Wednesday 21 November 2012

One-Oh-Oh - and a giveaway!

Ta-da! Here it is - my 100th blog post. I must admit, I was quite surprised when I noticed a couple of weeks ago that my blog counter had crept into the high nineties. It's taken about two years to get to this point, as I only post once a week or so. I thought it was worth marking the occasion. And I thought a good way of doing that would be with the time-honoured tradition of a giveaway. Whoo!

Up for grabs is a copy of my anthology, Somewhere to Start From. Just leave a comment below or - if the anti-spam controls here defeat you - you can leave a comment on my author page on Facebook. If neither of those options are any good, you might need to resort to carrier pigeon or something, sorry. At the end of November I'll put all the names into a hat (quite possibly a Christmas hat) and pick a winner at random. Then I'll post the book to whoever that might be, wherever they are in the world. I'll happily sign, dedicate, or otherwise scrawl on the book, or leave it pristine, whatever he or she would prefer.

It struck me that I've not really described the collection on the blog before, and this seemed like a good opportunity. So, here goes:

What is it?

Somewhere to Start From is a collection of 21 short stories, ranging from stories with a handful of words (I think the shortest is 27 words), up to much more substantial pieces. The collection represents the best of my "early work", in terms of stories that did well in competitions and those that were published in print or online during my first five or six years of writing fiction. There are a couple of unpublished stories in there too, although the majority of them have earned their stripes out in the big wide world.

Is it any good?

Since I put it together, the book's been well-received, attracting some very favourable comments on Amazon and elsewhere. It's a tricky collection to promote in some ways - although it has sold (and is for sale) in bookshops, notably the Press Shop in St Peter Port in Guernsey, and Books & Ink in Banbury, and has sold online too. Being both self-published and an admittedly random collection of short stories, it's hard to get past the assumption that it's yet another badly edited vanity project, and it's almost impossible to answer the dreaded question, "What's it about, then?"

What's it about, then?

One theme that pops up in many of the stories is a character trying to find their place in the world. Sometimes this is because the world they knew has changed beyond recognition; sometimes this is because they've never quite been able to understand the world in the first place. In Changeover Day, the first story in the collection, god prepares to make way for his replacement, and ponders what will become of both himself and his beloved dinosaurs. In Secondplace, a travelling salesman realises the sacrifices he has made for his career have left him stranded in a bleak no man's land. In A Night In with Zil, King Kong and his flatmate Godzilla try to keep a low profile while the outside world won't let them forget their violent pasts.

Elsewhere, there are stories of redemption, revenge, and unrequited love. Relationships fail, new ones are kindled, existing ones shift and change. There are stories about gods, monsters, angels, robots, hellish hotels, body-builders and body-snatchers. There are ordinary people just doing whatever they can to get by. There is a daring heist on a jewellery store masterminded by a talking magpie, a tale of adventure on the not-so high seas, and a restaurant review that's almost - but perhaps not quite - outlandish enough to be real.

Who'd want to read it?

I believe the mix of stories, genres, and styles mean most of the book will appeal to most readers. If you absolutely cannot stand short stories, or you only like bleak, humourless prose about beaten-down characters spiralling their way to an early grave, it might be best to give this a miss. But if you're open-minded, appreciate a skewed take on life, and enjoy not really knowing what's coming next, this could be just what you're looking for.

From a writer's point of view, it offers an insight into the kinds of stories and ideas that catch judges' and editors' eyes, as many of these tales have won prizes or been published in places like Writers' Forum, or The Guardian website. I totted up the prize money and publication fees and the book has a theoretical worth of £396 - which means the cover price represents extremely good value for money. You can see where some of the stories ended up by going to Amazon and having a 'Look Inside!' at the contents page. It's (obviously) not a how-to book, but if you're entering the same kinds of competitions, you might pick up some tips or inspiration. Or you can just sit there and seethe, thinking, The story I submitted was much better than this rubbish. Whatever floats your boat.

So, if you like the sound of the book, or if you already have a copy and would like to win another for a friend or relation (hey, Christmas is just around the corner, after all), just leave a comment here, or on Facebook, and don't forget to check back after 30th November to see if you've been picked.

Good luck!

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Guest Post: Jonathan Pinnock Talks Competitive Writing

Today, I have great pleasure in handing over responsibility for my blog to Jonathan Pinnock. Jonathan stopped by a couple of months ago to talk about being in-between books, a few weeks before the launch of his new, Scott Prize-winning collection of short stories, Dot Dash.

Now that the new collection has hit the shops, Jonathan's out and about, spreading the word. Today, he's here, with some thoughts about short story competitions. Over to you, Jon...

The thing is, all writing is competitive. Even if all you do is send stuff out to agents, you’re competing against other hopefuls. Even if all you do is self-publish, you’re competing with everyone else out there who’s publishing stuff. The only difference with entering competitions is that there is money involved. Usually (but not always), you have to put up an entrance fee. More importantly, apart from one or two very rare occasions, there is prize money involved.

What it all boils down to is that entering a competition is essentially the same as taking a bet that you are actually as good as you think you are. If you’re right, then you’re quids in. Not only that, but everyone else now knows that you’re as good as you think you are, which is good for your CV. If you’re wrong, at least you know you have work to do, and you’re getting a useful lesson in dealing with rejection. No-one need ever know, either, because the losers’ names are never published.

So how do you go about choosing which competitions to enter? First of all, you need to have plenty of material if you’re going to be taking this seriously (because comps tend to take a dim view of folk who submit the same piece to several places at once). The best way to generate lots of material is to enter the type of competition where you have a short time to write something (a couple of weeks, perhaps, maybe just one week or even an hour or less), usually to a prompt. Most of the stories in my new collection originated in one of these events.

Most of these events are run by writers’ forums, such as The Write Idea (who do the Whittaker Prize) or Café Doom (who have a weekly flash challenge) or Write Invite (who do an unbelievably scary twenty minute flash challenge every week). Believe me, they are fantastic for generating original material – stuff that you never thought you had in you.

So, now that you have your material, you can move onto the secondary level competitions. But how to choose which ones to go in for? Obviously there are the biggies, such as the Bridport, the Fish and Bristol, but while a score there can do wonders for your reputation, you need to be aware that the odds are stacked heavily against you, even if you send in a couple of entries for good luck. So it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the smaller comps as well, and this is where Sally Quilford’s competitioncalendar is immeasurably useful. Not only is it an excellent reference, but Sally also does a pretty good job of weeding out the ones that are a bit iffy.

Ah yes. It’s an unfortunate fact that some competitions are better run than others. The gold standard, in my experience, is set by the Bristol Short Story Prize: the lists are announced on time, the anthology is of superb quality and you’re treated like royalty if you get as far as the shortlist. However, there are others where the list of winners isn’t so much as announced as permitted to escape, where the promised anthology fails to materialise or even where the prize money itself fails to appear [I seem to remember you had a bad experience with one comp, Dan?*] My advice is to look at who’s running the competition and how long they’ve been doing it, see if you’ve heard of any of the previous winners and see if there’s a named judge that you’ve heard of.

I’ll finish with a few words from the position of someone who’s been a judge. First of all, we get things wrong. We have our own subjective ideas. We may pass over something that the folk at Bridport think is the best thing since Raymond Carver. That’s tough. Deal with it and send it in to someone else. Secondly, we get bored. There is a finite limit to the number of stories about abuse we can read in a day without slitting our wrists. If you can throw in something a bit unusual – maybe even with a spot of humour – you may get our attention, as long as it isn’t trying too hard to be weird. Similarly, an unusual title will work wonders for getting us in the right mood. Finally, even if the maximum word count is 5000, if you can say what you want to say in 500, don’t pad it out.

That’s it, really. What are you waiting for?

Thank you, Jon. That's great advice and a very sensible way of looking at competitions.

If you'd like to read many examples of stories that have done well in competitions, or just want to grab yourself a fistful of top-quality, short and very-short stories, Dot Dash is now available from your local bookshop, direct from Salt Publishing, or from everyone's favourite tax-dodging online behemoth.

* Yes, my experience wasn't as bad as some (details here), but it proves people should always find out as much as they can before entering a competition.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Good news...

... for anybody who thinks my blog posts are usually far too long, because this one will be very short in comparison.

I found out earlier this week that my story, A Little Chaos, came second in the 3Into1 Short Story Competition. I've held back from announcing this until now because the results weren't up on the website before today, and I didn't want anybody thinking I was a massive fibber.

The story won't be posted on the website, but it will be appearing in a charity anthology, which the organisers tell me should be published towards the end of the year. This is all very exciting as far as I'm concerned. Watch this space for further details.

Right, that's it from me. As you were.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

The Perilous Path of Self-Promotion

Following on from my previous post, it turned out that my story, Hotel Subterraneana, ended up in second place in the Ether Books Halloween Contest. That’s not a bad result out of sixty writers all vying for attention. For me the contest was more an experiment in promoting a single story, something I've not done before, than a concerted attempt to win the prize (an iPad). I’m not saying I wouldn’t have liked to have won, of course...

I had fun promoting my story, although it wasn't something with which I was 100% comfortable. I like to think I have more than one string to my bow, and it was good to mess around with non-writery things like the ‘cover image’. It was good to come up with different ways to talk about the story on Twitter and Facebook, and an interesting exercise in terms of trying to gauge how many mentions of the story would seem like overkill.

I think I just about managed to get through it without annoying anybody too much. I made sure I had three days out of the seven when I didn’t mention it at all online, and I tried to ensure I wasn’t posting the same thing on Twitter as I was on Facebook, as I have an overlap of friends and followers, and nobody likes being bombarded with the same stuff everywhere they go. Most people seemed pretty cool with it, and it was fantastic that so many were keen to help.

Not everybody feels that way, though. Although none were directed specifically at me, I noticed some sniffy comments on Twitter about popularity contests calling themselves writing competitions, and even in the dedicated Facebook group, one of the writers asked whether the next contest would “also be won by the person with the most phones”.

It’s strange that there doesn’t seem to be the same distaste for writers who promote their work by making it free via Amazon or similar channels, and then tell everyone how far up the Kindle charts their book/story has risen. Perhaps with the Ether contest it’s the element of a tangible prize at the end that upsets people – free promotions are acceptable, it seems, when it’s just about boosting your own fame and/or encourage sales of other work, but add in an iPad as a potential prize and suddenly it all seems a little exploitative.

The winner, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a student at an American university. I think students have a distinct advantage in a contest like this – I certainly knew and was in regular contact with more people during my uni days than at any time before or since. The winner worked social media pretty hard and was able to create quite a buzz around her story.

I don’t own anything Apple-flavoured, so I can’t download the app or read the winning story. I’ve no idea whether it was any good. But that wasn’t the point of the contest – it was never going to be about the “best” story winning. From Ether’s point of view, it’s a pretty effective promotional tool. For a relatively meagre outlay, they got 60 writers rushing around for a week, telling everyone they knew how great the Ether app is and how easy it is to download stories. They haven’t announced the final figures for the downloads, but the total must be well into the hundreds, maybe even thousands. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the majority of these also involved a new download of the Ether app itself.

What would be really interesting is what proportion of these new users actually read the story they’ve downloaded, and how many of them go on to download anything else from Ether Books. Presumably the intent is that the contest stories act as a free sample, and – assuming the reader is suitably impressed – that the freebies will lead to these new users purchasing stories in the future. They have some impressive writers in the pay section of the app (Hilary Mantel, anyone?).

Will Ether's plan work? As I say, I haven’t been able to read any of my fellow contestants’ stories. I had confidence in mine, but then it had already won a cash prize and been published in a national magazine. The terms of the contest were that everything submitted would be published on the app, and there didn’t seem to be any editorial control (for instance, there is a glaring typo in the author-submitted synopsis of the winning story, which doesn’t bode particularly well). Personally, it seems odd that Ether are prepared to launch stories onto their app with a very light touch in terms of quality control, and then expect those stories to act as an advert for the service. Will people who read a friend’s story for free really be motivated enough to pay for another story, regardless of whether they thought the first one was any good?

Maybe Ether have a longer-term goal in mind, and it’s all about normalising the concept of reading short stories on a phone. Or maybe it comes down to economics, and contests like this are a more effective way of advertising the app than paying for adverts in the books review section of newspapers. I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Writers need to be able to promote themselves and to understand the boundaries of what’s acceptable in directing people's attention to their work. I just think I’d be more comfortable with it if Ether could find a way to give a stronger impression that the writing comes first, and the self-promotion is very much secondary.