In the past week, the winner and runners up of the Harpers Bazaar short story competition 2020 were announced. Huma Qureshi (@huma_quareshi_uk) tweeted about her win with her short story ‘The Jam Maker’ and posted a copy of the page which also gives the names of the runners up. Unfortunately, I was unable to zoom on and read the posted pages in full and cannot find it online so am unable to comment on the story or name the runners up. However,@BernardineEvari who judged the competition described the story as “fresh, lively & gorgeous” and given the popularity and profile of this annual competition, there is every reason in the world to look forward with great relish to reading Huma’s story. With a warm heart, I congratulate her for her success.
I am disappointed for myself though. I submitted to this competition and was not shortlisted.
Thanks to Steve Johnson @ Unsplash for the image
I set myself a task this year of writing for competition every month of 2020 and apart from a wee flurry of success back in January, haven’t won anything since so I am an old hand at rejection now. As my writing journey this year is a bit of a lark with the actual aim of improving my writing skills (rather than winning per se), and as I am thoroughly enjoying it and believe I am improving my skills, not winning comps has not stung at all so far – until this particular competition.
The story I submitted is, I think, the best thing I have ever written. It is not autobiographical but does draw upon family history. It is well researched. I am satisfied with the voice, the story arc and the literary quality of the piece. I am proud of it.
Without feedback from the competition judges, it is impossible to know why it was not successful. All I can do is learn and remember that rejection of this piece does not mean it is bad – it just means it wasn’t right for Harpers this year. I do, however, need to carefully think about whether it is in fact good enough. I will be sending it to more readers for feedback and appraisal. I may even pay an editor to critique it.
Rejection is a positive opportunity
Thanks to Hello I’M Nik @Unsplash for the image.
So, I am trying to focus on this being a positive opportunity. Edison, when creating the light bulb, famously said: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. So, time for me to take a deep breath, and get on with writing.
An unexpected comp opportunity came up this week. Alyson Hilborne (@ABBK1) via Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) alerted me to the Scottish Book Trust’s call for stories – only the stories had to be on the theme of ‘fog’ and no more than 50 words!
A couple of my flash fiction stories are published. Both were 300 words. It was great fun writing each, but I also learned a lot about determined and ferocious editing, economy and preciseness of word choice and the importance of a tight narrative arc.
I wrote another short non-fiction piece for a collection of first-person accounts of Brighton’s queer history*. The work was edited by poet Maria Jastrzebska (@mariajastrz) who pressed over and over for me to edit the piece when I thought it was already perfectly fine as it was. Of course, she was absolutely right, and the final published version told a story and told it well. I learned a great deal from Maria through this process which I have taken into my future work. (I take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks for Maria’s guidance and fabulous editing).
Twitter hosts stacks of micro-fiction writers and I have seen some awesomely creative stories as good as, and better than, the famous ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ story attributed to Hemingway. It seems to me that writing micro-shorts takes a focused and concise way of thinking and while I am fairly good at editing content out these days, I wasn’t sure I could write to that exacting 50 word max count.
In the end, I wrote a long list of words to describe my experience of fog, then eliminated 90% of them. The words left on my edited list evoked feelings and a context in which such feelings might be experienced. So, I ended up with a story and, it has now been submitted.
A quick google shows a range of suggestions about fiction lengths.
Editor Jodie Renner (@JodieRennerEd) has written a great blog post listing typical lengths for each type of fictional work. It can be found here
*Queer In Brighton. Edited by Maria Jaztrzebska and Anthony Luvera. New Writing South. 2014
Longfellow’s poem ‘It Is Not Always May’ was meant as an encouragement to grasp the fleeting moments of life with a reminder that delights quickly pass. To be completely honest, with all the best intentions I struggled throughout the month to write or engage with anything other than novel reading (I read a lot of novels). Partly that was because my partner was on a fortnights leave and, in the context of lockdown, holidaying at home in what turned out the be the most glorious spring weather, had an easy appeal over sitting at my keyboard. That is not the full story though. Despite all good intentions discussed in my last post, I was still in a trough of being unable to write very much at all, and inspiration was thin.
Thanks to Chase Clark for Unsplash image
I did submit to one competition in May – the ‘Best’ magazine short crime story comp (up to 2.5k words and a prize, to be judged by Val McDermid). I enjoyed writing this story – it was fun. There are a great many excellent and arguably under-appreciated writers of short fiction for what are traditionally thought of as women’s mags. I would love to be one of them but it is more challenging than I imagined to get the narrative voice right and avoid the cliché’s such mags reject. Still… I got a submission in.
I got to the end of May feeling a little bit lost with my writing but fortunately, a pair of hero’s were waiting in the wings with a rescue! The fabulous women Sarah and Jo, who run Writers HQ emailed with an invitation to sign up for a free couch to 5k words writing challenge (C25K) course. I have attended a few of their writers retreats back in the days when we could discuss word count face to face and pass each other encouraging cake.
Like many businesses, theirs has been impacted by the damn virus but fortunately they have managed to navigate a safety rope (a very small funding grant) and are able now to offer this particular course for free. They encourage members of the writing community they set up to BE A WRITER. COMMIT. OWN IT. So that is exactly what I will be doing this June. I have signed on the dotted line and setting targets. I have a planner, I have a story, I have a goal, and I am going to get up unreasonably early every weekday morning to write because that is when I write best.
It is still not too late to join the C25K Words challenge – see the Writers HQ website.
I will mostly be working on my latest novel (currently at 36k words) but intend to enter at least one competition too this month.
In my last blog post ‘Writing (and not writing) in a time of Corvid-19’ I wrote about how despite the abundance of time given by lockdown I was still struggling to write. The deadline for a competition I had planned to enter for April was fast approaching, but my brain was sluggish, uninspired, floppy and dulled. Unless I could kick myself into gear somehow, I would miss the deadline.
Deadlines matter – right?
As it was only a self-imposed deadline, and there were no consequences to missing it – what did it matter? There are more important issues facing the world at the moment. Only as the deadline loomed ever closer I experienced anxiety about letting myself down. I chose my annual challenge mainly to be an actual challenge. Failing before just half of the year had gone was, even in the awareness-raising context of Maslow’s hierarchy, demoralising
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
I recently read the book ‘Choose Yourself’ by James Altucher* (Lioncrest Publishing, 2013 – 99p on kindle). One of Altchuer’s central themes is that there are ways to become ‘an idea machine’. He proposes a method for generating ideas which involves concisely making a list of 10 ways to, for example, improve an item such as a frying pan. I don’t need writing ideas because I always have lots of them, but I did need a ‘kick start’ so I wrote a list of ten potential titles.
You can’t go far wrong with a list
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
According to research, ideas are constructed by our brains mixing and melding the symbols and images that collectively make up our human/social existence. I have no idea of the parts which created my list of titles, but there are certainly some which piqued my interest. I chose one with no real idea where it was going but the title – ‘The Garden Letters’ gave me a location and place to start.
Where it went – much to my surprise – was a Victorian LGBT love story. This is so far outside my usual writing arena it ended up being great fun to write. I had lovely little forays into the Victorian era – Christmas cards, important events of a particular year, the trial of Oscar Wilde for example. The most enjoyable part of the research was into the language used in love letters of the day – the ‘rose-leaf lips’, ‘the madness of kisses’. Re-creating accurate, believable letter-dialogue which also fit the story arc was fun and engaging.
I met the deadline for the competition (by just a few hours). I do not recommend working to a deadline to this extent. I could have used the dialogue to move the story arc along more tightly and engagingly but I ran out of time.
My competition challenge is about improving my writing craft. Professional writers tell us time and again that ‘turning up and putting words down’ is the most important part of writing. That is not a new story to me or anyone but in this case, when the Corvid crisis might have allowed me some slack, list creating gave me a way to achieve a word count and story I am happy with. Hopefully, I am back on track. I have another competition entry due in ten days. Wish me luck.
*There is a very good summary of this book at Nathan Lozeron’s excellent You tube channel.