Wednesday 24 April 2013

The End of the Start - or Just the Beginning?

That's it, then - the "Start" flash fiction competition is over, the winners have been announced, the prizes have been awarded, the stories will be up on the Erewash Writers' Group website in the next few days, the bunting's coming down and the Champagne corks and sausage roll crumbs are being swept away.

I was very pleased to be involved with the competition, and judging it was a real pleasure. My judge's report is on the Erewash site, so I won't talk about my reasons for picking the winners here. What I will do is offer my congratulations to Tony Oswick, to whom I awarded first place, Jenny Long, who was runner-up, and Fiona Faith Ross, to whose story I awarded an honourable mention. Well done, all of you! And I hope you enjoy the book, Tony.

Being a judge is a mixed blessing. You can make someone's day - and I was thrilled to read Fiona's response to getting that honourable mention (I even get called "the internationally renowned short story writer, Dan Purdue", which is a very generous exaggeration, whichever way you look at it). But of course the flip side to that is that you have to trample on the hopes of all but a few of the writers on the shortlist.

Being shortlisted for something you don't win can sometimes feel worse than getting nowhere at all. If your entry sinks without trace, you can always assume it was lost in the post or, if you entered online, the organisers' printer ran out of ink just as it got to your story, so factors beyond your control took you out of contention. There's no such luxury when your name's up there on the shortlist. I follow Formula 1, and I've heard it said that finishing fourth, just shy of the winners' podium, is the most disappointing result for a driver. I guess it's probably true of all the Olympic events, too, and many more besides. It's that thing of almost being good enough to break through into the prizes, but not quite. Somehow, being that much closer to the top of the heap can make it seem even further out of reach.

Of course, the proper way to look at it is to think in terms of what you have achieved, rather than what you haven't. Wherever you end up in the results table, you've written a story, followed the rules, and got it finished in time. Huge numbers of people don't even get that far.

So, for this and any other competition, take confidence from the fact that you're potentially mixing with the literary superstars of the future (hey, who knows? - everybody has to start somewhere), reassure yourself that nobody who enters competitions gets a result all the time (with the possible exception of Hilary Mantel), and use each one as encouragement to push yourself and make sure your next story is the best one you've ever written.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

The First Cut is the Cruellest

I'm about to begin reading the shortlist for the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. I'm excited about this, and looking forward to reading the stories and seeing how all the different writers responded to the "Start" theme. I'm wondering how hard it will be to pick a winner - will there be a clear favourite, right from the first read-through, or will it be a process of erosion, with "lesser" stories gradually falling away until the eventual victor stands alone, all-conquering?

What it also means, is that I won't be reading any of the stories that didn't make the shortlist. Different competitions work in different ways - sometimes the judge will read all the entries, sometimes just the longlist, sometimes (as in this case) just the shortlist. Debbie and the Erewash team have selected the 20 best stories from an overall pool of over 130 - which is a great response - so the vast majority of entries have fallen at this first hurdle.

I want to offer a note of encouragement to anybody whose story didn't reach this point. I know free contests are a popular place to make your short story competition-entering début, and it can be very disheartening when your entry appears to sink without trace. It's easy to take this as a kick in the teeth, to think that your story must have been rubbish, even that you are a rubbish writer. It's easy, but it's the wrong way to look at it.

The main thing to bear in mind is that the odds are against you. This is the case with any writing competition, it only gets worse as you move up into bigger and more prestigious contests, and it's something you just have to accept. In this case, only the top 15% get onto the shortlist. In terms of the numbers alone, the odds of any particular story winning the competition is less than 1%.

No writing competition should ever be a lottery, of course, but there are a huge number of factors over which you have no control that'll determine whether your story goes forward or not. So much of writing is subjective: subject, style, genre, pace, point of view, even which tense it's written in - all of these can influence whether a particular reader thinks a story is any good, and it all boils down to personal taste. The stories I'll be reading are those that appealed most to the Erewash Writers' Group readers, and whichever one of that selection appeals most to me will be the winner. I have no idea how well my tastes and those of the Erewash crew overlap, but it's entirely possible that if I had read all the stories I would have chosen one of the 110 stories that have already dropped out.

However, this isn't meant to suggest the system is unfair and you can assume your story was perfect. It may well be, but if you haven't made the shortlist, consider it as a prompt to re-examine your work. There will be a (hopefully small) proportion who were disqualified; usually this is down to a small error - going over the word count limit, leaving your name on the manuscript (I did that myself recently and it's absolutely gutting), or some other lapse of concentration that means your story couldn't be considered. I know at least one writer scuppered their chances by publishing their story online.

If you got everything right, from a basic administration point of view, it's time to take a good, honest look at your story. Often, just having a bit of a break from the story while you're waiting for the result will to the trick. Ask yourself: Does it begin in the right place? Does the ending resonate? Is the structure you've used the best way to tell the story? Are the characters as strong as they can possibly be? Is your dialogue realistic? Does the plot make sense? Does it take at least one of the characters from one place / state of mind to another? Look hard, be brutal, and chances are you'll find something crying out for editing. And then, send it somewhere else. Good luck!

Monday 1 April 2013

Review: "Dot Dash" by Jonathan Pinnock

Jonathan Pinnock has appeared on my blog a couple of times - I interviewed him about being "between books" here, and he wrote a guest post about the weird world of competitive writing here. I've recently read his Scott Prize-winning collection of short stories, Dot Dash. Here's what I thought of it:

Image: Salt Publishing
After ploughing through a string of four over-long and largely disappointing novels, Dot Dash turned out to be just what I needed. It's quite a slim book, weighing in at a shade under 200 pages, but it contains 58 stories. As implied by the title, these are arranged in sequence, with "dots" (very short stories, many of them small enough to fit the 140-character limit of a tweet) alternating with "dashes" (more traditionally sized short stories). The "dashes" tend not to extend over more than four or five pages, so - if you so desired - you could gulp down the entire selection in a relatively short space of time.

I've enjoyed many of Jonathan's stories online in recent years, and so it wasn't a surprise to find myself enjoying this book too. There were some old favourites - such as rZr and Napoleon, The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife, and Advice re Elephants - but the majority of the stories were new to me. I have to say I got more from the dashes than from the dots, on the whole - microfiction is interesting (and I've tried it myself with varying results), but even when it's done particularly well it often seems more like a demonstration of the writer's skill and/or imagination than a genuine story with real depth. That said, there are some impressive examples throughout the book, and having them interspersed with the longer pieces produced an interesting effect - whenever I got to the end of a story, it proved almost impossible not to read the microstory that followed it, and more often than not I would then find myself reading the next story as well.

Reading this collection, I found myself thinking of Adam Marek's Instruction Manual for Swallowing, as there is the same sense here that you can never predict where the author is going from one story to another, and the only answer is to give in and follow wherever he leads. Neither author pays any attention to the invisible boundaries between genres, and the resulting collection is much richer, more varied, and interesting than the 'variations on a theme' you get with some anthologies. However, where I found Marek's stories had a frustrating tendency to peter out towards the end, Pinnock keeps a tighter hand on the reins and ensures the endings do justice to the leaps of imagination that get the story off the ground in the first place. There is plenty of humour, in both dots and dashes, but Jonathan's prose is equally sure-footed when tackling poignancy (see Return to Cairo or The Guitarist's Inheritance) or horror (the unsettling Nature's Banquet, for instance). Many of the stories occupy a curious middle-ground, funny-but-disturbing, sad-but-hopeful, stubbornly resistant to classification.

When you get to the end (and particularly if you're a writer), it's worth reading the Acknowledgements section, where the publishing and/or prizewinning history of the stories is revealed. Almost all have earned their stripes in competitions, anthologies, magazines, and online publications, and it's easy to imagine Dot Dash becoming a set text for any writer looking to address the tricky question of exactly how you go about getting a judge or editor to notice your story among everybody else's. Jonathan Pinnock's answer appears to be simple: Write - write whatever and however you like, about anything that interests you. Don't worry about being one type of writer or another, don't let genre be a constraint, and - most importantly - don't forget to leave the reader grinning like a lunatic.