It hasn’t really been a week for getting much writing done as most of it was spent in the wonderful city of Edinburgh where I combined a day of intensive research with another couple of days of equally intensive sight-seeing. So what if those pesky pandas were taken off show? Everything else came up trumps including, remarkably the weather.
Of course the one day I had to spend in the National Library of Scotland (lunch-break spent with last week’s blog guest Jane - her book is out now, don’t ya know) was never going to be enough. I had also hoped to spend some time in the City Library finding out more about Victorian Edinburgh but somehow that just didn’t happen. Still, I did get a lot out of my trip and it made me realise there’s more than one purpose (or outcome) to research.
In the end most of my time was spent studying the letters of D.O. Hill, and although this began as an exercise in establishing facts (who did he write to, when and about what) I realise by the end that since I am after all writing fiction, it wasn’t so much about getting to the truth as finding inspiration, in particular ideas for the kinds of things going on in his life in the years that general histories of photography have ignored. And then there were insights into his family life, the part played by sisters, cousins and aunts, and the warm relations he maintained with his late wife’s family, in some ways as close to him as his own. So in the end I did learn a lot about Edinburgh in the 1840s and 50s since these primary sources brought home the reality of the extended Victorian family and other aspects of life more vividly than any text book.
looking towards Fife from Arthur’s Seat
For instance, who would have thought that travellers routinely walked from Queensferry to Dunfermline? But when I checked the distance it is actually 7 miles. Perfectly walkable. But who would do it now?
Meanwhile - I may not have mentioned here that I recently had a suprise win in the Southville Writers Flash Fiction contest (my entry’s here) and last night was delighted to accept my prize of a copy of Jo Reed’s Tyranny of the Blood and vouchers for a certain online bookstore. Now it’s time to get my head down. As for the book I spotted in the NLS book shop and was too mean to buy. I feel a spot of self-indulgence coming on.
Interrupting my current musings/rants on blogging to report on a Grand Day Out provided by Get Writing Conference 2011 and to say that my efforts to get there (2hrs 40 mins in never-ending downpour) were rewarded with an extremely well-organised day, some excellent speakers, and (roll of drums) – third prize in the short story competition.
When this was announced I was busy with mental preparations for the pitching session to follow, and found myself distinctly unprepared for the moment of glory, not to mention applause and photocall (knew I should have had that hair cut!) but I’m really grateful to the judges for choosing Every Day a Washing Day. Anyone who has read – or goes on to read - the story might like to know it commemorates our baby son Andrew who died at 4 months and who would have been, yes, 26 this year. It’s not something I have often explored in writing but I make no apology for doing so. It also goes to show – I hope — that if you can apply the craft to the initial inspiration, therapeutic writing is not without literary merit. I’m not sure of the rules, but it would be nice if the third place leads to publication either in an anthology or on a website so that eventually the story will be read more widely. I’m also hoping I’ll get the chance to read the first and second prize-winners some time.
Yes, this Sue Cook
As to the day itself, I managed to clamber from the back of the auditorium without falling over in front of anyone to get my certificate from Sue Cook - and a second time to get the photo done. Two more good results!
For those who like to study the competition runes, Every Day numbered 975 words in a comp with a word limit of 2000, another argument for not worrying too much about word limits.
Mouse Years has just been posted on the Brighton COW (that’s Community of Writers, by the way) website. It has now been published in Scribble Magazine and was short-listed by Exeter Writers’ Circle earlier this (oops, last) year. So if you feel like something light-hearted (and definitley non-scientific) , do take a look. And for a complete contrast, read the winning story, After the Storm, by Catriona Stewart. It’s beautifully done with a most pleasing outcome.
But my prize for short story of the week (which I have just invented) goes to Tania Hershman’s We are All Made of Protein but Some of us Glow More than Others. The story was commissioned to increase understanding of bio-medicine. I found it absolutely mesmerising and although I still know very little about GFP (that’s green fluroescent protein) and the jellyfish from which it was first isolated, I feel I have gained an insight into the processes of research as it progresses from the dawning of an idea through the gathering of data to the many tests that may one day result in the discovery of something new and potentially life-changing.
To be honest after two readings, I’m not sure I have quite pinned this story down. But maybe that’s the point.
I consider myself more a reader of novels than of short stories, but just as I have found time for writing short fiction, I am also learning to give it a place in my reading schedule – and for pleasure as well as for ’educational purposes’. For this I am also developing some rules, e.g. I don’t want to read more than around 1500 words from a conventional screen, and so until someone buys me an e-reader, I’m unlikely to read a longer short story I find on the web. Even if it looks tempting, printing it involves a trip downstairs – which sadly could be enough to put me off.
I’m much happier with literary magazines, whose stories usually vary in length and are perfect for a bus journey or a night when I’m between novels, and the annual volumes of winning stories from the bigger short story prizes are also a good investment for entertainment value and for getting a clue as to what judges might be looking for (although not forgettting that the following year the judges will probably be different!)
Up to now I haven’t gone for short story collections by a single author, but am thinking it might be time to put some on my Christmas list, and so if Santa is listening, please send me any (or all!) of these: - Tania Hershman’s White Road, Vanessa Gebbie’s Storm Warning, or Tom Vowler’s The Method (both of these from the admirable Salt Publishing)
Meanwhile I do have the latest Yellow Room Magazine to keep me going, with a particularly nice cover this time, and (just spotted!) some very complimentary comments on Blue-Sky Thinking (which appeared in the previous issue) from an accalimed short story writer and teacher - (and this year a novelist too) . Thanks Sally!
And in a final piece of good news, I heard at the weekend that Mouse Years (soon to be published in Scribble) is also in the final ten of the Brighton COW short story competition.
It turns out I’m not in the prizes, but the story may be read out on hospital radio, come the day. I must say I rather like the idea of its bringing a smile to the sick people of the South East. Assuming they like it, of course!
Forget bakewells, victorias, roulades and other members of the Great British Bake-Off, if you want to raise a smile, try the humble scone. First of all there was Alexander McCall Smith’s The Unbearable Lightness of Scones . I don’t think I have actually read it, but being familiar with the tenor of the Scotland Street novels, I know that that if I did I would munch through it voraciously and might even have room for another, in contrast to the struggle I had with its heavy-weight predecessor, which I started many years ago but despite my love of Prague never finished.
The scone effect is also at work in Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones by Bobbie Darbyshire (Sandstone Press 2010). I heard about the author and the publisher in the latest Leaf Magazine (yes, I’m in the next issue) and having a vested interest in Scottish publishers, rushed off to have a look. On the site I found not just the scone book, but also Tell Me Where You Are by Moira Forsyth, an author whose two previous books I loved and whom I didn’t know had written a third. Needless to say both titles were ordered and arrived a few days ago.
Judging by the first few chapters, LRBS lives up to its promise of light-hearted mayhem centred on Inverness Public Library. Yes, you are already getting the picture. Of the three main characters, Peter is a failed poet, Elena is an exiled Spaniard with an old score to settle and Henry is, well, just Henry, middle-aged and living in a world where dreams are destined to crumble. It’s perhaps stretching things just a tad to have Peter and Henry as brothers and Elena and Peter to be looking for the same person and there is a strong whiff of Ayckbourn farce (complete with revolving doors) in the goings-on in the Reference Room on the night of the writing workshop. But then suspension of disbelief isn’t a problem, particularly in the company of Peter whose thoughts are as garrulously inventive as befits a frustrated wordsmith.
As for the scones, so far no sign of them, buttered or otherwise. But as it happens I might be able to summon up a few of the real thing. Last week the National Trust promised a cream tea to the best NT ‘poem’ tweeted on the day and hey presto my rhyming couplet took the prize. And so my own helping of scones is hopefully in the post!
Since the lovely people at Leaf Books have seen fit to commend me for my ‘short travel writing’ piece submitted in August, it seems only fair to celebrate Kilcreggan , the obscure but enchanting place where it began.
To go next to the article when it’s published in Issue 3 of their magazine, Leaf would also like me to submit a further 200 words (max) on how it came to be written. Which is a tiny bit ironic, as after reading isue 2, I concluded I could do with less of these ‘author commentaries’ as they call them, and a bit more actual writing.
Of course I am the last person to complain about being given a platform – far from it! But I’m not convinced that short (300 max) pieces require this kind of writerly reflection, or that navel-gazing on my part will be of much benefit to the readers. Or maybe I’m just painfully aware that my own article won’t really live up to detailed exegesis? (Oooh, a word I had almost forgotten!) The fact is I went there, I loved it, but the atmosphere was a little strange. Which is what I hope I conveyed in the writing. And so it looks like my follow-up submnission could be brief. Let’s hope that’s what the readers would prefer.
Meanwhile three cheers for Kilcreggan, which will soon have featured in three blog posts, a scene in my latest novel, and now a writing magazine. Small place, big impact!
Thanks again to bicameral for the photo, much better than any of mine.
It has only recently occurred to me that I should think before submitting work to absolutely any magazine or competition who will have me, but when Slingink announced they were unable to award prize money for their July competition, I did stop and work out that if they selected me as a prizewinner , the story would get published; a nice gesture, but one that would earn me nothing and prevent me from entering it into other more profitable competitions or sending it to a commercial publisher. As a result I did withdraw that particular story , in the hope it might do better elsewhere.
Since then Slingink (which began as a spin-off from an Open University fiction writing course) have selected two other stories of mine for publication in the All Shorts e-zine. One of these stories is Preparing for Winter which has already won two prizes and looked like being a ‘banker.’ But I earn no money for it in this case, and so it looks like its earnings potential my have come to a (premature?) end. But even if this is a small circulation mag with limited publicity, I don’t feel too despondent. Hey – I have two more short stories selected for publication and there are still some competitions which accept published work. The e-zine is also available in print via Lulu and looks rather nice, and so if If anyone is interestedin reading Preparing for Winter and Talking to Amy, All Shorts costs just £3 + postage, or you can download it and read it free here. Look out for some nice formatting and illustrations. More importantly, time to move on and write something else. For all I know, there’s another, better, money spinner holed up in my head.
It has been a busy week, but thanks to i-player I’m catching up with the series of short stories going out on Radio 4 all from ‘debut’ writers called Opening Lines. The first of these (Horse, by Emma Greengrass) is an afffectionate portrait of an elderly lady. It ticks all the short story boxes but falls short, I think, of the wow factor. I much prefer Jon Pinnock’s The Amazing Arnolfini and his Wife, broadcast yesterday, about a husband and wife tightrope walking team, ten minutes of pure entertainment.
Adding a quick update. Heather Reid’s Kiss is also great . But then the heroine’s voice bears a striking resemblance to someone I know quite well. And the writing is lovely. And the ending is very (but not too) neat. Another class act.
Two years ago I was short-listed for the Winchester Conference short story prize and this year was a bit disappointed when my entry didn’t get anywhere. But one nice thing about Winchester is that every entry (winner or ‘loser’) gets feedback from one of the judges. Mine arrived today and this year it is not in the form of a scoresheet which makes interesting reading in itself.
My story was scored on nine aspects: opening, title, plot/theme,action/pace, characters, entertainment quotient, dialogue, language and ending. I scored highest on title, plot, action and ending and was above average in everything else, although I was disappointed not to have done better on character and dialogue. But if 138 points out of 230 looks a bit lacklustre (and certainly not amongst the prizes) my anonymous marker described it as ‘an amusing well-paced tale’ and he/she took the trouble to add comments to some of the allocations so that the feedback has a personal touch. I’d also like to think that my score of 20 on the language scale (for “flashes of originality give it an extra sparkle”) is actually what I aimed to achieve, although “smooth and easy to read” would have scored higher!
I think it does help to have this kind of rubric, not just so that the writer can focus on what might need attention, but also to introduce a degree of uniformity in the response each writer gets. Instinctively I’m against reducing a piece of creative writing (especially my own!) to a tick-box score, but I’m also of the view that writing can be taught, in which case I have to concede it can be assessed.
This week Sarah Duncan puts forward the view that no writing is worthy of publication unless it scores 70% . Sounds good to me, just a shame that mine is languishing (searches for calculator) at a mere 60. Still it did get shortlisted here, so not entirely a lost cause!
On a different tack. I’ve just added a new page to the site. Two posts and a page already this week. Possibly a record!
For people like me whose short stories come few and far between, one of the bugbears is getting the word-count right. Now that my new baby is down to 2,750, nearly all the upcoming competitions want 2000 max. – and there’s only so much editing that can be done before the thing loses its character. Delving in the drawer yields a couple of likely 1000 worders: snappy enough, but probably not going to cut the mustard amongst meatier competition.
The answer, of course, is to write more short stories and to vary the length so as to always have ‘one I made earlier’ ready to hand. Until I manage this state of grace, I’m stuck with a stable that falls mainly between 2000 and 3000. Luckily there’s the Bristol Prize to go for (3000) and I’m grateful to the Frome Festival (where I had success two years ago) for allowing 2,200 this year. I can probably find one that will just squeeze under the wire.
Generally I think word-counts are decreasing. Mslexia this year also went down to 2200, and only the ‘biggies’ (Bridport and Fish) are holding out for 5000. It would be nice to think there is a literary rationale behind this, but one suspects the saving in time (for judging) and paper (for printing the winners) might have something to do with it. For really short stories (under 1000) the future is brighter. The short form is ideal for reading from the screen and so there are lots of outlets on the web. This month The Yellow Room Magazine also has a special prize for a story under 800. In fact its main competition is 2,500 and it will accept up to 5000 for other submissions. It’s good to see one of the smaller players offering real variety.
All over the world, bloggers, (with the exception of the indefatigable Bransford – but hey, he’s at least 7 hours behind) are shutting up shop and I should be too, but when writing gets pushed to one side a quick post reminds me I’m still a writer (and is a damned sight easier than a chapter of edits!)
It’s a bit early for New Year resolutions, but if there’s something you’ve decided to do, why wait for a particular moment to let it be known? On the desktop of my new(ish) laptop I’m actually provided with gadget that sits at the top of the screen which is probably the best aide memoir I have, so instead of any grand pronouncements here’s what’s on my writing to do list for the first month or so of 2010.
- Finish off those edits and get v2 of The Water’s Edge ( first 20,000 on) up on to Authonomy and out to a few other critics who will tell me how they find Ailsa now told in the third person (and with a few significant plot tweaks).
- Revamp an old piece of memoir (stripping it of self-conscious verbiage) for Leaf Books next competition
- Maybe even write up my joke piece for same
- Find a home – any home – for a short short story completed months ago that’s still sitting around waiting to be read.
Lastly, but most excitingly, to send in an entry for the South West Writers Mentoring project run by Exeter Uni. Ten places are available to authors currently living permanently in the SW region who are writing ‘a novel, a collection of short stories, or a work of memoir, biography or autobiography’.
Why the excitement? It just feels like the right time to get going on the idea I’ve been researching and generally mulling over for quite some time. But there’s apprehension too. Aside from the ‘new book jitters’ I still have to decide which of these genres my new project falls into! Sorting that out by Feb 5th should be more than enough to see in the New Year.