part One

Please welcome to my blog my first-ever virtual guest, the very talented Teresa Stenson. Teresa has clocked up some impressive publication credits and competition placings with her short stories, including the WillesdenHerald and the Bridport Prize. But she joins me today to talk about The Guardian’s Summer Short Story Competition, an annual contest that has resulted in shortlistings for us both – Teresa last summer, myself in 2009. We thought it might be interesting / useful to discuss our experiences of this competition and the way we approached the stories we submitted.

Dan: Welcome to the blog, Teresa. Let’s start with something fairly basic. The most obvious difference between the 2009 competition and the subsequent years was the introduction of a theme. What was the theme in 2011 and how did it influence your writing? For instance, did you write Things Which Are Not True specifically for the competition, or was it a story you already had that just happened to fit the theme?

Teresa: It was a story I had that happened to fit. I’m not very good at writing to a prescribed theme, so if I’d sat down to “Write a story about a holiday” I wouldn’t have managed it. But I’d had this story, well – this scene – in my WIP folder since 2007 about a woman in an office job going on holiday and no one taking any notice and I knew I liked it, or her, and always felt there was something in it. And I wanted to send something to the competition. So it was a fairly practical process really, about 2 weeks before the deadline I looked through my folder and thought – okay, here’s an element of ‘Holiday’, this could work. I developed it, added some words, and a sort-of ending. It actually ended up being an 11th hour submission. I’m not sure if you’ll remember but the deadline was the day we came back from our writing weekend in June (Dan and I are part of a writing group who meet a couple of times a year) and I spoke about how I had this story for The Guardian but I wasn’t sure if it was good enough, if the ending was right, and, my usual conundrum – if it was a ‘story’ or still just a scene. But I decided to go with it and a few weeks later came the good news.   

D: I do remember it. Sometimes it’s good to have that pressure of being right up against the deadline, although it’s not good for the blood pressure. When it’s not a simple matter of running out of time, do you have any particular way of knowing when a story is ready to send out?

T: I think there’s a time you have to stop editing and tweaking, and at that point, the story might not even be the best it can be – there just isn’t any more you can do for it right now. I always worry about taking the energy out of the writing. Sometimes you just need to leave it and see what it’s like in a few weeks. It might be saying things you don’t want it to say, but you’re too close to realise. This all sounds a bit odd. Really, I believe that you know when something is worth being published and read, it has a truth to it, not in a real-life-story way, it just feels like an honest part of you. Then it’s ready to go out.    

D: What about the way the story came together? Did you ‘get’ the structure at the first attempt, or is it something that evolved over numerous drafts?

T: It’s not a story I pulled apart, re-drafted, or edited a lot. It’s in a fairly raw form, quite close to what it was in 2007. I think that’s down to the ‘voice’ of Coral, which is where it all began. Specifically it began with her saying ‘I’m just going on holiday for a lark, really’ and embedded in that one line came the idea of her keeping a list of ‘Words To Say’, and as soon as I had that, Coral was a person. I found it liberating, exciting and easy to write – and it made me laugh. I had fun with the idea of these intricate and developed and varied lists. It’s actually one of my ambitions, to write a story just out of lists.  

D: Your Bridport story, “In a Seaside Café”, made effective use of lists. Jennifer Egan’s “To Do”, one of the ‘professional’ stories in the Guardian’s 2011 summer selection, is an even more extreme example. Egan chose to write an entire story in one list, so you’re obviously not the only writer who enjoys listing things. What is it about lists that appeals to you and what do you think they offer the fiction writer?

T: I think lists can give a real insight into a character. I work in a bar and one of my favourite things, when I’m clearing tables, is finding a screwed up piece of paper with a list on it. Even if it’s just food items I love it. As far as fiction writing goes, list-writing appeals to me because of its brevity, and how much can be delivered in a few words. The idea of successfully writing a whole story from lists is exciting because it’d be like putting together a jigsaw, layering something, which is how I approach writing anyway I think – I’m hardly ever a linear writer. It’s taken me a while to realise that.

D: Coral is a very believable character, and the voice of the story complements her personality perfectly. How do you go about ‘building’ your characters? Do you have a clear idea of what they’re like before you start writing, or start with a set of circumstances and think, “What kind of person would find themselves in this sort of situation?”, or do you have another way of approaching it?

T: In terms of story ideas, I don’t think I’m a ‘what if’ writer. There are a few ways I find my way into a story, but mostly it comes from an impulse, a feeling about something, and that can sometimes be something personal I’m feeling myself, or just something or someone I’ve noticed. In the past year or two I’ve used drawing in those early free-writing stages. I’m not an artist, in fact I really wish I could draw better, but I like to free-draw in my notebook and sometimes this will bring up an image, or a shape, and a story will come from it. I had a brief spell a few years ago trying certain exercises like interviewing my characters and building fact-files on them. It didn’t work, and it was really dull. But this particular story came from that opening line, and the rare thing happened where it brought the character along with it.

D: I was looking for similarities between our main characters and I came to the conclusion that, although very different in most ways, they’re both optimists. They’re both in circumstances they’re not happy with, but they believe things will change for the better, even if they have nothing at hand other than wilful self-delusion to bring about those changes. Do you think this optimism is something readers find easy to relate to / sympathise with?

T: Well, as a reader of your story, I can say I identified with your main character immediately. The 2nd person POV, which you do so well, transports you right there to that moment where your character wants to hold someone’s hand – I think we’ve all felt that. Your character is full of hope, and Coral is certainly that too. People have responded really well to Coral, when anyone talks to me about the story they talk about Coral. They want her to be okay, to have a good holiday. I find myself reassuring people, saying it’s all fine because she does meet a French man called Sebastian.

D: Finally, what does it mean to you to have a piece on The Guardian’s website, and to know it was chosen by well-respected, published authors? I’ve read comments on writing websites from people who think The Guardian are taking advantage of aspiring writers’ desire to be read by not offering payment for any of the stories they select. What do you make of that?

T: It hasn’t occurred to me to mind. Maybe it’s because I’m used to not getting paid – or getting paid very little – for writing. And, actually, the pay-offs for this comp are pretty good – predominantly, as you say, it’s huge exposure on a respected platform. When you enter, for free, you know the 1st placed story will be published in the Guardian and the 4 runners up will appear on the website. I’ve got so much from my experience that there is no way I could feel taken advantage of. One of the best, most meaningful outcomes, came when I tweeted one of the judges, Jon McGregor, a writer I read and admire, to have him reply and offer long, insightful emailed notes on my story and how to develop it. That made the whole thing very, I have to use the ‘m’ word again, meaningful. You’ll know this, it’s great being published, placed in competitions and so on, but often, this can just involve an email and a contributor’s copy – all wonderful – but to have a conversation with the judge, about your own writing, was above and beyond any competition experience I’ve had yet. And, just the other day a complete stranger tweeted me to say she had read and liked Things Which Are Not True, and that is something even better, reminds me what a great thing the internet is, how we’re all essentially on a level with each other, and how brilliant, but weird, it feels to be read by others.

Thanks, Teresa, interesting stuff. For those readers who've enjoyed this, Teresa will be posting Part Two of our "chat", where we swap chairs and she interrogates me, over on her blog, in a couple of days.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Ten-Four Ends with a Bang...

... well, a couple of flashes. But more on those later.

I was far busier than I expected over the Christmas / New Year period, and I didn't get to do the whole "looking back over 2011, looking forward to 2012" bit. Still, other people have done that, and made a pretty good job of it. Suffice to say my resolutions for the next twelve months are pretty basic - I'm giving Twitter a go, and I'm aiming to write at least 1000 words each week, with the majority contributing to an as-yet undecided project. My upcoming week at Arvon will, I hope, help me decide what to direct all those words towards.

But enough of the future, you say, enough of this infuriating attempt to delay the announcement of what went on with the Ten-Four Challenge. Tell us what happened!

Easy, tiger... the short answer (and I'm tired, so a short answer's all you're going to get) is that I made it, with two pieces of flash fiction filling the final slots in the Big Ten. I got the ninth submission into Flash500 just before Christmas, sending in an edited-down version of a story I really like, but that's not had much success in either of the comps it's been to already. It's written in an unusual format and I think that may have counted against it. Maybe the shorter, sharper version will do the trick.

Number ten was almost literally eleventh-hour stuff. I don't think Jools Holland's Hootenanny had actually started on BBC 2, but 2011 was pretty much making its excuses and struggling into its coat and hat in the hallway. I sent a new story to a literary e-zine, somewhere I've not submitted before. They've got an excellent reputation and I think the story I sent would be a good fit for them, but obviously I'll have to wait and see.

The Challenge has been good for me, a bit of a stretch, but not too difficult to find (just) enough time to do the required new writing and editing to get those ten stories out there. It's slightly frustrating that it'll be near enough April by the time I know how many of the pieces I've sent out are coming back empty handed.

Although, one result I do have is that Every Day Fiction will be publishing my superhero story, Just Jeff, later this month. I'll write more about it once it's up there, but suffice to say I'm very pleased it found a home.

Lastly, and most important, a Happy New Year to you all. I hope 2012's treating you well so far.