Monday 18 March 2013

Last-Minute Larry

The Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition closes on 21 March, so if you haven't entered yet and you like the sound of it, you'd better get a move on!

If you're here for the first time and don't know what I'm talking about, this is a free flash fiction competition I'm judging, in which the story must have a theme of "Start" (interpreted however you like). The maximum word count is 500 (there's no minimum). Up for grabs is a copy of my anthology, Somewhere to Start From, which I'll gladly sign and dedicate for the winner if they like. Additionally, the winning story will be published on the EWG website for all the world to see, and the winner and runner-up both get a free entry to the open competition later in the year, which has cash prizes. I listed a few tips on how to make your story stand out, HERE.

I've often wondered if there's an optimum time to enter a short story competition. Sometimes I think it might be best to be among the first entries a competition receives, so that if the judge is reading them as they arrive yours gets read while he or she is still fresh, before any similar plots crop up which might make yours seem less original. Or perhaps it might be better to be amongst the last entries, so that the judge reads yours towards the end of the process, giving it more chance of sticking in their mind as they come to make their decision.

But what if the stories are printed out as they arrive, and being first in means your story ends up on the bottom of the stack, with the last one received right at the top? Is that good or bad? Maybe it's best to aim to be in the middle ... or will that halfway-through stage be the point at which the judge is feeling overwhelmed and thinking they'd be quite happy if they never saw another short story in their lives and wondering why they ever agreed to this?

The thing is, there's no way of knowing what's best from one contest to another. Each one is organised differently and each judge will read the stories according to their own preferences. When I judged a competition last year, I wasn't able to set a big block of time aside to read all the stories in one go, so I looked at how long each one was, and read them according to whether I had 10 minutes or half an hour free, totally ignoring the numbers they'd been allocated by the organisers. Other judges might choose to read in alphabetical order according to title, or just pick from the pile at random, or any one of countless possible ways of organising the stories.

In the end, you have to go with what works best for you. There are super-organised writers out there who like to get an entry in weeks before the closing date. I'm a Last-Minute Larry, partly because it often takes the pressure of a looming deadline for me to fully focus on a particular story (usually I have two or three at various stages of completion at any one time), but mainly because if I send it off too early I really struggle to resist the temptation to look back at the story and - without fail - spot areas that could be improved.

It doesn't matter how much editing I've done beforehand, it doesn't matter how perfect I think the story is when I seal the envelope or press "send", there will always be something that'll leap out and make me wish I'd held off sending it for just one more day. It's a guaranteed way of convincing myself I've wasted the entry fee and making me feel dejected and annoyed. So, in the main, my rule is to send it during the closing week of the competition, so that the gates close behind it much sooner. I find it much easier then to consider it completely out of my hands, and I don't feel the same urge to look at the story again until after the results have been announced.

This can be taken too far, though. I've found myself on more than one occasion clicking "submit" with crossed fingers at 11.59pm on the day of the deadline, and it's a horribly stressful experience.

So, if you're feeling inclined to START writing an entry for the flash contest, don't worry that you've left it too late, but then again don't leave it any longer...

Sunday 3 March 2013

Review: "Not So Perfect" by Nik Perring

Nik Perring's collection of short stories has popped up on my blog a couple of times, but after a recent conversation with a friend I realised I'd never actually reviewed it. So, I re-read it a couple of days ago and here's what I think:

Not So Perfect is a collection of 22 short stories. They're very short - the shortest stories don't cover a page and the longest is maybe four or five sides long (and the book's only about the size of a CD case, so the pages aren't all that big). Most of them therefore fit very comfortably into the 'flash' bracket.

Nik's writing style is very clear and concise, perhaps even minimalist. He distils the events he describes to the bare essentials; there's no lingering, no flowery prose. If you're used to reading classics, or just more "traditional" writing, it can feel a little sparse at times, although there's a real warmth to it, too. In several of the stories, the characters aren't named, and only a few of them take place in a definite location. Flash fiction does put significant demands on the reader; there are a lot of blanks to fill in.

Nearly all the stories deal with relationships - whether they're just starting, stalling, or coming to an end. Some of the stories have strongly surreal or at least slightly skewed elements. There's a lot of sweetness, too - although sometimes it's concealed under a darker veneer.

I really enjoyed this collection, and having read it again, I found plenty of new aspects I'd missed the first time around. In a lot of flash fiction, I sometimes reach the end of a story and wonder if perhaps the author brought things to a close a little too soon, or left a bit too much out for me to be really sure I'd 'got' the point he or she was making. But perhaps that's just the way my brain works - I don't like feeling I've missed something. Part of the appeal of Nik's work though is not so much that he tells you anything in particular, but that he just offers a new way of looking at something, a different take on a familiar situation, and leaves you to make your own decisions.

I can't honestly say I liked every single one of the stories - a couple of them feel too slight, too much like a good idea with nowhere particular to go (besides, I can only think of a couple of collections where I've genuinely loved all the stories) - but overall I thought they were very good. I admire Nik's writing style, and it's interesting to see how he describes things so well with such a limited word count. My particular favourites are "The Seconds are Ticking By" (a story about a schoolboy who finds himself holding a grenade in one hand and the pin in the other), "Say My Name" (in which a lonely man fears he is fading away), and "The Mechanical Woman" (who believes she is unlovable, until a chance encounter with an engineer on a train).

Whether you enjoy this book will depend, mostly, on how you feel about flash fiction. If you love to spend time with a character and really get under their skin, you may find the brief glimpses offered by Not So Perfect a little frustrating. If, on the other hand, you're happy to be dropped in just in time to share a tiny but vital moment in the history of a relationship, and don't mind being left to imagine how things turn out afterwards, you'll probably get a lot out of this book. Interested? Check out some of Nik's stories online and see what you think.

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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!