Thursday 24 January 2013

Snow Sculpting and Short Stories

Building a snow sculpture is very much like writing a short story.

Don't panic - I've not gone all Swiss Toni (a character from the comedy series Fast Show, who described just about everything as being "very much like making love to a beautiful woman"). I have been taking advantage of the recent snow, though, and it struck me that there are similarities between carving stuff in snow and writing stories. So I thought I'd talk about that. And, I thought, it's a way I can post some pictures of my creations while maintaining a tenuous link to writing.

The Basics
Before you start, you need an appreciation of the limitations of the form. In snow, you need to understand how much weight it can stand, how much you can compress it, what kind of unsupported overhangs you can get away with. With stories, if you're aiming for a particular length (for example if you're intending to enter a competition), you ought to be aware of the restrictions in terms of number of characters, settings, and timespan a shorter word count brings.

Starting Out
The rough draft is where you make all your mistakes. You're free to get too ambitious, overload the structure, and leave bits that seem like they might be tricky for later on. All you need is for something that feels about right, is roughly the correct shape and size. You want something that will serve as a sound foundation for the masterpiece with which you'll eventually replace it. Don't sweat the details at this point; don't lose heart if it doesn't quite work or seems shoddy and unpolished. And if it looks like a non-starter after all, you won't have lost too much time at this point. Scrap it and try coming at it from a new angle, or switch to something entirely different.

Don't be afraid to try something new. Bend the rules. Stretch yourself. You've got nothing to lose. Ask questions about what you're doing. Why should a short story have a beginning, middle, and end in that order? Who says you can't tell a story through Facebook updates, or classified ads, or via a menu? Why should a story be third-person, past tense?

Why should a snowman look like the one from the John Lewis advert?

Once you've got the basic structure in place, the real work begins. Refine what you've done, add bits, take bits away, hone it and hone it until it's as close to the idea you have in your head as you can possibly get it. This is where you need to trust your instincts, and be realistic about what you can achieve. In some ways, this is the best bit, because this is where your work really starts to come to life. But it can be nerve-wracking too - as you get closer to the finishing line, it can be difficult to force yourself to make changes, even when you know deep down they're the right thing to do. Hold your nerve, and keep going.

Stepping Back
Once you've finished, take a step back and take a good look at what you've created. Unless you've been extremely fortunate, at least one part of it won't have gone entirely to plan. You'll have had to compromise on something, or you'll have realised just as you finished it off that it would have been better to structure the whole thing slightly differently. On the other hand, there'll almost certainly be parts that went better than you expected, bits that when you read back fill you with pride. These responses are valuable - you can learn plenty from both of them, and apply your new-found knowledge to your next project. Onwards and upwards!

So, that's what I've been up to, and if these tips spur you on to build a snow-thing, write a story, or do something else equally creative, please let me know.

If all else fails, and the wintery weather is leaving you uninspired, you can always just escape into a good book...

Don't forget!
I'm judging the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. Up to 500 words themed around "Start" - it could be the start of something, a couple trying to start over, a car that won't start, you name it. It's free to enter, you can win a copy of Somewhere to Start From, and the winning story will be published on the EWG website (global exposure for your work!). The closing date is 21 March 2013, so get going! I listed a few tips on how to make your story stand out, HERE. Good luck!

Tuesday 15 January 2013

On Winning the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition

I had planned to write a blog post announcing the result, but I guess the majority of the people who read this blog will have heard already, either via Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere on the internet (I haven't done a great job of keeping it to myself!). Just in case you've somehow managed to miss the news, though... I won first place in the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition.

I'm very pleased about this. I've written before about the H.E. Bates contest and how, although it's a relatively small player in the world of short fiction competitions, it's run with a passion and a respect for writers that isn't always a feature of much larger contests. It's one of those competitions that deserves to do well and I hope it will be around for a long time.

I got a story onto the shortlist in 2010 (my story, The Bus Driver Who Stopped and Then Didn't, turned out to be a favourite of Morgen Bailey, one of the judges, and she's since agreed to host it on her website), got nowhere in 2011, and almost didn't enter the latest competition, because it was themed and I always find that restrictive. All the stories submitted had to have the title, A Walk at Midnight.

The competition attracted approximately 200 entries, which was apparently a bit of a drop compared to 2011's contest. Talking to one of the organisers after the prize-giving ceremony, they're wondering if imposing a theme discouraged people. As I say, it nearly put me off, but having conquered my theme demons with the 3 Into 1 Short Story Competition, I decided to give it a go. After a lot of staring out of the window, an idea formed in my head and I wrote a story based on a young woman playing the part of a victim in a CrimeWatch-style reconstruction. I was pleased with it, but it was very different to Bus Driver... so I had no idea whether it would be a contender.

In the dying moments of 2012, I heard I'd made the shortlist, and was invited to go along to Northampton to attend the prizegiving evening and read my story. My first awards ceremony! It was nerve-wracking, sitting there waiting to hear the results, but also very enjoyable. The first readings were by the under-18 finalists, three of which were sisters. Their work was impressive, particularly considering how young they were. The winner was a 16-year-old from New Hampshire, who (unsurprisingly) wasn't there to pick up his award in person.

The it was down to the nitty-gritty; the adult winners. Stephen Booth, author of the popular Cooper and Fry series of detective novels, was the head judge. Starting with third place, he introduced each story, saying what he'd liked about them without giving away exactly what they were about, and then announcing the writer, who (if they were there) then read their story. When I wasn't called up for third place, and then not for second, my heart was in my mouth. Both the stories were excellent so it was clear competition was fierce.

Stephen then starting talking about the winning story, and even then, I wasn't entirely sure. I wish I could remember more of what he said in his introduction to be honest, as he was very complimentary. When he mentioned how the winning writer had subverted the theme within the first couple of sentences, I thought, "I've done it!" - for reasons you'll understand when the competition website is updated and you can read the story. And sure enough, he read out my name, people started clapping, and I made my way to the front of the hall on slightly wobbly legs.

Here I am, having survived reading my story, receiving my certificate and cheque from Stephen Booth:

(That dark patch on my shirt is shadow, by the way - I'm not horrendously sweaty)

A win in a competition is as good as it gets, frankly. I have been lucky recently, picking up several prizes and getting stuff accepted for publication in various places. But this is a huge boost to my confidence, and it's a reminder that all this tapping away at the keyboard isn't done in isolation - there are people out there who love to read short stories.

And now, in the spirit of award ceremonies, I'd like to thank Stephen Booth for his excellent taste in short fiction and for being such a friendly, down-to-earth kind of guy, the Northampton Writers' Group and the rest of the audience for being such a welcoming and supportive crowd, and to the organisers for making it all possible in the first place.

... and you, of course. The people who willingly give up their time to read my writing. You're ace, all of you.

Don't forget!
I'm judging the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. Up to 500 words themed around "Start" - it could be the start of something, a couple trying to start over, a car that won't start, you name it. It's free to enter, you can win a copy of Somewhere to Start From, and the winning story will be published on the EWG website (global exposure for your work!). The closing date is 21 March 2013, so get going! I listed a few tips on how to make your story stand out, HERE. Good luck!

Monday 7 January 2013

It's my birthday - here, have a present!

This is a scheduled post - the first I've attempted, so hopefully it'll work. It's the 7th January, right?

A belated Happy New Year to you all. I hope 2013's treating you well.

There are a couple of bits of news - firstly that my story, "The Bus Driver Who Stopped and then Didn't", is available to read on Morgen Bailey's blog. If you've not visited Morgen's blog before, it's well worth a look as she's put together hundreds of articles, stories, flash fiction, and interviews covering all types of writing.

The second item is some good news regarding a short story, which you'll see if you follow the above link to my story. As per Morgen's introduction, I'm on the short list for the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition and am heading over to the prize-giving evening next week. Wish me luck!

Anyway, the main point of this post is that today's my birthday, and by way of celebration I am making the ebook version of Somewhere to Start From free on Smashwords for the next two days. Just go to my book's page (follow this link), click download, and use the code:


If you don't already use Smashwords, I think you might have to register (for free) in order to download the files. Then you can choose your format - they offer .mobi files for Kindle, .epub files for iPads, Nooks, Kobos, and most other ereaders, plus PDF if you prefer.

I hope lots of you will download the book, and that you'll enjoy reading the stories. If you've already read it, please let feel free to pass on the links and voucher code to your friends and family who might fancy a story or two.