Friday 23 September 2016

H is for... Humour!

Funny, isn’t it, the way things work out sometimes? There I was, planning a post on humour, and the challenges of getting anything amusing published, when I received an email telling me one of my more bizarre stories had been shortlisted for Christopher Fielden’s Humorous Short Story Competition. I’m very pleased about that, as it means that even if it doesn’t go on to win a prize, Feeding the Creatives will be published in an anthology along with the winners and the other shortlisted stories.

So while that’s undermined my point a little, I still think it’s worth lamenting how rare it is to find good examples of humour in mainstream short stories. Year after year, the judges' reports for places like the Bridport Prize plead for stories with a lighter touch. Reading an anthology from a 'serious' competition can be a dispiriting slog, as all too often a story about death will follow a story about a relationship breaking down, which in turn followed a story about a parent suffering senility (and, probably, then dying).

My take on this is that there's a general feeling that when it comes to short stories, bleak is best. Trying too hard to be funny can mean the characters become cartoonish, or the plot is simply a mechanism for delivering the punchline. Besides, thinking about competition entries, it's much easier to make a story "powerful" if it's designed to make people feel sad. Mainly because things that make people sad are more universal than those that make them feel happy. Create a character people can relate to and have bad things happen to them. Take away someone they care about, threaten their safety, or deprive them of something they've worked hard for. Boom! Instant sadness, literary success, awards, etc.

But misery is only part of life - and, one would hope, as small a part as possible. Stories that focus entirely on the dark side fail to capture the truth about life, with all its funny quirks, contradictions, and absurdities. Who could argue against the idea that making somebody laugh is better (and, potentially, harder) than making them feel sad? So why is there this persistent sense in writing competitions that for a story to be "good" it must be deadly serious?

Some writers master this balancing of humour and proper grown-up emotion, and their stories are all the better for it. For instance, A L Kennedy, whose writing often leans heavily upon darker themes, tends to sprinkle amusing one-liners through her work and these - like seasoning in a meal - add a piquancy that lifts stories that otherwise could feel oppressively bleak. I've written before (ages ago!) about Rich Hall's story "Circadia", taken from his collection Magnificent Bastards. Here the humour comes from the characters and the strange situation in which they find themselves. It manages to be both funny and poignant, and I think each of these amplifies the other - to the extent where it remains one of my all-time favourite stories.

So those are just a couple of examples of stories that manage to be both "funny" and "good", but I'm always on the hunt for more. Can anyone suggest any others?

Incidentally, humorous novels don't seem quite so hard to track down, which makes me wonder if the rules are slightly different for longer stories.

Saturday 20 August 2016

London Calling

Another quick interruption to the #AtoZofWriting series. Don't worry, I haven't abandoned it, but for the minute I have some proper news to share...

Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I was lucky enough to be shortlisted in a competition held by Writing Magazine and Just Write. I'm assuming you already know about Writing Magazine,  but you might not have heard of Just Write before. They're a team of editors and publishers working within the John Murray imprint that's part of Hodder & Stoughton, and they're responsible for the 20 or so creative writing books published in the "Teach Yourself" series.

I saw the competition via a full-page ad in Writing Magazine. It caught my attention straightaway because although the overall winner's prize was  pretty impressive (feedback on your work from the editorial team at Hodder), the reward for reaching the shortlist was almost as valuable - the chance to meet editors, publishers, and published authors at the reception evening where the winner would be announced. I sent a off a story and, not really expecting to get anywhere, more or less forgot about it immediately afterwards.

I did, in fact, manage to forget about it so comprehensively that when I received an email from Jonathan Telfer, editor of Writing Magazine, telling me I'd reached the shortlist, I genuinely had no idea which story I'd sent until I checked my competition tracker spreadsheet. So it was definitely a nice surprise!

The next bit was the tricky part - keeping quiet about it for a couple of weeks until the shortlist was announced in the next issue of the magazine. But soon enough the magazine hit the newsstands and I could let people know, and also get my first look at my fellow shortlistees. I recognised Sally Jenkins from her blog and from the Talkback website, but the other four were new names to me.

The shortlist

So that was a few weeks ago. Fast-forward to Thursday afternoon, and I was travelling down to London to find out what this reception party was all about - and, of course, discover which one of us had won. The Hodder building is slap bang in the middle of the city, on the north bank of the Thames. I arrived uncharacteristically early, and on my way to the Hodder building I bumped into Emma Myatt, another shortlisted writer. Soon we were joined by the other four and whisked up to the Hodder and Stoughton offices, presented with some very fine goody bags, and subjected to a mercifully brief interview about our writing. This was on camera, and I discovered I really need to work on my technique - unsure whether to look directly at the camera, at the interviewer, or just, y'know, elsewhere, I opted for a mix of all three and will probably look like I'm watching a moth flying around the room. Ah, well.

Strong contender for the goodiest of goody bags...

Once our interrogations interviews were out of the way, we headed up to the stunning rooftop café and garden terrace for some fizz and photos while we chatted to editors, publishers, people from Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, and several published authors. For me, this was the part that seemed the most surreal - standing there sipping sparkling wine on a sunny London rooftop, talking to people with actual proper jobs in the publishing industry who'd read our work and had very encouraging things to say about it. I'm sure I speak for all six of us when I say this was an unforgettable experience and one that'll keep our levels of inspiration topped up for a long time to come.

The wonderful rooftop garden

Six very happy writers

Meanwhile, back in the café, the decorations were out and the tables were groaning beneath the weight of yet more goody bags, books, drinks, snacks...

...and cakes!

After a couple of brief speeches by two Jonathans - chief editors at Just Write and Writing Magazine respectively - it was time for the moment of truth. The envelope was opened and the name of the winner was read out. And it was... Emma Myatt! I know it's the done thing to say that one doesn't mind losing out to somebody else in these circumstances,  but in this instance it's genuinely true. After spending the afternoon with the other five shortlisters, I'd have been truly happy to see any one of them bag that prize.

As something of a consolation, the organisers had arranged for all six stories to be printed in a limited-edition book. Emma was given a genuinely unique hardback edition, and the rest of us collected a few paperback versions each. It was a added thrill in an already amazing day, as naturally the six of us had discussed our stories and we were all itching to find out what everybody else had written. I'm really looking forward to reading them all.

The anthology

If you're a writer reading this and wishing you'd entered the competition,  or you did enter but didn't reach the final six, the good news is that Writing Magazine will be running it again in the future. Keep an eye on the magazine for details and, who knows, next time it could be you sipping champagne on that rooftop terrace!

Wednesday 10 August 2016

The Curious Arts Festival 2016 - Part Two

Continuing my write-up of this year's Curious Arts Festival. Part One (Friday afternoon and Saturday) can be found here.


As we were staying off-site for the weekend, my wife and I met up with my sister, brother-in-law, and my two nieces for breakfast in Lymington and as a result our return to the festival site was a little later than we'd planned. Although I'd wanted to hear it, we decided not to blunder into the middle of TV producer Stephen Moss's talk about his book Wild Kingdom, and instead opted for a more leisurely stroll around the site, browsing in the Waterstones tent and drinking tea.

Peace and tranquillity await you in the Wellbeing Area...
I'd signed up for what was billed as "an intensive creative writing workshop" with SJ Watson. It turned out to be more of a panel discussion about publishing and approaching agents. As well as SJ (Steve) himself, the panel also featured Clare Conville, co-founder of Conville & Walsh; Carrie Plitt, an agent at C&W, and another woman whose name I didn't catch but I believe was from Watson's UK publisher, Transworld (I think). As a result, it was an interesting discussion, although I got the impression that some of the people attending the talk were more at the 'starting to write' end of the spectrum than the 'actively seeking an agent/publisher' one. Not that that's a problem, of course. It also gave me a chance to get Steve to sign my freshly bought copy of Before I Go to Sleep.

Although there was an inevitable return to some of the ground Steve had covered in his talk on Saturday, it was interesting to get more of an insider view on the process from the other members of the panel. I was particularly struck by how hard the agents work, when they're convinced they have a hit on their hands, to get a bidding war going between a number of publishers. For the publishers, of course, this is the last thing they want as it pushes the price up, so they have to work equally hard to make themselves the only player in the field. It all sounded very exciting and stressful, and I can imagine it's a pretty surreal process to go through for an author.

Time was limited, but there was a short Q&A session at the end of the session. I asked about something that's been bugging me for a long time - whether writing a debut novel in a particular genre will make it difficult to publish subsequent books that don't fit into that same pigeonhole. As a sub-question, I asked whether being approached by a writer with plans to write across genres would be a "red flag" to an agent. Although I got the impression that science fiction raised some particular challenges, the overall response was encouraging. Essentially, it came down to a straightforward question of whether the writing's good enough to sell. If it is, there are ways for a writer to span two or more genres - the most common being via a pseudonym. Or you can adopt the Margaret Atwood / Kazuo Ishiguro route and just tell everyone it's literary fiction that just happens to be set in the future. Obviously, that's a bridge to cross when I get to it, but I was very pleased to not be told that not wanting to stick to a specific 'type' of book doesn't necessarily present an obstacle to signing with an agent.

The workshop / discussion finished in time for me to catch 45 minutes or so of Andrew Miller in conversation with Paul Blezard. Andrew was there to - in theory, at least - talk about his latest novel, The Crossing. But apart from saying that a large part of it was set on a small boat, he was reluctant to reveal too much about the story. So instead it proved to be more of a discussion of a life in writing, the difficulties of making a living as an author, and the many literary awards Andrew has collected for his books. He comes across as a very modest, likeable guy with an obvious talent for writing intelligent yet accessible books. I really need to read some of them - Oxygen and Pure have been on my shelf for months if not years!

Andrew Miller talking to Paul Blezard 
After lunch, we headed back to listen to Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean author and lawyer talking about her novel The Book of Memory. Neither my wife nor I had heard of her before but we'd had a look at the book in the Waterstones tent and thought it sounded intriguing.

Petina Gappah
Unfortunately, Petina was under severe time pressure as by this point in the day the schedule had gone a little awry and she was in danger of missing her plane for her next festival appearance. So the interviewer rattled through the questions and we got a good overall (if not in-depth) impression of her writing. The Book of Memory sounds fascinating, telling the story of an albino black woman arrested for the murder of a white man. Petina said having an albino protagonist allowed her to explore racism and prejudice from two angles. Set in Harare, the local word for albino translates as "fake white", and so the protagonist occupies a unique centre ground in a divided community, belonging to both sides yet welcomed by neither.

Sunday evening's comedy was another great selection. Tom Lucy looked a little uncomfortable with the restrictions placed on his routine by the presence of so many under-10s, but delivered some cracking lines nonetheless. Lucy Porter was on good form, reading out a letter she'd written as though from her 16-year-old self, and telling a story about moving to suburbia that got steadily funnier and more surreal.

Improv troupe The Noise Next Door had impressed me last year so it was good to see them on the bill again. They didn't disappoint, unleashing a barrage of puns, songs, dodgy accents, and a surprisingly good Alan Rickman impression - all made up on the spot in response to suggestions shouted out by the audience. Finally, Justin Edwards took to the stage. I wasn't sure what to make of him at first because he sat down with a guitar and began a slow, meandering ballad about a grieving widow. However, he steered it around to an absolute killer of a last line and from then on had the audience in the palm of his hand.

By the end of Justin's set, the weather had progressed from dreary to dismal, and although there were a couple of events still to go we decided to call it a day and retreat to a pub in Lymington to warm up and get a meal we could eat with a knife and fork (quite a novelty after three days of festivalling!).

All in all, this was a fantastic weekend, definitely as good as the previous two years. It's good to see the Curious Arts Festival growing in popularity, and great that it's already confirmed again for July 2017. The organisers are doing an excellent job of ironing out some of the little niggles that cropped up in 2014 and 2015, so all credit to them. I can't help hoping it doesn't get too much bigger, or more commercialised, as at the moment you rarely have to queue for anything and (apart from Billy Bragg on Saturday night), there's plenty of space for everyone to go and see whatever they like. As it stands, though, the festival has a real charm and I'm sure the organisers will try to preserve that.

We'll see how they do - I'm already planning to go again next year and make it four in a row!

The photos for this post were kindly supplied by my alter-ego, Foxlight Digital.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

The Curious Arts Festival 2016 - Part One

A quick detour this week from the A to Z of Writing series while I look back to what I got up to a fortnight ago. I know, I know, but that's how long it's taken me to find time to review and edit the photos and get around to writing this.

How very Curious...
For the third year in a row, my wife and I went to the Curious Arts Festival. Whether it's best described as a boutique festival or a slightly overgrown garden party is a matter for debate, but what's undeniable is that there's nothing quite like it anywhere else (or at least, not that I've heard of, and I tend to keep a look out for such things).

At heart, it's a literary festival, in part organised by the literary agency Conville & Walsh. Unlike other literary festivals, which tend to consist of different events spread around a town or village and paid for individually, the Curious Arts festival takes place in the grounds of a stately home and once you have your entry ticket/wristband you can go to pretty much everything that takes your fancy. In that respect it works more like a proper mud-and-wellies festival. Only instead of wellies there are books, and instead of mud there is gin and tonic. Or, you know, rum and ginger beer.

Thinking about books is thirsty work

The first event we went to was on the Friday afternoon, and was a fascinating talk and reading by Rupert Thomson. He's an author who's been on my radar for a while, having written an intriguing novel called Divided Kingdom, but this time he was talking about his new book, Katherine Carlyle. This is the story of a woman "created" via IVF who feels dislocated from her own life and believes part of this is due to the eight years she spent in suspended animation as a frozen embryo. The extract he read was compelling and I will definitely be catching up with some of his work before too long.

Rupert Thomson talking about his latest novel
In keeping with its festival vibe, Curious Arts features music in the evenings and Friday night was rounded off with a cracking performance by Lucy Rose. We'd seen her play in Wolverhampton a couple of years ago, supporting Bombay Bicycle Club. She was good then and even better now, mainly playing songs from her latest album and rocking out to a surprising (and very welcome) degree.


Normally we camp in the festival grounds but this year we opted to stay with my mum and stepdad, who now live about 25 minutes away from Pylewell Park. Although at times this meant we felt more like visitors than true festival diehards, it did mean we got to spend some time with the family and arrived on Saturday morning feeling somewhat fresher than might have been the case after a night under canvas. We made our way to the main tent to hear Meg Rosoff, an acclaimed children's / Young Adult author, talk about her first novel for adults, Jonathan Unleashed.

Rowan Pelling talking to Meg Rosoff
Meg has a sense of humour that somehow manages to be acerbic and warm at the same time. The extract she read was very funny, and the central theme of her book was appealing. Essentially it's the story of a guy who's totally unsuitable for both his job and his girlfriend, trying to work out where it all went wrong with the help of two of his brother's dogs. Meg said she drew on fifteen years working in advertising - a job she loathed but felt she couldn't risk walking away from - and has channelled all the frustrations of being in that industry into an offbeat, semi-romantic dark comedy. It sounds pretty good, so that's another book added to the list.

After a spot of lunch, we swam against the tide of the crowd flocking to see Celia Imrie and headed across to hear Andrea Wulf talk about her book The Invention of Nature. This was a bit of a wildcard selection as neither of us had heard of the book and only had a vague idea that we might have heard of Andrea before. But she'd won the non-fiction category of the Costa Prize so we figured it might be worth finding out about.

Rowan Pelling again, this time in conversation with Costa-winning biographer Andrea Wulf
It turned out to be a great decision. The Invention of Nature is the life story of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian polymath-scientist-adventurer in the 18th century who travelled throughout Europe, the Americas, and Russia, and brought new understanding about how nature works to the scientific community. It was revolutionary at the time and much of it holds true today, particularly Humboldt's prediction of humanity's damaging impact on the environment.

He seems a remarkable character; to him, everything was there to be studied and understood. Nothing was too remote or too dangerous. Electricity fascinated him, so much so that he travelled across the country to examine the bodies of a unfortunate couple killed by a lightning bolt, and roped in his mates for some decided risky experiments with electric eels! Many of his achievements are well known around the world, but he's almost unheard of in Britain, having been virtually edited out of history due to anti-German feeling here in the first half of the last century.

After that we went back to the main tent to hear SJ Watson and Renee Knight discuss their "domestic noir" thrillers - Before I Go to Sleep and Disclaimer, respectively.
Renee Knight talks about her domestic noir thriller, Disclaimer
(For some reason, both the pictures I took with SJ Watson in them turned out to be incredibly blurred. If you ever read this, Steve, you've not been edited out, just let down by technology!)
It was an interesting conversation from a writer's point of view, as both authors had a similar route to publication. They both took part in one of the Faber Academy's novel-writing courses, through which they met their respective agents, thus dodging the dreaded slush pile, and went on to have terrific success with their first published novel (they both confessed to having an unpublished / unpublishable one lurking in a bottom drawer).

Although I'm always interested to hear about how a writer has got into print, I couldn't help thinking their particular routes weren't typical examples, or at least, they're not the kind of route that's open to all that many aspiring writers. For instance, the Faber Academy course would set you back a not-insubstantial £4,000 and it's only really an option if you live in London. So, while it was interesting to hear about how life had changed for them both and the kinds of challenges a runaway success with your first book brings when it comes to writing the next one, the talk mostly just reinforced the impression I have that anything you can do to avoid the anonymous void of the slush pile is well worth the effort.

A bit later on, we caught most of Joanna Cannon's talk about The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. It was very popular and having missed the very start we couldn't quite squeeze into the tent, but what we heard was enticing enough for my wife to buy a copy of the book. She's reading and enjoying it now. Joanna had some thought-provoking things to say about the way people who are a bit different can quickly become scapegoats, and how a more accepting, open society actually works better for everybody.

Another highlight of the Curious Arts Festival is the comedy line-up. This section of the festival is apparently curated (a horribly overused phrase but probably the most apt in this case) by the comedian Simon Evans. He did a routine at the very first festival, and it proved so popular he has basically been saddled with the job of rounding up a mixture of new and established acts to entertain the literary crowd. A task he performs particularly well, it has to be said.

Simon Evans

Chris "Not from Coldplay" Martin

Zoe Lyons
On both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, some of the newer, younger comedians had a touch of the rabbit-in-the-headlights look about them as they came on stage and realised much of their material would have to be hastily reworked due to the number of young children clustered around the edge of the stage. I felt sorry for Chris Martin (emphatically not the one from Coldplay!), who got off to a very funny start but whose act was derailed somewhat by some older kids trying to throw their shoes over the roof of the tent. He opted for an "if you can't beat them, join them" approach that meant the rest of his routine was still funny, just not in the way he'd originally planned. I'm hopeful he did, eventually, get his shoes back. The highlight for me was probably Zoe Lyons, whose routine had me in stitches at times and who's made sure I'll never again be able to look at a Dyson hand-drier the same way.

While the main tent was being set up for the musicians, a very talented and athletic lady kept us entertained with some ribbon and hoop acrobatics, all while suspended from what looked like a partially assembled crane.

Aerial acrobatics outside the music tent
Amazing stuff. The strength she must have had in her arms and neck...

The evening drew to a close with a set by Billy Bragg. I've seen him a couple of times now and his music is always very enjoyable. With people able to buy tickets just for the evening, his performance was the busiest point in the entire festival. We didn't fancy joining the crush in the tent so we sat just outside, where we could at least hear him and occasionally catch a glimpse of the man himself by standing on tiptoe and peering into the marquee. But mostly we just sat and listened and watched the stars come out. A pretty good way to end the day, to be honest.

Well, when I started this I didn't realise I had this much to say. Rather than prattle on further, I'll end this here and write about Sunday in a follow-up post.

The photos for this post were kindly supplied by my alter-ego, Foxlight Digital.

Friday 29 July 2016

G is for... Genre

G was going to be for Grammar. But I've said quite a lot about that here (and here), and I'm trying not to go over too much old ground. So, G can be for Genre.

Genre is essentially a way of pigeonholing everything and manages to be simultaneously totally irrelevant and more or less fundamental to the world of writing. You can see why people put so much store in it from the response that always seems to follow you telling anybody you're a writer:
"Oh, really? What kind of thing do you write?"
There you have it.  It's the worst thing anybody can ask you in some ways, but in others it makes perfect sense. Is yours the kind of writing I'm likely to be interested in or not? It's a way of establishing where your books might sit in the bookshop. To some extent, it's a way of establishing who your readers are, although I'm never entirely sure that's a good idea.

I don't know how many people jump around the genres as much as I do when it comes to choosing something to read. I'll pretty much pick up anything, if it seems like it'll be worth my time and effort. So far I can't claim to have ventured into the murky world of, say, dinosaur erotica, but if I met someone who could recommend a title and make it sound compelling I'd probably give it a go. I'd like to think most people don't think of books as being divided into two camps - The Stuff I Know I Like and The Other Stuff - but sometimes I'm not so sure. You do find people who only ever read crime, or break out in hives if they leave the science fiction section of the bookshop. It can't be good to restrict your intake to that extent, but I suppose it limits your chances of being stuck with something you really don't get on with. A bit, at least. Surely it makes life pretty dull, though?

Some journals and magazine use genre as a sort of filter. The idea that modern "literary" fiction is a genre in itself doesn't seem to occur to the editors of these kinds of places. "No genre fiction", they'll cry in their submissions guidelines, with the sniffy assumption that a story with a robot or a monster as a character is automatically excluded from actually being any good. Sure, there's plenty of dross written in the sci-fi and horror realms, but it's no more prevalent there than anywhere else. I mean, some of the stuff that gets published purely because of its "literary" badge should really go and take a good long look at itself in the mirror, for a start.

Personally, I think that while the use of genre has its uses for readers, most writers would be better off ignoring it. Sitting down to write a story in a particular genre immediately saddles you with all sorts of baggage, conventions, clichés, and expectations that will start to shape your story before you've even written the first sentence. Put those aside and concentrate on the character or idea that fascinates you, and don't worry about what pigeonhole it ends up slotting into until after it's written. Because, really, who cares whether it turns out to be a western, a space opera, a historical yarn, or the tale of the forbidden (and anachronistic) love between a caveman and a rebellious young stegosaurus from the wrong side of the tracks? If it's a good story, it's a good story.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

F is for... Finishing

Finishing. Unsurprisingly, it's a very important part of getting a story published, or winning a prize in a competition. No editor is going to want to leave a blank page in their magazine or anthology so the readers can write out their own version of the ending.

So, you have to finish your story. That isn't to say it's even remotely easy to do. I'm sure I'm not alone in having dozens of abandoned stories lying around on my hard drive. Some of them are malformed and flimsy and should never see the light of day under any circumstances, but others are just unlucky - perhaps they got interrupted and I never quite found my way back into them, or I lost interest in them for some other reason.

Part of the problem, I think - and this is only my personal experience so I'd be interested to know whether anyone else feels the same - is that the process of getting through a story is something of an emotional rollercoaster. If I was to plot a simplified graph of confidence levels through a first draft, I'd end up with something like this:

Essentially, that's the journey through:
  • I've got an idea for a story, might be worth a go
  • Yes, you little beauty! This is gonna work.
  • Actually, I'm not sure about it now...
  • Oh god, what was I thinking? I'm the worst writer in the world.
  • Hmm, this might be OK after all...
  • Oh yeah, I'm the storymeister - this is straight-up genius!
  • Right, that's finished. I think. It's alright, isn't it? At least, it might be after a bit of editing.
That slump in the middle, where you start wondering where it's going, why all your characters sound the same, how you're ever going to wrestle the story back to the ending you had in mind when you started - that's the dangerous bit. That's where other ideas become irresistible, when you have that sudden urge to reorganise your bookshelves, when keeping going with the current story seems like the biggest waste of time imaginable. But the key is to keep that arse of yours firmly on the seat, and press on regardless.

For me, the main thing is to keep the momentum going. Plough on, resisting the urge to go back and tinker with the beginning, and get yourself a completed first draft before you do anything else. Don't worry about how ropey it is, or that your main character starts off as John with brown eyes but has changed to Stephanie with green eyes somewhere along the line. It's all fixable. Just get to the end.

I find that it's helpful to keep in mind that the first draft is only ever that - a first draft. It's the roughing-out, the quick sketch to suss out the proportions and the general shape. Don't aim for perfection - in fact, leaving it as loose and malleable as possible can be very useful indeed. And if you get stuck, skip a bit. Lots of my first drafts have notes like [FIND A WAY TO DEMONSTRATE LENNY'S FEAR OF DOGS PRIOR TO THIS POINT] or [CHECK WHETHER THERE ARE THREE OR FOUR PEOPLE IN THE CAR AT THE BEGINNING]. Anything to stop me getting bogged down, looking back over an incomplete draft and losing confidence in it.

If you're getting bored with what you're writing, for instance if you're having to set the scene for a more dramatic part of the story, it can be useful to simply rough out the basic flow of events with bullet points, and then get on with the exciting parts. When you come back to rewrite the scene, you may find that you don't need half as much detail as you first expected.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

E is for... Editing

Depending on your point of view, editing is either the worst, most tedious and soul-destroying part of writing, or it's the fun, rewarding bit where the story you actually meant to write rises out of the murky depths of your first draft. Or, I don't know, maybe you don't have a strong opinion either way. Whatever you think though doesn't change the fact that editing is an essential part of the process. What I'm planning to cover in this post is less of a technical guide to editing, but more of a suggestion for the kind of approach it needs, or at least, the type of mindset I find works best.

When I first started writing, the temptation to skip the edit was hard to resist. I would usually have another story idea waiting in the wings, and I'd be desperate to get started on that one, and the sooner I posted the story online the sooner I'd get feedback (this is back in the heady days of the BBC's Get Writing forum, when people seemed to be queueing up to review your work - providing you returned the favour, of course). It was easy to convince myself there was no point in revising a story before I'd found out what other people thought of it.

Once I'd got more confident with my writing I could see what a mistake this was. Often, I'd write something, it would collect a bunch of mostly positive reviews, and I'd think, OK, that's it done with. Most of the time, although I'd be pleased with the response, the story would effectively die there on the screen in front of me. It had served its purpose, by leading the way to those complimentary critiques, that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from people saying nice things about something you've written. And, once that had worn off, it was on to the next idea. Most of the stories I wrote during that phase have never been submitted anywhere, and probably never will.

The change came when I started pushing myself a bit. Writing things that didn't necessarily work in the usual ways, stories that needed an unusual structure or style. The reviews, the ones that counted at least, shifted in tone. They weren't so complimentary. People couldn't see what I was trying to do. I found that frustrating, but it didn't take long to realise they weren't "getting it" because I wasn't sure exactly what "it" was.

Taking time to work out what you've actually written may seem nonsensical - after all, you're the one who wrote it, surely you're going to have the best insight into it. But it's strange how often it doesn't work like that. Time is the important factor here, I think. It's easy to be working so close to something that you can't see its flaws. Step away for a few days - ideally while working on something else - and come back to your story only when you've forgotten as much as possible about it.

It always surprises me, when I pick up a story that's been "resting" a while, how obvious some of the faults have become. Often, when I'm working on the first draft or an initial rewrite, I'll be aware of something not quite working, but it'll be a challenge to put my finger on what that might be. Slot the first draft of another story in-between it and the critical part of my brain, and suddenly it's obvious. It might not be easy to fix, but at least I have a better idea of which area(s) need more work.

I think I've said on here before that a game I try to play with myself is to read a story I'm editing as though it was written by someone I can't stand, and imagine it's just won top prize in a competition I entered (and got nowhere). The task is to 'prove' what a terrible writer they are by pointing out all the reasons the story doesn't work, all the lazy descriptions, all the clichés. All the inconsistencies and typos.

It's amazing how often this works.

Monday 4 July 2016

D is for... Dull

Whatever you're writing, whoever you hope will end up reading it, the one thing you don't want to be is dull. This may be stating the obvious, but it's an easier trap to fall into than most people think. You might believe your work is edge-of-the-seat stuff, but it takes a lot of practice to get to the point where you can spot the bits where people's eyes might start to glaze over. Losing your reader's attention halfway through a story is a disaster for any self-respecting author.

Here are a few factors that might result in a reader skipping chunks of your hard-wrought prose or, worse, abandoning it altogether:

Too self-indulgent

We've all read novels where the author has clambered up onto his or her soapbox in order to proclaim their opinions on a given subject. If done well, these little diversions can be entertaining, but it's a very fine line between that and a tedious intrusion into the story that's both unwelcome and off-putting. By all means write with a message or a moral, but be careful of battering your reader over the head with it. Nobody likes being preached at.

Nothing happens

Short stories seem particularly prone to the curse of nothing happening, and the "literary" end of the spectrum seems to carry the biggest risk. For me, this is particularly frustrating, as if the writing is good, I tend to stick with it all the way to the end in the hope the writer has the skills to make the destination as rewarding as the journey itself. If the tale fizzles out with anything actually changing it all just feels like a big waste of time.

Sometimes nothing happening can be disguised by having a character thinking back to some event in their past, and the flashback explaining some element of their personality or the reason behind a decision. If the flashback is taken away and the story doesn't show the character making some kind of change in the 'current' timeline, then the flashback itself is the story, and the rest is just unnecessary bookending and should probably be cut.

Too repetitive, i.e. repeating yourself, saying the same thing twice or more often than necessary

Out of all the sins on this list, this is probably the one I'm most often guilty of. For me, it comes down to having the confidence that the reader will follow the story without me doubling back every once in a while to check they're keeping up. So I tend to over-compensate and often when I'm editing my first draft I'll be able to cut a lot of stuff because I've already said it. Give your reader credit - it can be worth mentioning something twice in a novel as people don't tend to read those all in one go, but in a short story most readers will be able to hold most of it in their heads without too many reminders.

Too much detail

I touched on this when I was talking about a story's cast, but obviously it applies to any aspect of the tale that can be described. Less is more, and when I was a new writer I found it difficult to get away from that nagging idea that a good author can describe anything (and so should do just that!). I can still go a bit heavy on description, but these days I'm aiming for an approach more like a sniper's rifle than a blunderbuss - focus on something very specific that gives a clear impression of a given thing, rather than trying to condense its entirety down to a few lines of text.

I'm always impressed by authors who can sum up the mood of something without actually describing it at all. Check out this description of an unattractive woman from James Lasdun's story, The Half-Sister (from the collection It's Beginning to Hurt):
Martin held her gaze a moment. Her face was really very strange - large and oval, with a propitiatory quality, like a salver on which certain curious, unrelated objects were being offered up for inspection.
Effective, isn't it - and it just goes to show that describing what somebody looks like is very different to describing how they look.

Characters you can't relate to

I saved the trickiest for last. There's no hard and fast rulebook for creating characters who'll resonate with readers, but it's worth putting effort into finding those special sparks that make the people you're writing about interesting for you, and bringing that right to the surface. Not caring about a character (particularly the main one) is the quickest way out of a story for a reader. Do they have to like them? Not necessarily. Does your main character have to be 'good'? Again, no - anti-heroes are perennially popular. But there has to be something about them, and to an important but lesser extent, about what they're trying to do, that people can engage with. If that's lacking, very few readers will stick around for long.

Have I missed anything? What else can authors do that triggers an attack of the yawns?

Sunday 19 June 2016

C is for... Cast

Originally, I'd planned to write about characters, or possibly characterisation, when I got to C. But those are pretty big subjects and I feel like my first too posts were on the lengthy side. So I'm going to scale back a bit and think about an element of writing that's in the same general area: that of your story's cast.

By cast, I mean the people (I'll call them that for simplicity - obviously they may be aliens, animals, bizarre scientific experiments, etc) who populate your story. The characters you use are the cogs in the machine; your story can only move forward if they, also, move and interact. It's stating the obvious to say that the number of characters will typically be small for a short story and bigger for a novel, although - as with everything - this isn't always the case.

When you're writing a story (of any length) it's important to ensure every character is there for a reason. It may be something obvious, like the wise old magician who sends your protagonist off on his or her quest, or the love rival in a romantic story, but they may also be playing a less obvious role. Maybe they are a passing acquaintance who inspires your protagonist to live a better life, or perhaps they only need to pop up at some point, deliver a key piece of information, and then play no further part in the story (take care with this kind of contrivance, though!).

I've seen many examples where a new writer has ended up with a story that's decidedly over-staffed. If the main character goes to buy sausages, you get a in-depth description of the butcher, his stubby-fingered hands, the stains on his coat, and the hairs sticking out of his ears. You're left feeling like you'd recognise this guy if you ran into him in real life, but the only reason the writer has included him at all is that they don't have the confidence to just let their protagonist buy sausages and have the reader imagine the scene themselves. If nothing happens in the butcher's shop that affects the rest of the story, then really there's no point spending time establishing the butcher as a living, breathing character. And I think that's a good test for whether somebody belongs in a story or not - if you could take him or her out and not alter the flow of the plot in any way, then you're probably better off without them.

I often think of it in terms of a film poster. The stars - the characters who appear on the poster and/or the ones for whom the actors' names appear before the title in the small text at the bottom - are the ones you should spend the most time fleshing out. Those who don't get a mention on the poster but are named in the credits are second-tier characters, who probably need a bit of well-chosen description but shouldn't be allowed to take up too much space. Finally you have those 'background' characters, whose screen-time is limited and appear in the credits as Girl on Bus, or Second Gang Member. These are the ones you have to look at very carefully when it comes to written prose. Are you sure you need to tell the reader what they're wearing? Will it really make a difference if you don't give them a name? Do they need to be there at all? Most of the time, the answer will be 'No'.

But can a story have too few characters? I think you have to be careful if you are writing a story where there's only one significant person. Somebody sitting alone with their thoughts is almost always unbelievably tedious. My preference is for at least one other person to be there, even if it's only in flashback or on the other end of a phone. I've not written many stories that have somebody entirely on their own, and even in Last of the Sand Dragons you could argue that the sea itself is a character, of sorts.

I'd be really interested to hear of any examples of successful short stories that have a huge cast of characters, or any that have a solitary protagonist and manage to avoid being dull and introspective.

Sunday 12 June 2016

B is for... Beginnings

Beginnings. Arguably the most important part of a novel, and almost certainly the most important part of a short story, the beginning is worth getting right.

It's hardly worth saying that the main purpose of the beginning of a story is to hook the reader. This advice is trotted out so often it's become something people say without really giving a lot of thought to what it actually means.

All too often, this advice gets over-simplified, to the point where the suggestion becomes that all stories should start right in the middle of the action, your main character hitting the ground running, with the clock ticking and danger all around. If you need to explain how he or she got into this situation then do it through flashbacks, later on in the story. Otherwise, you risk losing the story's momentum - and with it your reader's interest.

Like all writing advice, this works some of the time. Thrillers, particularly, often benefit from a pacey start where there's not much exposition to slow things down. For other stories, though, this approach just doesn't work. Not every story can (or should) be an adrenaline-fuelled page-turner.

So, instead of necessarily looking to hook the reader, I tend to try to think about it in terms of drawing them in. The difference, I'd say, between the two is that with a hook, you read on because you want to find out what happens; when a book draws you in, you read on because you don't even realise you're reading. This is a sign that the writer really knows what they're doing.

Let's look at some examples of what I consider successful opening sections...

Firstly, here's how The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall begins:
My name is Sister.

This is the name that was given to me three years ago. It is what the others called me. It is what I call myself. Before that, my name was unimportant. I can't remember it being used. I will not answer to it now, or hear myself say it out loud. I will not sign to acknowledge it. It is gone. You will call me Sister.

I was the last woman to go looking for Carhullan.
At first, this seems like a variation on Moby Dick's famous "Call me Ishmael" first line. But there's more to it than that. The insistence with which the narrator is talking about her name being "unimportant" and "gone", suggests something very significant has occurred. Also, the defiance of a line like "You will call me Sister" gives a strong suggestion of who this woman is, and hints at her relationship with the character she is addressing, in this case the faceless authority who acts as a stand-in for the reader.

Also, consider the questions this brief section poses: Why was this narrator "given" such a generic name? Who gave it to her? What happened three years previously that made her give up her old name (and, by implication, her old life)? Who is she talking to? Who/What/Where is Carhullan? - All of these are reasons for the reader to keep reading.

Next up, the start of The Resurrectionists by James Bradley:
In their sacks they ride as in their mother's womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this a second conception. A rope behind the knees to hold them thus, another to bind their arms, then the mouth of the sack closed about them and bound again, the whole presenting a compact bundle, easily disguised, for to be seen abroad with such a cargo is to tempt the mob.
For me, the effect of this paragraph is twofold. Firstly, the writing has such a pleasing, poetic rhythm that it is hard to resist being swept up in it. Secondly, the sinister overtones of the prose, the way it shifts from the dead bodies riding along - a weirdly jolly image, in some ways - to the description of them being a "bundle", or "cargo", pulls the reader up short. This is a task, a business, and it's not without its dangers - as the mention of tempting "the mob" confirms.

This opening doesn't pose as many questions as the previous extract, but for me at least the author's control of language means that doesn't matter. This is a writer you can trust, the opening says. It doesn't need the bells and whistles of a race against time or an intriguing mystery to make you want to keep reading.

And finally, here's the opening of Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood:
I'm writing this in a stranger's room on a broken chair at an old school desk. The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still. The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back. Just now I thought I saw it move, but it's dry as a husk and must've died long before I came.
This one has more in common with the Sarah Hall extract, in that it poses a series of questions. In essence, the book opens with a pretty unremarkable scene - a person sitting at a desk, writing. But there's an undercurrent in the way it's written that makes it clear there's more to it than that. The need for the writer to keep still, to avoid making any noise (and presumably avoid detection) gives the whole passage an air of mystery, and the detail of the long-dead beetle provides an element of menace.

So that's a few examples of openings done well. It's always interesting to unpick the way a writer starts a novel, or a story, and try to work out why it's successful (or not!).

Do you have any favourite first paragraphs - opening sections that really made it impossible not to keep reading?

Friday 3 June 2016

A is for... Adverbs

Adverbs. Ask any writing 'expert' for advice about writing style and sooner or later - usually sooner - the issue of adverbs will crop up. The expert will lean forward, as though letting you in on some great secret. "The thing about adverbs," he or she will say, pausing for dramatic effect, "is that you must never, ever use them." Then they'll settle back in their seat, beaming with pride whilst you soak up their great wisdom.

Adverbs, it seems, have been out of fashion for longer than anyone can remember. And the "No Adverbs" rule is one of those little nuggets that People Who Write can dish out whenever they feel it's necessary to assert their superior status over People Who Don't Write, or People Who Are Learning How to Write. As a result, it's become more or less accepted that only the most bumbling amateur would use an adverb in a story, let alone two or more. People on writing sites across the globe point and laugh whenever somebody includes a phrase like "she walked slowly". "She walked slowly?" they'll cry. "You mean she shuffled, or crept, or sauntered, or trudged. Real writers use strong verbs - don't you even know that, you giant idiot?"

The source of this anti-adverbism seems to be the muscular, stripped-down prose of writers like Ernest Hemmingway. In fact, there's an online app called Hemmingway that'll pick over your prose and weed out the adverbs, as well as shaming you into getting rid of all your other filthy writing habits too. You'll be left with clear, stark writing, free of any floweriness. Which will mean you'll be a better writer, right?

Well, consider this:
Our days together speed past, eaten up by housework, shopping, cooking, little trips to the park. Bunty and I stroll around immaculately clipped bowling-greens and sit on benches wistfully watching small children being pushed on swings and she'd be quite happy to stay there all day but when I say, 'Come on, it's time we were getting home,' she gets up obediently and trots by my side.
That's, what, three adverbs in the space of just one little paragraph? It can only be the work of a terrible wannabe author, who has a lot to learn before he or she can even dream of getting published.

Not exactly. It's an extract, taken more or less at random, from Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. A book that was hugely successful, scooped up plenty of awards, and remains popular 20 years after it first hit the shelves. I'd imagine the majority of those 'experts' parroting the No Adverbs rule would be more than happy with Ms Atkinson's sales figures.

The point I'm trying to make is that remembering "rules" doesn't make you a better writer. It's fine to use an app like Hemmingway if you want your prose to end up, well, like Hemmingway's. That's no bad thing, of course, but would the world of literature be better if everybody wrote like Hemmingway? Would going out for a meal be better if every restaurant only cooked Italian food?

Adverbs can be over-used, and they can make writing flabby and ineffectual. But they can be useful. They can create particular effects (humour, for example), and they can give your writing a unique sense of identity. The trick is to think carefully whenever you use one. Is it absolutely necessary? Is it pulling its weight in this sentence? Is there a better way of getting this idea across?

And in that regard, they're exactly the same as any other type of word.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

An A to Z of Writing

I'm struggling at the moment to find sufficient material to update this blog with anything even approaching regularity. A combination of day job busy-ness, seemingly endless DIY projects, a holiday, and all manner of other non-writing activities eat away at my time. Focusing on hammering the novel into shape rather than working on (and submitting) short stories means I'm not generating a lot of "news", either. I'm sure a weekly blog update of which page I'd been polishing recently and how many times I'd submitted a maybe for a perhaps - before changing it back again - would drive away the few blog readers I have in a very short space of time.

To try to avoid falling out of the habit of blogging entirely, I've decided to start a project unrelated to anything I'm working on, but which I hope will still be of at least passing interest to people. It's an A to Z of writing. Not, I admit, the most original premise of all time, but I'm hopeful I can bring a new viewpoint to some of the topics I have in mind, and as a series it seems like something achievable alongside all the other stuff currently on the go. If I run out of steam before I get anywhere near the end we can all just agree it was a bad idea from the start and forget all about it, right? Splendid.

Stay tuned for A, coming soon. It's for Adverbs. Please wait patiently.

Thursday 28 April 2016

Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

One of the reasons it's been so quiet here over the last few weeks is because I entered my novel for the Bath Novel Award. It was perhaps a little premature as I'm still editing parts of it, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss as the judge - Susan Armstrong of Conville & Walsh - genuinely seemed to be open to any genre. I've found that to be quite a rare thing in novel competitions. Often the contest organisers will say they don't have any particular theme or genre preferences, but when you look at the judge's profile (they're typically a literary agent) it's often the case that they'll say they're not interested in crime, or romance, or - in the case of my book - science fiction. So I thought it was worth a go, even if it resulted in some frantic last-minute editing and proofreading (the full manuscript is only called in if you make the longlist).

The longlist went up yesterday, and A Man Repeated was not among those chosen titles. By that point I was almost hoping it wouldn't be, as I was beginning to doubt I could deliver the finished book in time, but it was still very disappointing to discover my opening chapters hadn't caught the readers' eye. From the sounds of things, literary, historical, and Young Adult fiction reign supreme this year - or at least, those appear to be the type of book favoured by the initial readers who've compiled the longlist. Still, I'm in good company - over a thousand other writers also fell short at this stage of the contest. (Which makes me realise this competition has taken in well over £22,000 in entry fees - wow)

So, slightly relieved, mostly gutted, I took to Twitter to see how other people were responding to the longlist's publication. I was pleased that one of the first tweets I saw on the subject was this one:

Because that's exactly what I was planning on making myself do (after a small amount of sulking and a cup of tea). It's easy to convince yourself, when you get a knockback like failing to make the longlist of a competition, that you're wasting your time and you'll never get over all the various hurdles between not having a book deal and being a published author. But, as so many people have said, the only way to fail is to stop trying. Instead, you need to embrace the Galaxy Quest-sourced title of this post, and just plough on regardless.

While I had this in mind, I spotted that my friend Karen had posted the video below on Facebook. I thought it worked as a great metaphor for this whole business of trying to get your writing published/accepted/noticed. As the clip shows, no matter whether you're a small dog hoping to get onto a comfy sofa, or a hopeful author striving to get your book into Waterstones, the only thing to do is to keep trying...

... because, eventually, you'll get where you want to be. And all that effort will be worthwhile.

Thursday 24 March 2016

One Street Corner Too Soon at The Berko Speakeasy

Real life and the day job have got in the way of writing and blogging lately; I started this post about three weeks ago and am only now getting the chance to finish it off. Still, last month proved that in the world of writing what you have done often has more of an impact than what you are doing.

In fact, so far 2016 seems to be The Year of the Old Stories - with The Boatman (originally written in 2012 for a ghost story competition in The Times) finding a home at 101 Words, Last of the Sand Dragons (the first draft of which was completed in, I think, 2010) winning second place in the HE Bates Competition, and then One Street Corner Too Soon (published in The Guardian in 2009) getting another go in the spotlight courtesy of the Berko Speakeasy.

The secret life of stories fascinates me. Once something's published, it's entirely out of your hands, and although you can help raise its profile for a little while, all too soon it tends to sink out of sight. But it's never entirely gone and, occasionally, a story will unexpectedly bob back up again, and this was the case with One Street Corner Too Soon.

One of the organisers of the Berko Speakeasy, the novelist and performer Julie Mayhew, contacted me on Twitter at the start of the year, asking whether I would give permission for the story to be read out at their next event, which was to be "a short story antidote to the schmaltz of Valentine's Day". I'd never heard of the Berko Speakeasy, so I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, but it didn't seem like a huge risk. So I said yes. As soon as I saw the other authors on the list - Graham Greene, Lucia Berlin, Lorrie Moore, Mark Haddon - I thought there'd been some dreadful mistake and I'd been mixed up with a properly famous writer. But no, it really was my story they wanted. Needless to say, I was honoured to be lining up alongside such well respected writers, and slightly terrified that One Street Corner would end up looking very much like the runt of the litter.

Inside the Greene Room, ready for some short fiction

I was surprised at how busy it was - the Speakeasy has been going a while and has a dedicated following. In fact, the tickets for this one had sold out before the promotional posters had even been printed. It's not hard to see why. The actors who do the readings are excellent, the stories are very well curated, the venue is ideal, and the attention to detail with the decorations and other touches really make it a special event.

One Street Corner was in the capable hands of the actor Alex Wingfield. He did a great job with the story, despite some of the awkwardly constructed sentences that I'd edit out if I needed to read it aloud. I deliberately didn't read it again before going along to the Speakeasy, to experience it as close to "fresh" as possible. I was pleased with how well it was received (lots of credit to Alex for his timing and the clarity of his reading) - the bits that were meant to be funny got laughs, the bits that weren't didn't, and it didn't stick out like a sore thumb amongst the other stories, much to my relief.

What struck me was that the story seemed quite dated. It's always been set in the late 1990s, i.e. my student days, which when I first wrote it didn't seem all that long ago. Now, with its references to mix tapes and import singles, and not even a passing mention of social media, it really seems like something from another age. It made me feel old but, still, I enjoyed the sense of nostalgia it left me with.

The next Berko Speakeasy will run on 8th June 2016.

Saturday 6 February 2016

Second Place at the H E Bates Short Story Competition

I'm very pleased to announce I've been awarded second prize in the H. E. Bates Short Story Competition for my story Last of the Sand Dragons.

If you'd like to read the story, it's online over on the competition site, here, alongside the winning entry by Louise G Cole.

I've entered the H.E. Bates competition a few times, and I've been pretty lucky - the first time I entered I was shortlisted, the second time (in 2013, when it was themed rather than open) I bagged the top spot, and now I have a second prize to add to the trophy cabinet. I may be biased, but it seems like a pretty good competition - well organised, reasonably priced, and the top prize is a not-to-be-sniffed-at £500. 2015 was the eleventh consecutive year of the competition, although it was originally established in the 1970s.

This year the judge was the prolific writer and blogger Morgen Bailey. In her introductory speech, Morgen said she'd had a tough job deciding between the top two stories. As the eventual runner-up, I'm never sure whether this is a good thing to know or not! I guess it's good to be in contention for the main prize rather than being completely outclassed, but missing out by a whisker still feels a bit gutting.

Either way, I'm very happy to have finally scored a hit with Last of the Sand Dragons. It's a story I wrote quite a long time ago and it's been out to probably more than its fair share of competitions. It made it onto several shortlists and was highly commended in at least one, but never quite made it onto the winners' podium. In between each attempt, I'd always find something to change about the story - sometimes fairly big changes like taking it from first- to third-person perspective, or going from past to present tense, sometimes just minor tweaks to wording. I'm glad I persevered with it, as it's always been a story I thought was worth telling, although with effectively only one character and no dialogue, it was never going to be an easy sell.

There's always a feeling that you can over-edit a story, and I've had a few that have definitely started to come apart at the seams when I've tried to cut too much or restructure too radically. But sometimes, it's worth giving it just one last go...

Monday 1 February 2016

When Anonymity Backfires

or The Curious Case of the Costa Short Story Award

Anyone who's followed this blog for a while will know I'm a staunch supporter of anonymity in writing competitions, especially the big ones. If a judge or a reader knows nothing about the author, then the decision of whether or not it's a good story can only be down to, well, how good a story it is. And that's how it should be, by my reckoning at least.

This is one reason I particularly like the Costa Short Story Award. They take anonymity very seriously, with any possible 'leaks' as to the identity of the writers on the shortlist investigated and "dealt with" quickly (I've spoken to one of the shortlisted authors from the 2013 award and the level of scrutiny you're under during the public vote sounds vaguely terrifying). The organisers seem to go to impressive lengths to ensure that when the public votes on the shortlist, the stories are arranged on as level a playing field as possible.

But I didn't vote for any of the stories this time around. I've voted in all the previous years, and encouraged other people to read the shortlist and pick their favourite. Generally, the stories are pretty good, and I think the CSSA's ethos of letting the writing do the talking should be supported and encouraged. So what was different this year?

The problem was that as soon as I started reading the first entry on the list, I knew who'd written it. Not because I had any kind of special insight into the judging process or privileged insider knowledge, but because the story pretty much picked up from where one of the shortlisted entries from 2013 ended. The writing style was exactly the same, the (distinctive) location was the same, even the same characters were involved.

Now, the CSSA has had the same authors appear on successive shortlists before. In 2014, both Sheila Llewellyn and Angela Readman made it into the top six for the second year in a row. But that was for entirely different stories about different things told in very different styles (particularly in the case of Angela Readman). So that didn't seem like an issue, because I doubt anybody could have guessed who these writers were and there was no easy way to find out.

This time around, things were different. All the previous shortlisted stories are available on the Costa website, so it only took a couple of clicks to go back to the 2013 result and confirm my suspicions. The two stories were like different episodes of the same TV show, and it was clear they had been written by the same person.

I kept quiet, although the urge to find out whether anybody else had noticed was strong. What annoyed me was that having such a readily identifiable author on the list undermined the concept of anonymity. I felt I couldn't be objective or fair about the competition, so I decided I wouldn't vote. I try not to put my conspiracy theory hat on too regularly, but I started to wonder at what had gone on behind the scenes at Costa. Had an exception been made for this author? Was some kind of favouritism at work? I hoped not, but there was no way of knowing, and to me the competition seemed a little tainted by the whole thing.

So after the results were announced last week everything was out in the open, and I could finally ask about what had gone on. It quickly became clear I wasn't the only person who'd noticed. Via Twitter, I got in touch with the Costa and pointed out that for anyone with a decent enough memory, one of the writers hadn't been anonymous at all. They were pretty helpful, and via an exchange of tweets, the following became clear:
  1. The admin team who processed the entries saw the authors' names but they didn't read the stories.
  2. The filter readers and the judges who did read the stories didn't see the authors' names but because they hadn't read / didn't remember the 2013 shortlist, they didn't spot the issue.
  3. When the (anonymous) shortlist was announced, the problem may have been revealed to the organisers, but by then it would be unfair to exclude the story as it had earned its place on the shortlist via the blind judging stage.
I think I trust the Costa organisers on this, and that the episode has demonstrated a potential pitfall of their strict anonymity rule. They say they're changing the rules for the 2016 prize to avoid this situation cropping up again, so it'll be interesting to see how they word that.

In the end, then, it comes down to the author choosing to submit a story strikingly related to one that had already been published under her name and was still readily accessible online. When you consider she'd previously experienced the anonymity controls Costa require, it seems a strange decision to submit something that effectively undermines all that. It doesn't appear to have done her any harm, as this time around she won a prize, but to me it doesn't feel entirely in the spirit of the competition, and I can't help wondering whether some of the people who voted for the story knew exactly who they were supporting. There's no way of knowing, of course, and I'm not suggesting any underhand tactics by the author herself. I'm just curious.

What do you think? Should competitions with a policy of anonymity discourage or even ban writers from submitting work that can reasonably be traced back to them? What should happen if this issue turns up again?